Why we stand with Trayvon

August 7, 2013

In an article for the Rainbow Times, Keegan O’Brien makes the case for LGBTQ participation in the fight for racial justice.

ONLY IN a country as racist as the United States could a grown adult racially profile, hunt down and murder an unarmed Black 17-year-old boy and get away with it. George Zimmerman's trial revealed to the world what Black America has known for far too long: that in America Black lives don't matter. But this time, people have refused to remain silent.

The murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman have produced an explosion of anger and protests, forcing politicians, the mainstream media and even the president to engage in an explicit and rare conversation about race and racism today.

The first statement from the Obama administration was insulting; it ignored race completely while asking people to respect the jury and remain calm. But following Zimmerman's "not guilty" verdict, thousands took to the streets to express their outrage. The following weekend, in more than 100 cities, thousands poured into the streets again to demand the federal government take action. As a result of continuous pressure, President Obama, for the first time in his five years in office, went on national television and spoke honestly about racism and the Trayvon Martin case.

Dream Defenders make their way toward Sanford along State Road 92
Dream Defenders make their way toward Sanford along State Road 92

Obama's speech was refreshing in light of the neglect these issues have received from politicians and the mainstream media, and his words have emboldened many to feel justified in their anger. But, politically opportunistic rhetoric designed to placate people's outrage and desire for change will not challenge the institutions and policies that have created and continue to perpetuate the Zimmerman mindset that led to the death of Trayvon and so many others like him.

According to Florida's judicial system and many political commentators, race was not a factor in Zimmerman's case. Zimmerman never explicitly mentioned race, goes the argument. He followed Martin because he was "suspicious looking," not because he was Black. But this line of argument completely misunderstands the operation of racism in 21st century "color-blind" America.

Today, we rarely witness the same kind of explicit, white-hood wearing, troglodyte, anti-Black racism that regularly reared its head 50 years ago. Instead, racism is coded, concealed and packaged into formally "color-blind" language and policies. So, although Zimmerman never said that he followed Martin because he was Black, it was definitely an operating subconscious factor--because Martin's race is what made him suspicious. The well-known truth is that if Trayvon Martin had been white, it is very likely he'd still be alive today. Race has everything to do with this case.

TAKE, FOR example, the highly controversial and now widely debated "Stand Your Ground" law, a policy that doesn't mention race explicitly at all. But when you examine the application and interpretation of the law, there emerges an undeniable pattern of racial bias. There are two cases everyone concerned about Trayvon Martin should know about--Marissa Alexander and CeCe McDonald.

Marissa Alexander is an African American woman and mother who fired a warning shot into her ceiling to prevent her abusive ex-boyfriend from attacking her. Instead of being granted the right to "stand her ground" and defend herself, the state of Florida sentenced her to 20 years in prison in 2012.

CeCe McDonald is a young Black transgender woman who defended herself against a hate crime from a white supremacist in Minneapolis and as a result faced the prospect of spending the rest of her life in prison. Thankfully, as a direct result of an international pressure campaign launched by her supporters, CeCe was offered a plea deal and given 42 months in prison.

While Zimmerman pulled the trigger that took Trayvon Martin's life, it was our racist society that socialized him to believe it was appropriate to view Trayvon as a criminal, hunt him down and murder him; it was our society that told the Sanford police department it was acceptable to mark Trayvon Martin as a John Doe and test his dead body for drugs while they let Zimmerman walk free for 46 days.

Meanwhile, the prison-industrial complex and the system of mass incarceration have stuffed millions of Black and Brown people into cages and left their communities broken and devastated. This matrix of laws and institutions is what civil rights attorney and author Michelle Alexander has termed "the New Jim Crow."

While Zimmerman deserves punishment, so do the countless police officers who've committed the same atrocities, but have never been held accountable. Ultimately, it is the Zimmerman mindset--the widely held and normalized belief that Black men are a threat that requires policing--and the institutions, policies and lawmakers that have perpetuated this outlook that deserve to be put on trial.

WHY SHOULD the LGBTQ community concern itself with issues of racial justice and a case such as Trayvon Martin's? Firstly, because much of our community is people of color, and for them these fights are inseparable. Secondly, as a community that is continuing to fight for our most basic civil rights, we have an obligation to stand with those who continue to struggle for theirs. Lastly, our capacity to fight and our potential to win are dramatically increased when we overcome the divisions foisted upon us and champion the struggles of other oppressed communities. It's called solidarity.

Later this month, the LGBTQ community has a perfect opportunity to show our solidarity with the broader fight for racial justice by mobilizing for the August 24 march on Washington, D.C., called by a wide array of civil rights organizations. The march will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the legendary 1963 March on Washington where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech.

Protesters will also be demanding that federal prosecutors charge Zimmerman with violating Martin's civil rights and that the federal government seriously tackle the range of injustices--from racial profiling to mass incarceration--that Black America continues to experience. August 24 will likely be one of the largest demonstrations for civil rights and racial justice in decades.

While a single protest won't dismantle the prison system, the march will help to put this conversation about racism in America back where it belongs--in the political mainstream.

Grassroots activism has always been central to pushing those in power to take up the issues that matter to the oppressed and marginalized. So if you want to live in a world where there will never be another Trayvon Martin, CeCe McDonald or Marissa Alexander, you've got a responsibility to join thousands of people--Black and white, queer and straight, young and old--in Washington. A better world is possible, but it's up to us to fight for it.

First published in an expanded version at the Rainbow Times.

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