This story was originally published on July 16, 2013.
Saturday’s verdict in the George Zimmerman trial shouldn’t have been a surprise.
History has shown us, again and again, that the legal system is less interested in the deaths of young Black men than ones in which Black people stand accused. Just look at the 2008 acquittal of the New York police officers who shot Sean Bell 50 times, or the short sentence that an Oakland transit cop who shot the unarmed Oscar Grant received in 2010, or the wildly unjust sentencing of Florida mom Marissa Alexander to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband, or the damning national statistics on how white-on-Black killings are far more likely to be ruled “justifiable.”
Although I believe that the legal system will never deliver true justice, Saturday’s verdict still felt like a kick in the gut. It sent a loud and clear message that targeting a Black teenager simply because he is Black is not only acceptable, but legally permissible. And so, like thousands of other Americans, I went out into the streets the following evening to show my outrage.
The vigil I attended in New York City turned into an impromptu march, taking over portions of our city’s streets. There was a group of young Black children who chanted about Skittles and iced tea not being weapons. There were people in automated wheelchairs, nursing mothers holding their babies to their breasts, parents with strollers, and older people who had difficulty keeping up with the march’s rapid pace. Teenagers and adults held signs condemning the verdict. At every intersection, protesters linked hands and stopped traffic, allowing everyone—young old, fast and slow—to pass. It was a powerful gathering.
Rally for Trayvon Martin Outside the ALEC Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on March 29, 2012 (Photo credit: Flickr/LaDawna Howard/2.0)
But something bothered me during the protest. One man had a sign around his neck that said “I Am Trayvon Martin.” The sign had an almost-life-sized picture of a hood and a blank space where a person could put their own face. The man was white. Others wore stickers that said “We Are All Trayvon.” Numerous people held signs and chanted “We Are All Trayvon Martin.” The sign-holders and chanters included many white people.
Let’s be real: Trayvon Martin was profiled and targeted because he was Black. For me (and many others) to chant “I Am Trayvon Martin” erases the very real history of racism and racial profiling against Black people. So why were so many white people taking up that cry? Did they really not understand how race and racism were fundamental parts of both Martin’s murder and the court case that ultimately acquitted Zimmerman?
I understand the need to feel like something bigger than just yourself. But, as an Asian woman who works on prison issues, I know that I have a skin privilege, which makes me a lot less likely to ever be targeted by the same state-sanctioned violence that Martin and so many other Black people encounter on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to racist violence (remember Vincent Chin?) but state-sanctioned violence doesn’t hang over my head the same way it would if I were Black. Stop and Frisk will not be an inevitable part of my daughter’s experience the way it is for hundreds of Black and Brown New York youth.
I’ve been pointed to a new Tumblr called “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” that examines the ways in race and gender protect individuals from fearing the engrained racism and violence that ended Martin’s life. I know that in many circles, race and racism are considered taboo and can halt conversations (and even organizing work). But if we truly want to build a world in which no more young Black people are senselessly killed while walking home, we need to be brave and have these conversations, not erase our very real differences.
While I’m furious over the lack of justice in Trayvon Martin’s case, I believe that even had Zimmerman been found guilty, justice would not have been done. The problems revealed here are bigger than just one legal verdict. There is something bigger here, and it’s not that “We Are All Trayvon.” This country is full of systems that treat people differently based on their race.
As a prison abolitionist, I think about how a guilty verdict would simply have added another body to the 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States. It would not have brought Martin back. It would not have undone the rewriting of his life to cast him as the villain in the story. It would not have stopped the prevalent and systemic fear of young Black and Brown men that led to Zimmerman following and killing Martin. It would not address the need to change the ways we talk about race and racism in this country. It would not stop another shooting of a young Black man by an overzealous gun owner. It wouldn’t make our communities and loved ones any safer from racist violence. Heck, it wouldn’t even make Zimmerman rethink his irrational fear of young Black men.
Perhaps, however, a guilty verdict would have given some closure to the Martin family. Our world has huge gaps between the rhetoric of a world without prisons and the reality of the world as it is right now, a world in which “justice” equals “incarceration.” We should push ourselves to think past that narrow equation and begin to envision a world which truly prizes safety and healing.