Toward justice for Trayvon Martin — and for all children

President Barack Obama was asked about the slaying of Trayvon Martin today during an unrelated press conference. Obama chose his words carefully due to the ongoing Justice Department investigation, but he concluded by saying this:

My main message is to the parents of Trayvon Martin. If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. And I think they are right to expect that all of us as Americans are going to take this with the seriousness it deserves, and that we’re going to get to the bottom of exactly what happened.

That third sentence is the sort of thing presidents and politicians always say, and it usually seems a bit hollow given that we already know what lurks down there at “the bottom of exactly what happened.” But the truth and honesty of Obama’s second sentence leads me to entertain the hope that it might mean something more than it usually does here. He’s speaking as a parent — as the parent of black children in America and as one who has just been reminded, yet again, that it seems impossible as a parent to protect black children from America.

That anguished and anguishing reminder to the parents of these American children has been the subject of many of the most powerful recent responses to the killing of Trayvon Martin. I’ve excerpted a handful of these below, but be sure to follow the links and read them in their entirety.

Danielle Belton: “On the Killing of Trayvon Martin and Being ‘Good’

That if we’re just “good” we’ll be safe. If your son doesn’t listen to hip hop, goes to the church camp, gets A’s and Bs in school, is polite, says “sir” and “ma’am,” if he’s a good kid, he’ll be safe. That’s the bargain black parents make with their children.

If you are “good” the gangs and the violence and the racism won’t get you. You will be safe. You will live to see 25. You will have a great life. Opportunity will abound for you. We will be proud of you. The community will be proud of you. You will be Barack Obama and Michelle Obama and life will be beautiful if you just want it enough.

Just be “good.” Be good, Trayvon Martin. Stay in school. Listen to your parents. And you’ll be safe.

But that’s a lie. No one can make you safe. No one can save you for that day some sick person just decides you’re the bad guy because you’re black and carrying a bottle of ice tea and some Skittles and he self-appointed himself neighborhood watch and some black teenage boys aren’t good, therefore ALL BLACK PEOPLE ARE NOT GOOD. And you are a black person. And you’re a boy. And you had on a “hooded sweatshirt.” So, you’re dead now.

You lose.

Sorry. You didn’t follow the rules. It wasn’t good enough to be “good.” Why didn’t you just apologize to that man for existing as he had you on the ground, gun pointed at you? Say you were sorry for being born black and apologize for all the black people in the past who may have ever thought of robbing that neighborhood or doing whatever things George Zimmerman, 28, thought black people in Sanford, Fla. were doing in his neighborhood.

Lisa Sharon Harper: “Lament for Trayvon Martin and Black Boys Everywhere

Yesterday, I found myself thinking of all my nephews. They are so beautiful, such good boys and regal young men. They love to laugh with each other. They never miss a family gathering. And they love living. I thought to myself, “Where can my sisters and cousins go to protect them?”

This was not a hypothetical question. It was real. I thought about it: in cities my nephews are more likely to be the targets of black-on-black crime or police brutality. In suburbs they are more likely to be targets of white-on-black crime. What about a gated community? People live there to feel safe. But, oh … that’s where Trayvon was.

Black men are targets everywhere — everywhere.

Enuma Okoro: “When You Can’t Find Your Words

I haven’t written much about the death of Trayvon Martin because I cannot find my words, appropriate words, enough words, redeeming words, resurrecting words. I cannot find any words that could breathe any modicum of life into the death of this child. I listen to and welcome the words of others, of anger and the clarion calls for justice. I listen and I receive them because they are justified. But all I am able to speak to at this point is of deep sadness and burrowing sorrow. For now.

Janice D’Arcy: “Trayvon Martin’s shooting: The ‘rules’ African American parents follow

3. Know who you are. You can’t do everything they do. In other words, just because your white friend does something that doesn’t mean you can do the same. Whether it’s hanging at the mall or going to a house party, police, teachers, and other authorities treat white children differently than black children. …

Jesse Taylor: “A Young Black Man, Being Late

There’s a reason that Trayvon Martin’s story hits me so hard. When you’re thirteen and threatened with a bullet through the chest for getting your braces tightened, it teaches you how the world works, and does it in a hurry.

