The fight against racism doesn’t stop here

July 23, 2013

The bitter anger that greeted the not-guilty verdict for Trayvon Martin's killer, George Zimmerman, continued into a second week with vigils outside federal buildings in more than 100 cities on Saturday, July 20. The call for demonstrations by Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network and other liberal organizations--and even a rare acknowledgment of the issue of racism by President Barack Obama--showed the wide scope of discontent about the injustice in Sanford, Fla. At the protests, Sharpton and other speakers focused on the upcoming rally in Washington, D.C., to mark the 50th anniversary of a high point of the civil rights movement: the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

With the latest protests, activists are asking whether this marks a new movement against racism. At a forum on July 17, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, a Chicago activist and author of the forthcoming Rats, Riots and Revolution: Black Housing in the 1960s, discussed what the Zimmerman verdict tells us about racism in America today--and what the struggle against bigotry and discrimination needs to take up.

IT TOOK 44 days for George Zimmerman to be arrested last year--in early April, six weeks after Trayvon Martin was killed in late February. The arrest of Zimmerman was presented to the public as proof that the system could, in fact, work--that it was a mistake he hadn't been arrested or charged with anything the night he killed Trayvon Martin, but his arrest was a vindication of the system.

But I think we have to say that the trial that concluded earlier this month really showed us that the system doesn't work. It exposed the racism, discrimination and inequality that are at the heart of the criminal justice system in this country.

Though it was supposed to be a trial to determine the guilt or innocence of George Zimmerman, it quickly turned into a trial of Trayvon Martin, his family and his friends. The way they were put on trial exposed the racism of George Zimmerman and his lawyers, of course, but also the racism of the system itself.

On one of the last days of the trial, some woman testified who had two Black youngsters break into her house--as if that somehow had anything to do with what happened to Trayvon Martin the night he was murdered. But this was allowed. So was the defense lawyers holding up a picture of Trayvon Martin with no shirt on--to say that this was the beast that confronted George Zimmerman.

Marchers filled the streets around Union Square in New York City after Zimmerman was acquitted
Marchers filled the streets around Union Square in New York City after Zimmerman was acquitted (Michael Fleshman)

There was clearly an attempt by the defense to appeal to the racism of the jury and invoke every racial stereotype in the book to try to legitimize George Zimmerman's claims that he found Trayvon Martin suspicious, and had to follow him, and ultimately kill him.

But at the same time, the judge ruled that the issue of race couldn't be discussed--because, he said, there was no evidence that George Zimmerman had ever made a racial insult or ever mentioned race. And therefore, if race isn't mentioned, that means that racism isn't a factor in the situation.

But for most of us, we know that whether it's mentioned or not, racism is always involved in the criminal justice system, as it most certainly was in this case.

It's why Martin was considered suspicious in the first place--because he was Black. It's why the police believed Zimmerman, even though he was standing over the dead body of a 17-year-old boy--it was because Martin was Black. It's why the police didn't bother to find out if a teenager was missing from the nearby apartment complex where Martin was staying, and instead took his body and marked it as a John Doe--because he was Black. And it's why it took it took 44 days for Zimmerman to be arrested in the first place.

All of these things happened because Trayvon Martin was Black. It was assumed from the beginning that he was guilty of having done something wrong, and he deserved what he got. This was what that lunatic juror, who's known as B37, essentially said in her interviews with CNN--that Trayvon Martin essentially deserved what he got.

WE KNOW that beyond this case, too, racism pervades every aspect of the criminal justice system--in terms of who gets harassed by the cops, who gets arrested, who gets put on death row, who ends up in prison, and so on and so forth. There's no way to disconnect racism from the criminal justice system, no matter what some judge in Florida has to say about it.

This is known far and wide, especially, of course, among African Americans. But every so often, a case or a situation happens that pulls the mask off this system and exposes it for the country and the world to see. In 1955, it was the murder of Emmett Till from Chicago, who went to Mississippi to visit relatives and was lynched by white racists. More recently, it was the beating of Rodney King--he was nearly killed and it was all caught on videotape, but the white Los Angeles cops got off anyway. And of course, there was Hurricane Katrina, where Black people were literally left to drown in New Orleans.

And there's this case, which has exposed that even walking while Black--just existing, just going to a convenience store and coming back home--is grounds to be investigated and ultimately killed by a racist vigilante.

The discussion of the injustice and inequality in this country has emerged not because of any reflection that happened within the system itself. No one involved in that trial or connected with the Department of Justice has said anything about racism or racial profiling as something that needs to be addressed in response to this case.

