Trayvon Martin woke us up

July 19, 2013

The day after the Zimmerman verdict was announced, several hundred people took to the streets of Chicago, as in cities across the U.S., to show their solidarity with Trayvon Martin's family and to oppose the injustice done in a Sanford, Fla., courtroom. From there, more than 100 made their way to the meeting space of Young Chicago Authors (YCA)--an organization that helps foster young people's voices, creativity and performance--to hear young people read their poetry and participate in a town-hall meeting.

Afterwards, seven young activists and poets from Young Chicago Authors sat down with's Eric Ruder to discuss their reactions to the verdict and their ideas about the next steps in the struggle. Here, we publish an edited transcript of that discussion. The artists and activists who participated were Kush Thompson, Shayna, Trayvona, FM Supreme, Maritere Gomez, Frankiem Nicoli and Farwa Batool Fiasco.

Kush: When I heard the verdict, I was shocked like everybody was shocked. But not really. Two years ago, the morning after Georgia death row prisoner Troy Davis was executed, I was crying, feeling the strongest kind of betrayal I've ever felt. I believed that it would just be absurd for them to go through with Troy's execution because of the lack of evidence. And for it to still happen, I thought how could my country do this to me?

This was back when I was first becoming conscious, so of course I didn't have this heavy anger, but it was still there. So when this happened, I wasn't feeling betrayed for myself. I was feeling betrayed for my nephews and my little brother and all these young people around me. This is the first thing that's happening in their lives. They are being betrayed right now. They're feeling all the things that I felt at 17, but they're 12 and 7, and that's why I'm so conflicted right now.

So when I heard it, I didn't feel it immediately from a militant standpoint--like any strongly political standpoint. It was just sadness. That's still kind of how I'm feeling now, but I'm trying to think of constructive things to do with that, as opposed to just wallowing in my sadness and feeling powerless. What I want to do more than anything in this situation is to not let these little people around me to feel powerless. I don't want them to think, "Titi's crying, so I should feel powerless, too. Even the people I look up to don't really know what's going on. There's really no hope for me."

Oakland marches for justice for Trayvon Martin
Oakland marches for justice for Trayvon Martin (Josh On | SW)

So I will put on this front of being strong, yet not really knowing what to do with this strength. I know that something needs to be done today, right now, with what I'm feeling, but right now, I'm just trying to be as strong as I possibly can, just because I know that young people are looking at us right now. And we're young, too. It seems to be something that happens with every generation, but I feel like it doesn't have to repeat itself in the same way.

Shayna: The sad part about the whole situation is that the system is designed to make us feel powerless. It even goes into the corporate world with the workplace. You see it all the time when it comes to women, especially women of color. If you're Brown, they're not going to take you seriously if you're trying to get into a managerial position. You hit the glass ceiling. It all just trickles back down to why there has been an increase in crime. When people don't have income, you're going to see disarray on the streets.

As far as us coming together, I want to be brief. This is very beautiful--the unity of our voices--and I'll be willing to take whatever the next step is. We need to voice our opinion without violence, and it needs to be done in large numbers.

Trayvona: Like everyone, I was in shock when I first heard the verdict. I was in a circle with FM Supreme and many other African American organizers.

My background is in political science and public policy, and I slowly have been developing more faith in the system, and by the system, I mean better outcomes through legal processes. I was not one of the people who thought that Zimmerman would be acquitted, as were the assailants of Sean Bell, Abner Louima, Rodney King and so on. So when I found this out, I was very fortunate to be in a space with people who were encouraging me and giving me a safe space where I could actually react and make sense of this.

I feel people in Trayvon Martin's neighborhood felt a greater entitlement to that neighborhood, and as a result, Zimmerman felt that he had a right to oust him from the neighborhood by murdering him. The police have the protection of the state, so they feel like they have this entitlement over a person wherever they are, but in this situation, we have an average individual, who just because of his whiteness, thinks that he had a greater claim to a neighborhood than a Black person who was on the street.

