“If there had been no nooses hanging from a schoolyard tree, there would have been no Jena 6… It was this evidence of old-fashioned racism that made it possible for a new generation of protestors to frame the attempted murder charges against six black teens in a manner that mainstream America would understand as racist… Ironically, it was precisely this framing that ensured that the events in Jena would not actually launch a ‘new civil rights movement.’ A new civil rights movement cannot be organized around the relics of the earlier system of control if it is to address meaningfully the racial realities of our time.” – from The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
“Ever wonder why black elected officials spend so much time talking about purely symbolic ‘issues,’ like an official apology for slavery? Or why they never miss the chance to denounce a racist outburst from a rehab-bound celebrity? It’s because symbolism, history, and old-fashioned racism are about the only things they can be sure their African American constituents still have in common… There are times and places where we all still come back together—on the increasingly rare occasions when we feel lumped together, defined, and threatened solely on the basis of skin color, usually involving some high-profile instance of bald-faced discrimination or injustice.” – from Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America by Eugene Robinson
Let me begin by stating that I wholeheartedly support and sympathize with the public uproar surrounding the Trayvon Martin killing, the Sanford Police Department’s refusal to treat George Zimmerman like the murderer that he is, and the recent attacks on Trayvon’s character. A 17-year old life has been snuffed out prematurely and this is truly tragic. However, despite the public outcry, I believe that it is too late for justice for Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon Martin’s murder is the 3rd event in the last decade to spur such national outrage, enthusiasm, and mobilization within black America. The first was Hurricane Katrina; a natural disaster followed by an administrative disaster which decimated New Orleans’ 9th Ward and left thousands of black and poor New Orleanians dead or homeless. The second was Jena 6 in which a group of black teens in Jena, Louisiana were criminalized for responding to racist threats from their white peers. As with the response to Trayvon Martin’s murder, black America stood unified and outraged at local, state, and federal governments’ neglect and racism. All three instances sparked a great deal of hope and optimism as people responded to these tragedies with a rekindled unity and determination to address racism in America. All three sparked an avalanche of media coverage, debate, spin, and TV appearances by Al Sharpton and Messy Jesse Jackson. And finally, all three reflected much larger social trends of which these atrocities were particularly stark examples.
The Jena 6 were not the first young black men to be harshly punished and criminalized by the powers that be. The US has the largest prison population of any country in history (both in proportion to population and in raw numbers). Those who have most disproportionately filled those prison cells are young, poor, and black or brown. Indeed, as Michelle Alexander argues in The New Jim Crow, mass incarceration is the single largest threat to the black community today and is the civil rights issue of this century. As the Jena 6 reflected the criminalization of poor blacks, Hurricane Katrina reflected the neglect and slow death that is so rampant in ghettos across America. Malnutrition, lack of clean drinking water, disease with little to no healthcare, homelessness with few available shelters suitable for human habitation, strandedness, crime, general hopelessness, and the US governments’ abandonment of its most needy citizens were on display in their most raw forms in the aftermath of Katrina. But walk through any hood on any day and you’ll see some, if not all, of those things. The hood is dying in many ways and the people with the power and resources to do something about it don’t care. Katrina showed that in dramatic fashion but it existed before Katrina and it persists today.
Like Jena and Katrina, Trayvon reflects a larger reality. It’s March 29 and the last that I heard there were 87 murders in Philadelphia so far this year. (It was two days ago that I heard that statistic so the number could be higher by now). That’s almost 1 homicide per day. And, like Trayvon, most of the victims are young and black (or brown). Our young men are dying violently for unbelievably petty reasons. Trayvon represents that.
Unfortunately, like the response to the Jena 6 and Hurricane Katrina, the movement for justice for Trayvon has focused only on the dramatic example and not the larger social trend. The movement for the Jena 6 was successful in that it saved 6 young men from unjust incarceration but was a failure in its inability to address the epidemic of incarceration that is spreading through poor communities like a plague. Similarly, the uproar surrounding Hurricane Katrina succeeded in providing food, clothes, and shelter for needy Katrina survivors and in extracting apologies from government officials but it failed to address the slow death and neglect that is so pervasive in poor communities everywhere.
George Zimmerman could be arrested, tried, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison or death row. Is that justice? Is that justice for Trayvon? I don’t think so. The only justice for Trayvon would come from Marty and Doc jumping in the DeLorean, going back in time, and preventing his murder so that he could be here with us today. Justice for Trayvon is fiction. And it’s too late. But it’s not too late to address the poverty, powerlessness, and hopelessness that lead to so much needless, violent death in black and brown communities everyday. But I’m doubtful that the calls for justice for Trayvon will address that larger trend.
Racism has evolved since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. Resistance must evolve with it. The new racism is subtler than in years past but it is still right in our face everyday. We know that it exists through everyday experience and statistics on unemployment, housing, education, incarceration, and premature death. But when it comes to combating it we wait for those old-school, blatant manifestations of racism. We don’t need to wait for a Jena 6, a Katrina, or a Trayvon. The crisis stares us in the face everyday.
Power for Trayvon.