In fact, in his first statement on the verdict, President Obama tried to turn this into an issue of gun violence in the communities--as if that had anything to do with what George Zimmerman did. This was about racial profiling--and what happens when racial profiling is crossed with some vigilante law in Florida that gives, effectively, white people the right to execute Black people they claim to be fearful of.

If this verdict created a larger discussion about racism and inequality, which I think it clearly has, that's not because of the system looking at itself. It happened because of pressure that was brought was brought to bear from the outside--pressure that took the form of protests, sit-ins and other actions. That's why Zimmerman was finally arrested in the first place, and why there was a trial--not because the system proved it worked, but because tens of thousands of people in this country took to the streets and demanded that Zimmerman be arrested and charged and put on trial.

And protest remains the vehicle that can still transform this case from the tragedy it is now into a step forward toward real substantial change. I think that is important. When we say that it still matters to fight around this case, it's not about the symbolism of it--it's because there is a real opportunity to build toward real and substantial changes.

TRAYVON MARTIN is one face of racial profiling in the U.S. today. Another is the New York Police Department's "stop-and-frisk" policy where police have the right to stop anyone they consider to be suspicious and question. This has meant that over the last several years, the NYPD has carried out several million stop-and-frisks--and nearly 90 percent of those stopped are Black and Latino. Only about one in 10 people stopped is arrested or given a citation, and the cops almost never find evidence of something serious, like possessing a gun.

So if you are Black or Latino in New York City--and in particular if you are young, Black and male--you can be stopped at any moment at any time for no reason at all. These sorts of policies are evidence of the criminalization of an entire generation of African Americans. And when they're combined with laws like Stand Your Ground, they represent a license to kill young Black men.

If you think that's an exaggeration, look at the study done by a researcher at the Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, which found that white people who kill Black people in states with Stand Your Gun laws are 354 percent more likely to have authorities find their homicide justified. That's compared to whites being 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing Blacks in states without Stand Your Ground.

So what we've seen with Trayvon Martin isn't the exception. Black lives are considered to be substantially cheaper than white lives in this country. On the surface, Stand Your Ground laws may appear to be non-racial--they don't mention anything specifically about killing Black people. But when you combine them with an atmosphere of racism in this country and with the way Blacks and Latinos have been criminalized in this country, they are absolutely about racism.

The anger and protest about the Trayvon Martin case can put this in the spotlight--put the question of racism back in the political discussion as the framework for understanding why these injustices take place and the inequality that exists in the criminal justice system and in society at large.

For too long, the powers that be in this country have been able to explain these inequalities--why there are higher levels of poverty among Blacks, why there's higher unemployment, why Blacks go to the worst schools--by saying that we don't care. They blame the parents, and they blame the individuals for their success or failures. And at no point is there a discussion about the society that we live in and the way it's organized. There's no discussion about how the system sets up people to fail, it sets up people to be poor, it sets up people to be unemployed.

For 40 years, there has been a one-sided discussion blaming Black people for their own victimization. And so Black people accept it. It's that pervasive that African Americans as a whole, and organizations that are supposed to defend our civil rights, accept that logic.

We have to fight back against that logic and offer a different argument for why inequality and discrimination runs right through this society.

The Zimmerman trial offers a perfect starting point for having that discussion. And what we've seen over the days since the verdict, during which thousands of people have come out onto the streets across the country to protest, is that there are people who want to have that discussion. So to me, the potential for a new movement against racism is that it can organize around real demands--an end to racial profiling, an end to stop-and-frisk and other issues--and also bring the question of racism back into the discussion as the reason for inequality in this country.

THERE ARE some questions that have arisen during these protests that I wanted to take some time to talk about.

A lot of people recognize that these problems of racism exist. They recognize the problems with the police, with the criminal justice system and all the rest of it. So the question is why more people aren't coming out to the demonstrations? I think it's an important question. The anger and resentment that you hear people talk about at work or at school or where you live doesn't match with what's actually happening in terms of struggle.

It's not like people don't know that horrible things are happening. But at the same time, because so many horrible things are happening, it can feel exhausting and insurmountable. For example, you spend six or nine months fighting to keep your school open, and you have demonstrations, you have sit-ins, and you do all the things you can to carry on the struggle, and in the end, they close your schools anyway. That can make you feel like there's nothing we can do--that the people in charge are all powerful.