I feel like I understand what gentrification is, but when I think about it, I don't think immediate death. I don't think murder of children. Now, I feel like these things are becoming increasingly collapsed. My first job outside of college was being a community organizer, and it's something that I just did, even when I was in college. I started out thinking bigger picture, thinking more about revolution.

As the years have gone by, I felt more that I want to shift my role. I want to use some of my talents that I've acquired through my own education to try and better the situation of Black people in America. I do have a faith in at least some short-term solutions. I don't think they solve the entire problem that Black people face in America, but I do believe in changing at least the immediate context--the laws that allow for people to shoot people, for whatever reason they deem necessary, and to not have any consequences whatsoever. That's what I'm going to be dedicating my free time to until the status quo changes.

FM Supreme: When I heard the verdict, I was with the Black Youth Project, with about 100 other young leaders, and we locked arms and held each other. Part of me felt like, wow, this is a movement, just looking at all these beautiful faces that I'd never met. All the strategies and theories that we were coming up with and ideas about how to move forward weren't even about Trayvon's case--just in general about Black youth and people of color and marginalized people, period.

When they announced it, it felt like a movie. In fact, I even broke character. I don't really like to curse in my music, but in a room full of young professionals and elders, I just was like, man, this is fucked up. Are you kidding me? I wasn't really surprised, but I wasn't prepared for that. Overall, the decision that was made reinforces that the United States of America has no value for the life of Black people.

How they demonized Trayvon Martin, how they were prodding his dead body to see if he had drugs in his system--they don't value us. They didn't check to see if George Zimmerman had drugs in his system. In 2010, Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot as she stood her ground against her abusive husband, and she got a 20-year sentence--while this dude stalked and killed somebody and go no time. It just shows that this is not a "post-racial society" and that we still live in a racist society, a classist society.

I'm thinking about the wealthy town of Newtown, Conn., and how after those young people were murdered, the families got together and raised $11 million. Show me $1 million for the kids of Chicago. Show me $1 million for the kids in New Orleans, because New Orleans is actually the murder capital of the U.S.

We gotta move. We've got to take action. Specifically, we've got to holler at Stand Your Ground. We need to address racism in America. We need to hit them economically. And so we have to come up with a strategy. We need to recall Emmett Till and how after his death, there was Rosa Parks and the bus boycotts.

As an artist, I tend to be emotional in my leadership. We can't afford to be emotional anymore. We need a strategy.

Maritere: I agree. We have to remember that all the reforms that appear to have come from the government--anything that we've won, such as civil rights legislation, the legal rulings against some of the worst parts of Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070 law, the little money that we get from time to time for various social programs--is not because the system gave it to us, but it's because people like us were on the street.

I don't want people to think that the youth are being fooled--that Obama is going to help us out. I have in front of me what Obama said about the Trayvon Martin case and about the verdict. He basically says that we're a country of laws, and the jury has spoken. And so the racist jury holds precedence over the life of Black teenagers in America.

But now, the discussion around this is, "Maybe the federal government can file a civil rights suit against Zimmerman." Why is that in the discourse right now? Because there were 37 protests the night that the verdict was announced, and there have been many times that in the days since. That's the only reason.

It wasn't because we worked within the system, not because we appealed to Obama or appealed to the racists. It's because they're terrified that if Black youth and Latino youth come out, that could derail their plan to push through neoliberalism and privatization. If we join together, that could pose a challenge to a lot of racist institutions.

What I want to do next is go to a meeting and get organized. We should write a press release and hold a press conference. We should call for a civil rights lawsuit against Zimmerman. We call for the conviction of 45-year-old Michael Dunn who shot and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis during a dispute over loud music in Florida in November, 2012, seven months after Trayvon's murder.

We need to target the Stand Your Ground laws across the U.S. And we need to demand the immediate release of Marissa Alexander. We need to blast these out everywhere--we have to put it out there that that's what we want. And I think the response to the Zimmerman verdict is already starting to move things. I feel like we can move from a moment to a movement. I'm at the same time very scared and at the same time very excited, and I can't wait to be victorious.