 

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  • Kartoffelbreir

    But Zimmerman wouldn’t have shot a white kid. 140 pounds, 17, looks like he’s 12? Nope. He’s dead ‘cuz he was black

  • Kartoffelbreir

    That’s a respectable POV

  • Kartoffelbreir

    Agreed

  • Kartoffelbreir

    Not specifically BECAUSE HE WAS BLACK, but something back in his peabrain made the black=danger connection,  to Martin’s great peril.

  • Julian Elson

    This is interesting:

    http://youarenotyou.tumblr.com/post/19785386812/milkee-mountain-mama-i-dont-get-why-it-isnt-obvious 

    “not all of us are trayvon martin. some of us are actually george zimmerman. and maybe all the white guys in hoodies who are 44 years old and smiling need to recognize that some of us are george zimmerman. and that the US grows george zimmermans like rag weed in a post-global warming world. plentiful, hapahazardly. anywhere.
    we are not all trayvon martin, because some of us are george zimmerman. and honestly, it’s not always so dichotomous, some of us are a bit trayvon and a big george—some of us are neither—we’re the neighbors who didn’t call or who did call…but let’s just start with the most obvious one today.
    some of us are george zimmerman. some of us, whether through blood or culture are george zimmerman—and some us, many of us, know in our hearts—i could’ve been george zimmerman.”

  • Base Delta Zero

    Because of my skin color, that’s a horrific experience I’ll never be able to truly understand. I imagine black parents having the urge to let the crime fit the punishment and to wage total warfare on all white-dominated institutions. Rather than seeing their sons slowly ground to bits by a system that resents their very existence, are the parents ever tempted to meet violence with violence? Would the black community prefer dying on its feet to living on its knees? As much as I abhor violence, I’m not in a position to tell blacks that they should squelch such feelings if they have them.

    I’m… not going to say those *feelings* are wrong, but the idea is, not only morally (do onto others before they do onto you), but it’s just a bad plan.  The thing about being an oppressed minority is that you have little power.  If the group that *does* have power believes your group to be an existential threat, they will react accordingly.  The neo-nazis, the KKK et al, would like nothing more than a race war, and those ‘white dominated institutions’ include the military and police.  Maybe the feelings aren’t wrong, but if they aren’t squelched at the source, others will do it more drastically.  And even if you somehow win… now you get to be the villain.  Congratulations.Just don’t start an ethnic civil war.  It never ends well.  (And there is a reason the cold war stayed cold)

    Then you hear a story like Trayvon’s, and the statistic makes sense. Cruel, horrifying sense. And it hurts, as a comfortably middle-class white person, to realize that you are the monster.

    The fact that a pathetic excuse for a human being like Zimmerman has similarly colored skin does not make me a monster.  Guilt is not exclusive, but it is not neccesarily transferable and fractal, either.

    You see this in jury selection, where people say that anyone who’s arrested for anything must be guilty, or they wouldn’t have been arrested. And whatever a police officer says, as a witness, must be true, because police officer.

    As a law enforcement officer in ‘training’, I’d like to think that most police officers wouldn’t commit perjury, but I know better than to think there aren’t any.  And ‘anyone arrested for something must be guilty’ is just puerile… police departments/situations/officers vary in what their criteria for arrest are – some only make arrests when they’re completely sure (which still doesn’t mean they’re actually right, only that they think they are), and some will arrest you if you’re in the general vicinity of what might be a crime.

  • Anonymous

     In my personal experience with jury selection, a competent defender can help prevent that.  However, that entails actually having a competent defender available…

  • Tonio

    Pleas don’t read my post as an endorsement of race war. I’m suggesting instead that it maybe inevitable as long as blacks, and black men in particular, have only two options, kill or be killed. White-dominated institutions have long proven that they do not deserve any black person’s trust or loyalty. While hateful people like George Zimmerman are obviously driven by fear, there’s a possibility that the only way that blacks can ever be free of oppression is if whites are so afraid that they cower and weep at even the sight of a black person. Again, not an endorsement of that tactic, just an acknowledgment of despair and hopelessness that society can ever deem being different as morally neutral.

  • Anonymous

    blacks, and black men in particular, have only two options, kill or be killed

    I believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would disagree. I also believe Dr. King is smarter than you. No offense meant.