But at the same time, people don't forget the experience of struggle--and that there are victories along the way, amid the defeats. So we may save some of the schools--or, for example, today in Milwaukee, a white man who shot a 13-year-old Black boy in front of his mother was actually convicted. That has something to do with the outpouring of protest around the Trayvon Martin case--that there are some victories even amid the setbacks.

It's also the case that while many more people are questioning what we can do than are showing up at demonstrations, we shouldn't discount or downplay those who are showing up because the protests overall aren't as big as we would like them to be. There are a growing number of young people in this country who are getting fed up, and they're the ones who are showing up to protests and demonstrations, and who want to fight now. We have to connect with those people to figure out where we take these movements around different issues.

Movements don't just fall out of the sky fully formed. I was in a conversation with some people this afternoon about the civil rights movement and how it developed over time.

One of the first events of the movement, the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision happened in 1954. Then a year later, Emmett Till was murdered, and tens of thousands of people came out to Till's funeral in Chicago. At the end of that year came the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which lasted for more than a year before it was successful. And then there were more than four more years before the start of the lunch-counter sit-ins and nearly eight before the 1963 March on Washington, when the civil tights movement as we think of it today was reaching its high point. So from 1954, it was almost a full 10 years before the movement developed into what we recognize today.

That doesn't mean the same thing will happen around the current upsurge of struggle against racism. We have no idea how things will develop. But we do know from the numbers of people who have come out already--and from the anger that we know exists in the communities where we live--that people want to fight. They don't necessarily know how to fight or what to do. But they want to, and that's important because it means people want things to be different, and that's an important starting place to work with.

For people who want to do something, and do it now, this means we have to be both patient in terms of how larger movements develop, but also urgent about doing the work of organizing for the things we can do now. Movements aren't built by waiting for the struggle to develop and build itself--it's based on what we do today.

WHAT KIND of movement do we want to build? I think we should be clear that we want a movement against racism that doesn't just include Blacks and Latinos and other people of color, but that is multiracial--one that includes white people as well.

I raise this in particular because of a debate that's out there, particularly on the Internet. People will know the familiar chant at demonstrations: "I am Trayvon Martin" and "We are all Trayvon Martin." Some people have taken offense to white activists chanting "I am Trayvon Martin"--because, of course, if you're white, you're not Trayvon Martin and don't face the same experience that he and African Americans face.

In one sense, this is a healthy response because it recognizes that race matters and racism matter, and and create different experiences for people in this country. But there is also something important to be said for solidarity.

It's not that the experience of whites who demonstrate for justice for Trayvon Martin have an experience that's identical to his. But it is to say that they stand in solidarity with African Americans who are under attack.

It's important to say that solidarity is not charity. Historically, solidarity has meant the recognition that all our struggles are connected. In the socialist movement and the labor movement, there's the old saying that "an injury to one is an injury to all." The point is to understand that when the majority of people are divided and standing up for one another, the chances of losing are much greater--but when we stand together, we have a better chance of winning.

We should remember another lesson from the civil rights movement--that the victories against Jim Crow segregation in the South helped to spur on the anti-Vietnam War movement, the student movement, the women's movement, the gay liberation movement and so on. Everything that made the 1960s what they were took some inspiration from the civil rights struggle in the South.

Unity isn't established by ignoring the differences between different groups, but by persuading everyone to take all the different struggles seriously.

That needs to be in the front of our minds now--to organize as broad a movement as possible as we move forward. Because the attacks are happening on so many different levels: the criminal justice system, housing and evictions, public education, low wages and poverty. All sorts of struggles are happening right now, and we should be standing in solidarity and supporting all of them.

I think there's a real opportunity for a movement against racial profiling and Stand Your Ground laws and other issues to take further shape out of this case. There have been some immediate next steps called by national organizations, such as the vigils outside federal buildings in at least 100 cities, which was called by Rev. Al Sharpton's organization, the National Action Network.

There's also the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his "I Have a Dream" speech. A national call for that commemoration went out several weeks ago, but now, everyone is talking about including the demand for a federal indictment of Zimmerman on civil rights charges--and also bringing the broader issues of racial profiling, stop-and-frisk and Stand Your Ground laws into the spotlight.

We want to be able to take our experience in Chicago to Washington, D.C., and connect that with the organizing around the murder of Trayvon Martin so we make sure he didn't die in vain--and this really is the beginning of a new movement against racism and injustice in this country.

Transcription by Rebecca Anshell Song and Corey Larson.

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