FM Supreme: "A good nigger is a dead nigger, unless he's a slave working for free"--that's how this country has treated my people since the beginning of time. And I don't want to leave out the indigenous people who were here way before we even got here. You know what I'm saying? We don't really talk about the Native peoples who are on reservations right now.

All of these things are interconnected. I believe that true justice is in the hands of God. I don't believe the United States of America can ever issue justice because it doesn't even know what it means. Because the root of justice is love. But there is no love here. There never has been. So with my faith in my lord and savior Jesus, I believe that this decision was allowed to push us forward.

Trayvon was like a sacrifice, like Emmett Till, even though they really didn't have to die, but they did. Then it caused something bigger than their death that's still living on. This moment in history is our Emmett Till. This is the 50th anniversary of Medgar Evers' murder, of JFK's assassination. It's the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, and there's already a 50th anniversary March on Washington being planned for August 24.

We need young people! There's never been a youth peace movement. There's never actually been youth doing the work. What I appreciate about the civil rights movement is that they were well-organized. We have all these great leaders, all these great movement movers and shakers, and we have strategies.

The Montgomery Bus Boycott was very specific. That was a specific thing to hit their pockets, and we need to hit their pockets. We need to stop consuming their media. We need to stop consuming their food, but how do we do that? This is just a wakeup call, and if this decision does not move you, it should. White, Black or Brown, it doesn't matter what color you are. People need to let their conscience out.

Frankiem: That's exactly what I was going to touch on. They put us in circumstances where we need hope, and then they give us hope, and then they snatch it right from underneath us. That's the biggest issue we have, I believe, as people--that we're dependent on things that aren't physical. We're dependent on a lot of what isn't physically tangible. There's nothing wrong with having hope or having faith or having belief, but that's not going to be enough in these times.

In The Hunger Games movie, one character said that to keep a people under control, you give them hope and then you take it from them. And this is what they're doing--they gave us hope with Barack, and now people are like: Everything's good, salute, we got Barack in office.

Trayvon Martin's dead, though, and this man just walked. They snatched that hope from underneath us. I feel like that's why so many people are hurt. It's because we had hope riding--we got Barack Obama elected and got him reelected, but this is still happening. That's kind of like saying, you knew the system hated you, and now, whatever speculation you had about it, even though Barack's in office, you have to check yourself.

Everywhere you go, people are skating around these issues, but we've been saying this shit for years. When I was 12, I knew people were dying, because I'm from the projects, and I knew people who died.

Trayvon Martin woke us all up to these realities. But it's more than Trayvon Martin. It's about the value of brown bodies. It's about the value of people. This is about more than Black people, this is about more than color, this is about more than race. This is about the direction of humanity. Because I guarantee you, once they exterminate the low class, the middle class is next. I guarantee you that they're not going to stop.

Capitalism has no eyes. White supremacy has no eyes. You can't say we're the future if there is no future for us. Where's the future at? Show me how I'm supposed to make a future that isn't there. You say the youth are the future. Everyday, you put it in our hands, but there's no future to go to.

I lost 14 people in two years. Fourteen people I went to high school with, played basketball, shook hands with, helped with their homework. I wrote an obituary for a friend I played basketball with in high school last month. And I had to edit everybody's testimonies because they didn't know how to write correct English. It took me 12 hours of my day to write an obituary for a friend.

So I don't care if you're from Poland, I don't care if you're from Germany--you're here now. We need people. Martin Luther King didn't get killed because he had a dream. He got killed because he influenced people to believe in his dream.

FM Supreme: I respect what you're saying, brother, and I feel what you're saying about hope, but our people have overcome through faith. When they were slaves and powerless, what kept them going was their belief in something greater than them. It doesn't have to be the god that I serve or the god that you serve or whatever, but they believed in something else.

