Friday, July 19, 2013

Trayvon Martin: Lessons from the Grave


As the world now knows, on July 13, 2013, the much-anticipated verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was delivered to a packed courtroom and an anxious nation. The verdict, to the consternation of many, was “not guilty” on both counts of 2nd degree murder and manslaughter. Hushed silence enveloped a section of the courtroom and the nation, while the Zimmerman family was relieved to have their son, George, the accused murderer, free again. For the Martin family, it was a double blow; first, they lost their promising son with his whole life still ahead of him; now, the killer is set free to roam the streets by a jury of six whites. Was justice done? It depends on who you ask.
In 1991, after the nation witnessed the video-taped beating of Rodney King, a black man, by an all-white group of Los Angeles police officers, following a car chase, the ensuing outrage and demand for justice and restitution resulted in the officers being charged to court. Of all the officers involved in the beating, only about one received what might be considered a slap on the wrist by, again, an all-white jury in an all-white county, while the rest were basically set free. The riot which followed the verdict resulted into the death of many more people, and destruction of properties and businesses worth billions of dollars; entire neighborhoods were razed by fire and the city of Los Angeles, for a while, was considered a pariah by conventioneers, entertainers and the like. Many years afterwards, not very much has changed in the police perception of blacks, as evidenced by the Fruitvale killing not too long ago. In this case, as in the George Zimmerman case, one is wont to ask; did the officers really commit a crime? The jury did not think so, even though the rest of the nation did. Even though Rodney King went on to win millions in a civil lawsuit, the officers did not suffer any legal consequences beyond the loss of their jobs – some with full benefits.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, many young black men lost their lives in the hands of the Dallas police department and the many grand juries set up to determine the culpability of the involved officers in a crime refused to return an indictment, and city officials were powerless to reign in the police and calm the outrage in the black community. It was not until the city witnessed what might be considered an execution of an officer in broad daylight, by a mentally-challenged black man egged on by a black crowd, that the city realized that race relations had deteriorated to a dangerous level, and that the city had become a tinderbox ready to explode. It was then time to pay attention to the daily protests led by black leaders like Diane Ragsdale and John Wiley Price, and do something about it.
There have been other incidents in other cities of the nation, where blacks have met their deaths under very questionable circumstances, both by the police and gun-toting, fly-by-night vigilantes masquerading as neighborhood watchmen. Some of these young blacks were shot in the back, while fleeing from their pursuers – mostly policemen who, in some case, expended more than 50 bullets into one person. Most often than not, these officers claim self-defense or fear for their lives, and go scot-free of any form of legal punishment, thereby emboldening others to follow suit; and the cities and departments, ever eager to sweep the incident under the rug, settle the victims’ families for some millions of dollars, as if money can ever replace the lives lost.

Back to Florida; the incident on February 26, 2012, which resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin, is well-documented and widely publicized. However, a reminder for those who have forgotten is very much in order here. On that fateful day, the deceased was on his way back from a store where he had gone to buy a few things, when he was sighted and followed by George Zimmerman, a volunteer armed neighborhood watchman who lives in the same Twin Lakes community of Sanford, Florida. In the confrontation –against police advice – and scuffle that ensued, George shot Trayvon in, as he claimed, self-defense because he was in fear of his life. As witnessed in cities where similar incidents have occurred, people were outraged, especially within the black community. The usual high-profile demonstrations and calls for justice came from across racial and demographic lines. However, in this particular case, there was a major problem.
In 2005, the state of Florida had passed a law which allows persons who, for any reason, are in fear of their lives from others to stand their grounds and use any means, including the killing of their attackers, to protect and defend their lives. Unlike in a dozen, or so, other states with similar laws, the Florida version does not require that one first exhaust every available option of retreat, except their place of abode; it empowers you to stand your ground wherever you are and defend yourself. Based on the provisions of this law, would any of these two men be said to be wrong in their actions during the altercation? In my opinion, the answer is no. Given more details now available due to the trial, one is safe to conclude that the actions of Trayvon Martin could equally be considered that of one defending himself from George Zimmerman because he feared for his life. The difference here was that George had a gun and was willing to use it, while Trayvon availed himself of the pavement and his fists – much less effective and deadly than a gun. As the son of a retired judge and a policeman-wannabe, George was well-versed in the details of the Florida Stand Your Ground law, and he seemed to have acted within those details.

Could the death of Trayvon Martin have been avoided? Of course! If George Zimmerman was a law-abiding citizen, like his brother Robert claimed on TV, he would have stopped following Trayvon when the police told him to go back and sit in his truck. Also, if the young Trayvon was equally law-abiding, he could have kept walking until, and unless, George blocked his path or impeded his forward progress intentionally. He could, also, have called the police to report someone following him. Hindsight, we are told, is 50-50; therefore, all the could-haves and should-haves only come after a tragedy has occurred.
I may be in the minority here among my fellow black and others who may feel strongly about what happened in Sanford that February night, but I do not think that Mr. Zimmerman is a racist; whether he was profiling Trayvon is a different thing altogether, because not all racial profiling leads to racist acts. Also, there is no corroborated history of racism leveled against him throughout the trial. Rather, he could be considered an overzealous neighborhood vigilante bent on impressing the police department so they can consider him for recruitment when he applies, and who took his hobby too far to a point that even though he is neither dead nor in prison, he will forever be seen as a murderer, even among friends and family. He has become another Casey Anthony, and will live out the rest of his life in perpetual fear of losing it. It is not the kind of life worth wishing on one’s enemy.

What lessons should we, as parents of the Trayvon Martins of this world, learn and pass on to our children to help them deal with the problems they face in the hands of police, politicians,  and the George Zimmermans of this our great country? Plenty! Just as other races warn their children – rightly or wrongly, to be wary of and, if possible, avoid the presence of blacks. It has become critically important for us to educate and convince our children that racism and racial profiling is very much alive and well, and that some politicians in some states have genuinely taken it upon themselves to enact draconian laws, couched in religious beliefs and the need for safety, specifically designed to target minorities, especially blacks. Making our children aware of these does not make us racists; rather, it helps us keep our children alive, and avoid the many heart-wrenching losses as the Martins are going through now. As the saying goes; since the birds have learnt to fly without perching, the hunter must learn to shoot without aiming.
As parents of an endangered species, we must intimate our children of the existence of state laws designed to entrap and harm them; laws like the Three Strikes in California and other states; the Concealed Weapons laws in many states; the voter ID laws currently sweeping Republican-controlled states, and many others designed to prey on the ignorant. Also, since most of these laws were enacted through the political legislative process, they can only be changed through the same way; therefore, we should emphasize to our young ones the importance of political involvement from an early stage in their lives, starting with registering to vote once they attain the legal age; to scrutinize everyone running for public office to ascertain the real person behind the political fa├žade, and for them to understand that because one smiles at you or laughs with you does not mean that one likes or accepts you. Most importantly, though we may not be able to force certain behaviors on them, we can teach them the consequences of their character and behavior choices, including their mode of dressing. All of these will go a long way to keep our children alive and out of trouble a little longer outside their immediate families and race.

The death and verdict on the Trayvon Martin case will not be the last, because it was not the first; the protests and marches for and against both will not be the last either. There will be many more like it down the road, led by many more Al Sharptons, et al, and involving both blacks and other races until, as was the case with the California Three Strikes, the laws begin to turn on its proponents. To the families of both George and Trayvon, I hope God will grant you the fortitude to bear your losses; for the Martin family, the death of Trayvon; for the Zimmerman family, George, the living dead
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