Crying Out for What Our Courts Can’t Give

As I crossed the country on Friday, passing through three US airports, Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, was on every TV I saw. She took the stand to testify that it was in fact her son crying out on the 911 call that came in moments before his death. After reading the news, I also learned that George Zimmerman’s mother testified that it was her son and not Trayvon crying for help.

I’m not sure we’ll ever know who was crying out on the recording. But I’m certain that Ms. Fulton and millions of other mothers in this country are crying out for something that our current justice system cannot give: the assurance that their black and brown boys will not be suspect before we bother to learn their name or their story.

Unfortunately for all of us, the most important cry in the Trayvon Martin case is one will not be heard in the court room. The only reason this case has gone to trial is because Mr. Zimmerman is not an officer of the law. It is on record that he called in his concern about a young African-American walking through his neighborhood and was instructed not to pursue him. If Trayvon were my son, the legal question of whether Mr. Zimmerman later acted in self-defense would feel like a moot point. What I would want to scream is that he had no right to chase Trayvon down, and he knew it. Whatever the details of their struggle, the confrontation should have never happened.

But if Trayvon were my son, I would have had to tell him at a young age, as I’m sure his mother did, that you have to be prepared for such confrontations as a black man in America. Because even if you never come across a loose cannon on neighborhood watch, you will regularly be stopped and questioned by men who have guns. You will have to learn how to survive intense encounters with people who hold your life in their hands. You will have to learn to navigate a system of racialized surveillance that our country continues to accept in the name of “law and order.”

And all of this, I would have to admit, is perfectly legal.

I would have told Trayvon these things for the same reason I say them to my own African-American son: because I want him to survive his encounters with police. When he is stopped on a poorly lit street in our neighborhood, I want him to make it home.

But I also want him and every other person in America to cry out with Ms. Fulton that this is wrong. It’s not just that George Zimmerman was wrong. We are all wrong. Far too many of our black and brown sons never make it home because, overwhelmed by their anger at the extreme injustice forced upon them at such a young age, they lash out. When they do, they are beaten, arrested, locked away and killed.

If you want to understand the outrage behind the Trayvon Martin case, you have to understand this simple fact of survival for young men of color in America. This is the cry of Ms. Fulton that our courts cannot hear–the cry that will not be addressed by this trial. But it is the lament we must take up as a nation if we are to find a future together. It is the lament that must transform us if we are to know any true and lasting peace.

As I watched Ms. Fulton’s face on the TV screens Friday, I was reminded of another mother–Ms. Mamie Mobley–whose son Emmet Till was brutally murdered in Mississippi in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman. When Till’s body was shipped to Chicago for burial, it was triple-sealed to try to cover the stench of his mutilated, rotting flesh. Ms. Mobley insisted upon breaking every seal and seeing her son. Once she had laid her eyes on the truth, she said everyone needed to see it. She had an open casket funeral and invited the media in.

Some argue that Ms. Mobley’s public lament gave rise to the modern civil rights movement, emboldening Rosa Parks to sit-in later that year and thousands of others to follow in direct acts of nonviolent resistance to Jim Crow laws. Yes, the indignities they had faced for decades were perfectly legal. But Ms. Mobley’s cry was one that appealed to a Higher Court. It was a wake-up call to the nation after which we could never be the same.

Nine years later, after tens of thousands of Mississipians had organized an independent Freedom Democratic Party in their state, Ms. Ella Baker stood to address a delegate assembly of the MFDP. Reflecting on the murders of Freedom Summer workers Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner, she cried out, “Until the killing of black men–black mother’s sons–is as important as the killing of white men–white mother’s sons–we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

Ms. Baker’s cry is Ms. Fulton’s cry. And though it is one that our courts cannot hear, it is the wake up call we must attend to if we are to become the country we have not yet been. This will, of course, require a Freedom Movement even broader and further reaching than the one this nation experienced in the 1960s. But the alternative is a system of mass incarceration we can no longer afford and a war against ourselves that is destroying our very soul.

May we cry out together for the justice that we can only find by working together. And may we not rest until it comes.

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