If you look at Nelson Mandela, or Mahatma Gandhi, or MLK, or even Malcolm X, had they not had hope in something higher than them, they wouldn't have been able to do what they've done. So it's important--they didn't give us hope; they didn't give us Obama. We gave them Obama. We organized, and Obama's campaign was very strategic.

The youth and hip-hop culture put Barack Obama in office, and they made America accept him. And he was half-white, he wasn't raised as a Black man; he had a white experience. He lived in Hawaii and Indonesia, and he went to Harvard and Occidental and Columbia University.

I went to D.C. in 2009 for Obama's first inauguration. Everybody was like, "Yes, we can!" And I'll never forget that a commentator from BET said, "Yes we will!" because it wasn't done yet. And when people are going at Obama on Twitter talking about "Obama should do this, Obama should do that," I think: But liberation never started at the top! It never has, and it never will.

We need to be real and realize that the United States government is a business. This is the presidency of a company. If I have a problem with Pepsi-Cola, and I'm targeting the president, the president don't really have power, it's just a face. The shareholders, the board members are the people who are gonna change some things.

Farwa: When I first heard that the jury was made up of five white women and one Hispanic woman, I was at the gym, and I just started screaming. People were looking at me like, "What the fuck is she screaming about?" And then when I heard the verdict, I was closing up the store where I work, and I just started crying. My manager and I had just been talking about preserving the Black family, and then as the day was ending, we heard the verdict, and I just couldn't stop crying.

A Black girl I was working with was kind of like, "What the fuck are you crying for?" It was kind of like saying, "Oh, that's not your people." Nut that really hurt me because I'm pro-Black, I love Black people. I can say that loud and proud, I don't give no fucks. I feel like that takes me away from my own people, because I come from a very racist community. I'm a mixed Pakistani-Iranian Shia Muslim--and that's a minority within a minority. If you marry Black, if you do anything that has anything to do with Black people, you're pushed out.

And for me, hip-hop is Black, it's becoming Brown and different now, but it's always been Black, and that's what raised me. And because of that, I'm kind of exiled from my own community, and it really hurts, because as a Shia Muslim, in our pillars of Islam--there's the five pillars, but we have extended pillars--you have to speak against oppression. That is your duty as a Muslim.

And on the last Friday of Ramadan, which is known as al'Quds day, that's what we do--we speak against oppression. We always talk about Gaza or Palestine or Syria or the Middle East, but the thing is that we never focus on Chicago. We don't focus on what's happening here because it's not people who look like us. And if it is, it's like pockets of Muslims on the South Side that we never see.

A month ago or something, Bill Cosby said something about how Black Muslims were doing such great progressive things in their communities and neighborhoods. This comedian named Aman Ali made his status, "Yeah, I'm so proud of us Muslims," completely deleting that Bill Cosby said Black Muslims. I was like: You know what, you don't get to ride in that boat right now, because if you don't stand with Black people and Black Muslims on a daily basis, you don't stand with them when they get prided by somebody famous.

And for me, as a Muslim, I stand in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, and everything that is going on. I know about the gun violence in Chicago. In March, there were like 21 or 23 killings, and my teacher made me go research these deaths, and it was so hard. I felt like I knew every single one of them.

On Facebook, some people from my high school were like, "I'm so tired of people saying this is a race issue." It is a race issue! And the only reason you're going to say it's not a race issue is because you're white and you're privileged. I just finished getting certified to do social-justice mediation, but I'm too pissed to mediate anything because people don't understand this basic fact about racism. White people will not say it's a race issue; they'll never want to be called a racist. That's like a no-no.

But it is a race issue, and sometimes Black or Brown people won't even say it's a race issue because it's too hard to bring up. But we have to wrestle with this. How do we change the racial issues that are still going on? The New Jim Crow, the school-to-prison pipeline, all of this racist stuff is still happening.