  • Tonio

    None taken. I’m allowing for the possibility that he was wrong about nonviolent methods being capable of producing lasting positive change. Looking at what happened to Trayvon Martin, it’s very, very tempting to believe that MLK and Medgar Evers and all the other martyrs died for nothing. Nonviolent resistance might only work as appeals to conscience, and I doubt that George Zimmerman possesses a conscience.

  •  

    The thing about being an oppressed minority is that you have little power. If the group that *does* have power believes your group to be an existential threat, they will react accordingly. 

    This is a little facile. Power in the sense you’re talking about here is a social construct; radical changes to society can create and destroy it. It’s entirely possible for group A to have power over group B in peacetime, but still be unable to control or defeat group B if active fighting breaks out. If I’m a member of group B in that situation, I gain power by active fighting. That can make it a pragmatic choice.

    Whether it’s moral to fight in that situation is a different question, though, agreed.

    So is whether it’s moral not to fight.

  • LL

    It’s amusing that some people here think that a woman has no idea what it means to be viewed as a target or to fear being victimized. I’ve actually been robbed at gunpoint once and carjacked another time. Both times in parking lots, somewhat ironically enough. 

    Just sayin’. I don’t know if anyone is still reading this thread, but if you are, give it some thought. Or just continue to imply that I refuse to acknowledge racism or that my opinions are “cruel.” Whatever. Some people need to feel superior. Some do it by being racist, others do it by assigning motives that don’t exist to people they don’t know. 

  •  “I can’t be racist, some of my best friends are black!” is a dumb argument. “I can’t be racist, I’ve been robbed!” is just a non-sequitur.

    And no one said you have no idea what it’s like to be victimized.

  • Base Delta Zero

    While hateful people like George Zimmerman are obviously driven by fear, there’s a possibility that the only way that blacks can ever be free of oppression is if whites are so afraid that they cower and weep at even the sight of a black person.

    That’s idiotic.  Unless you have superpowers hidden somewhere, the actual result will be that whites are so afraid they open fire at the sight of a black person.  Even if you’re already in power, trying to rule by terror just ends up pissing people off.

    None taken. I’m allowing for the possibility that he was wrong about nonviolent methods being capable of producing lasting positive change. Looking at what happened to Trayvon Martin, it’s very, very tempting to believe that MLK and Medgar Evers and all the other martyrs died for nothing. Nonviolent resistance might only work as appeals to conscience, and I doubt that George Zimmerman possesses a conscience.

    Zimmerman likely possesses a conscience, just a corrupt one… but I see that point.  However, there’s no need to appeal to him.  Look at the response that has already happened… the police will yield.  They have no choice.I don’t know what exactly is with this trend of ‘Something bad has happened!  Everything has been in vain!”…

    This is a little facile. Power in the sense you’re talking about here is a social construct; radical changes to society can create and destroy it.
    … Whether it’s moral to fight in that situation is a different question, though, agreed.

    That’s privelidge.  I’m talking about hard power.  Now, it’s true that this isn’t always the case – a social ‘minority’ might be a numerical majority, or have some critical economic or material advantage.  This was arguably true prior to the Civil War, when the Southern economy depended largely on slave labor… but revolts still didn’t work.  Anyways, it’s a bit of an absurdity to discuss who will win the Racial Holy War and whether it’s moral or not, for much the same reason it’s absurd to ask the same question about global thermonuclear war: the basically guaranteed answer is ‘everyone loses’.

  • Whjackson70

    George Zimmerman is just as white as our President is.  Oh – what’s that?  Our President is black?  Race is played to suit the needs of the party telling the story.  The real tragedy here is that this case will not be tried the way it should.  An overzealous cop wannabe was just itching to use his gun.  Those people are more dangerous to our neighborhoods than gangs of any color.  Stop making this a race issue.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Zimmerman identifies white and has made a habit of calling the cops on black people who weren’t doing anything, including a kid about ten years younger than Trayvon. Zimmerman’s the one who made this a race issue.

  • William Urmson

    This music video tells why Trayvon Martin is dead~
    http://youtu.be/OqZqGql9ml4

  • chrisalgoo

    There was no justice today.