I just came from an NAACP meeting in Amherst, Mass., and they're like, "What's going on in Chicago with all these school closings?" And I'm like, I've got no answers for you, I don't know how to explain it. And I don't know how to play my part because I myself come from a very racist community of South Asians and Arabs that don't give no fucks about Black people.

For real, my brother Frankiem here used to be Muslim, but he got turned away by many mosques, and that hit my heart very hard, because for me, being a Muslim means justice and peace and striving for that for people. I could love Black people all I want in whichever way I want, but that shouldn't be something that kicks me out of the community--something that makes me odd, or anything like that.

This is very much a human issue, and everybody should care about it. I want to build connections. I want to be resourceful. I want to bring other Muslim people, other people that don't think with my paradigm, and that's going to take a lot of patience because I don't want to talk to these white folks I went to high school with. They're like, "George Zimmerman was half Hispanic." Well, dude, he passes as white.

I feel so alone because I'm not light enough to be white, and I'm not dark enough to be Black. I'm Muslim, and I'm Pakistani, I'm Iranian, I'm Mongolian, I'm Kenyan, I'm freaking mixed as fuck, and I like to live that out. And I just want to know what my voice can do. Fatima, daughter of Imam Ali, granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad, destroyed an entire empire with just her words, and she is one of the greatest.

For me, that's who I'm striving to be. That's what I want to do. I don't know how I'm going to help bring change, but I'm all about that, because this is not going to rock with me.

Frankiem: This really is about humanity. It really is about changing a paradigm. The way the vaccination for smallpox was discovered wasn't because they searched everyone who has smallpox. It's because they searched people who didn't have smallpox, and discovered they had something called cowpox, which prevented them from having smallpox. Cowpox doesn't kill you; smallpox does.

That's what it takes--it takes somebody to switch the paradigm, to change the angle at which you look at everything. You have to render yourself unimportant. It takes a group of people who are selfless, who know that they're aiming for.

I don't like to keep referring to these historical, monumental people, but you have to understand that Martin Luther King knew that every night when he went to sleep, he could die. Malcolm X had to know that every night he went to sleep, he could die, and it could well be by the hand of someone next to him. And he was killed by his own people. You have to understand that the people who made these changes knew that they could die every night, and we need people who know that.

When I left my apartment to go protest on the night of the verdict, I looked at a picture of Martin Luther King--it's a big poster in my living room--and I looked my roommate in his eye and said, "That man didn't get killed because of him, he got killed because of them. He got killed because of all those people who came to hear him speak, because they believed in what he was saying.

That's what they're afraid of. The police are circling YCA right now while we're having this talk because they're afraid people are going to believe what we're saying. They still have a blue undercover car out there now--it's been there the whole time. I'm not afraid to die. I don't want to die, I'm not afraid to die though.

I'm not afraid to live, I'm not afraid to be Black. I'm Black and Cuban and Haitian, but I tell people I'm Black all the time because Black is an all-encompassing community. Black isn't a race to me; Black is whoever says they're Black. That's it for me. I don't care--Muslim, Christian--we're the same. They divide and conquer--I'm telling you, it's ancient. It is rolling on rusted bolts and wheels, and it's rolling well because we're letting it. We are people at the base of everything--we are life forms.

There doesn't have to be that much division. You can't say that we're people, and then say that we're Black and white, and then say within these Black communities, you have these people and these people, within these white communities, you have these white people and these white people.

There's so much division so we can never come together. These different causes we have are one and the same. I mean school closings, gang violence, poverty, low-income housing, elderly housing. All these movements and causes can come together, because at the end of the day, we all need the same things. We all need a place to live, we all need food to eat, we all need air to breathe and water to drink, we all need love.

I'm sick of people saying they're about making this change, but it takes a radical thought, it takes a radical mind to make change. It takes people to say things other people wouldn't say and think how other people wouldn't think, and it's not very many of us out here. You have to look at the world how you see it and you have to shift it and look at it from the other side--literally.

Trayvona: I hear what you all are saying--I think love is really the foundation of all of this. I feel like I'm most close to my own personal famiy, and I feel like this verdict has allowed for my family to really grow larger than I ever really knew it was. I have felt so much love from people, everyday people.

But this is also a moment where I've also felt a lot of self-hatred--not technically me on myself, but the whole idea of what it means to be Black, and how Black people are viewed in the context of hatred by others. I still feel that the way in which Black people have comported themselves in response to this verdict--to be able to summon the courage to protest nonviolently, to strategize about social change, to create actionable items--is an extremely humbling experience for me personally over the last few days.

So I do think that this is certainly one death--in my lifetime at least--that has created so much life between people.

Farwa: Today, I didn't call my mom, and I didn't tell her I didn't work because I was too afraid of her saying something like: People die all the time, and it's okay, just pray for them. But it's so much more than just pray for them. It's so much more than just one person who died.

I'm crying as if he's my brother, you know? He is my brother--everybody is my brother and sister. But it's like I don't have a family to share that with, and it really kills me because that pain is real for me. But it's not real to my parents, to my mom, and it's just like I can't share that, I can't tell you how bad it hurts.

FM Supreme: I also wanted to use this moment to speak about Guantanamo Bay. Hip hop artist and poet Mos Def recently allowed himself to be force-fed the way they're feeding the Guantanamo prisoners on hunger strike. It was the most painful thing to watch. And you think--it's America that's doing this. Our country is doing this to people who are in prison. This is crazy. I pray that this is much bigger than Trayvon Martin, rest his soul.
Frankiem: When Mos Def volunteered for that force-feeding procedure, people watched it and felt hurt. When people saw the verdict for Trayvon Martin, people watched it and felt hurt. Anger is a secondary emotion. You have to be hurt first to feel anger.

I remember an interview Tupac did when he said that first people are hurt. First, they have this slow song that's like, we're hungry, give us some food. And then next thing you know, they're like, oh man, I feel it in my stomach, I'm hungry, and then the next thing you know, they're knocking on your door like: Give me the food, give me the food!

That's what happens when people are hurt--what's next is there's going to be anger. And you can't control what people do out of anger. Anger puts you in an irrational state of mind. Right now, people are hurt, people are trying things, they're strategizing. But if nothing gets done, people are going to be angry, and people going to start knocking on doors.

Maritere: Youth die every single day without a care. It's true. The cops, the government, they don't care about Black youth. And this will continue until we do something about it--until we get thousands, hundreds of thousands of people out on the streets marching and protesting. And when NBC News makes us look like we're rioters, as if we're the animals murdering other people, we have to say no--they're the ones killing us.

Earlier this year, there were over 100 Black kids and Latino youth on the list of dead people in Chicago. It had been about three months since the turn of the New Year. So we have to address poverty and gun violence.

But right now, we have to address this verdict. This has been a victory for the racists across the country. There's a popular quote going around on social media: "The fundamental danger of an acquittal is not more riots, it is more George Zimmermans." We have to remember that, and we have to stand with everybody.

FM Supreme: I think it's important to acknowledge our anger, because it's a natural part of human emotions, but I don't think it's wise as leaders to act or make a decision out of anger. So at this time when people are angry, overwhelmed, sad, whatever, we need to embrace that, care for ourselves, heal ourselves, and really talk to our communities. But we don't need to make any decisions out of anger. It's not wise.

As a young leader who pledged to dedicate my life to nonviolence "ChiIraq" [many people are comparing Chicago's gun violence to a war zone like Iraq], I think it's important that we create more spaces--even things like this interview--to be able to hear all these voices. This is part of the movement itself; it's actually building and healing.

So I think we need to do more of this, and we need to come up with a strategy. But if you're trying to go out there without a strategy, I'm not going out there with you. I'm down with the movement, so let your anger fuel you. Let it push you to come together to create a strategy, and let's join together to make real change.

Transcription by Karen Domínguez Burke, Rebecca Anshell Song and Leela Yellesetty.

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