Shooting, Aftermath Illuminate Dark History of Racial Discrimination

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

Unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was followed, shot and killed by self-declared neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman on February 26 in Sanford, Florida. In the weeks since, dialogue surrounding Martin’s death and the implications of racialized violence and institutionalized prejudice in the U.S. has elicited responses of outrage, frustration, solidarity and support from communities of color, allies, politicians, pundits and students across the nation. As a part of this national conversation, members of Oberlin’s community have responded by raising awareness, organizing vigils for reflection and creating venues for dialogue.

Though a tragedy in itself, Martin’s death should be seen in the context of a greater narrative of racialized violence in the United States, according to Professor of African American Studies Pamela Brooks. Noting the “long history of this type of murder,” including the historic use of lynching as a weapon in vigilante violence against people of color and the tradition of profiling young black men in the United States, Brooks said that it is vital to understand this killing in its greater context. “Black young men, not just because they wear hoodies, have been demonized, strung up, imprisoned and confined throughout Black people’s history in the U.S. It is outrageous how many other Trayvons lose their lives like this in the 21st century. For so many of us we live in a police state, and it simply must stop,” Brooks said.

Tiesha Cassel, Conservatory junior and member of the Prison Justice Project, a student organization that focuses on issues of prison justice, reform and abolition, echoed these sentiments and called for an “expansion of our narrative” of racialized violence in the United States.

“[There are] issues of making him an exception, taking away his humanity, taking him out of a narrative and also needing to expand our narrative. It’s about Trayvon, but [Martin’s killing] doesn’t just devalue black male lives in that fashion; there are boys that get shot on my block every day,” said Cassel. “No one hears about it, no one is fighting for them. So we need to expand our narrative. … While we think about Trayvon we need to bring other people’s stories to the surface, as well.” Much of the controversy surrounding the shooting arose from the police and court’s response to Martin’s death. Upon arriving at the scene, police apprehended but failed to arrest Zimmerman. Police later released Zimmerman without a charge, due to purportedly insufficient evidence to controvert his claim of self-defense.

Much of the issue surrounding law enforcement’s response centers on Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, which legitimizes the use of force when a person “reasonably believes” that doing so is necessary to defend him/herself or another against the imminent use of unlawful force. Additionally, a person who perceives that he or she is under threat of violence is justified in the use of “deadly force” and does not have a duty to retreat under a number of circumstances.

Brooks said that this killing and the subsequent police response, or lack thereof, is manifest of an American psyche that devalues black lives.

“It is not extreme to call Trayvon’s killing murder and call for Zimmerman’s adjudication. That such a law could pass and be invoked without Mr. Zimmerman facing any sort of legal accountability is a travesty and further proof that Black lives are not seen as valuable or worthy of respect by the state or by a host of others,” Brooks said.

This law, which gives ordinary citizens license to kill under perceived threat of violence, places the burden of contradicting claims of self-defense on law enforcement. Despite Sanford homicide detective Chris Serino’s report indicating that he was unconvinced by Zimmerman’s account of the events, the Office of the State Attorney in Florida claimed there was insufficient evidence to charge Zimmerman, even with manslaughter.

Cassel said that the issue with Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law is representative of more systemic issues regarding privilege in the writing and passage of laws in the United States.

“The legislators who originally wrote this bill are back-lashing against this law and saying ‘this is not what the law was for.’ Understanding who gets to write the laws and pass the laws, [and] how when you’re looking at the reading of the law, you don’t need to think about how race will play, how class will play, how environment will play into the law [is a manifestation of white privilege]. It’s bad legislation, in general,” Cassel said.

Lyle Kash, College junior and member of the Prison Justice Project, said he hopes that calls for Zimmerman’s arrest, while valid, will turn into a conversation about greater issues with the problematic relationship between the police and communities of color.

“I’ve heard a lot of dialogue about ‘We should be arresting Zimmerman; we should be pursuing this sentence.’ … But while we should be supporting petitions that look like that and having those dialogues, I think we also need to be, rather than just reacting, thinking about how to create safer communities and how to find alternatives to police,” Kash said. “I don’t think there’s a huge difference between the power that gave Zimmerman the OK to shoot Trayvon Martin and the power that gives a white cop the power to shoot a black child for wearing a hoodie. We need to be making those connections and understanding that the criminal justice system has never served communities of color — how we can rethink approaches to justice that don’t rely on those same systems.”

Kash and College sophomore Malachi Thomas, who authored and sent a petition to the Sanford Police Department calling for the immediate arrest and trial of Zimmerman, both relayed sentiments that institutionalized racism and the passage of laws that directly benefit privileged classes, while oppressing others, have been features of the United States since its creation and continue to affect minority communities today. Thomas placed Trayvon’s death in a larger history of colonization and white privilege.

“I think that from day one — from the moment white colonizers stepped on this land and committed the genocide of native peoples — that [local statutes] were not meant to treat white people and people of color in the same way,” Kash said. “A lot of those laws were meant to locate capital and land in the hands of white folks, and as a result, if we look at the Stand Your Ground Law and ask whose ground has that ever been laid out for. … I think particularly since the 1970s … we see crime, impunity and incarceration linked to color. So the reason Zimmerman can claim that he’s standing his ground is because the burden of proof is on Trayvon Martin to not be wearing a hoodie, to not be black, to not be carrying Skittles. It doesn’t really matter what we’re talking about, when we think of criminal in our national imaginary that’s framed as a black man and that’s been the case forever.”

Though seemingly a clear-cut issue of race, some pundits, including Republican presidential hopeful and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, have sought to deny the central role race plays in violence of this nature. On Sean Hannity’s radio show last month, Gingrich claimed that characterizing the killing of Martin as race-driven is “fundamentally wrong.” “It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican, or Cuban, or if he had been white, or if he had been Asian American or if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling,” said Gingrich.

Cassel said she understands attempts such as Gingrich’s to deny the centrality of race in Martin’s death, as a function of white privilege.

“In regards to a very race-blind propaganda that’s come in light [of Martin’s death], I think it’s easy to ignore race when you don’t have to think about race or the ways in which race plays a role. So if those things aren’t present in your life, if you have the privilege to not think about that, then you have the privilege to not talk about it. … This real want for people to kill the race issue means that there is a race issue. I think it’s part of a larger narrative; if you don’t have to deal with race then you don’t understand how race affects every portion [of your life]; how you learn how to deal with the state, how you learn how to deal with the police, how your communities are policed,” Cassel said.

Thomas echoed this sentiment and added that racial discrimination is not new to the Sanford Police Department and played a major role in its handling of the case.

“The Sanford Police Department has a dark history of racial discrimination. It is very evident that their immensely flawed investigation was not a result of an inability to think or piece information together, but a result of the establishment of white privilege in this country,” Thomas said.

The Prison Justice Project organized a vigil in response to Martin’s death on March 22. Almost a full hour of silence was broken by singing, and the event concluded with words from Meredith Gadsby, chair of the African American Studies Department, as well as from Professor Brooks.

Brooks said to attending students, faculty and community members, “My young colleagues, you’ve given me hope that although we have unfinished work to do … we can turn to one another and say, ‘It matters that you’re here with me.’” Jamie Gerber, College junior and member of the Prison Justice Project, said that the purpose of the vigil was to provide a safe space for reflection, acknowledgement and dialogue, as well as an opportunity to pay respects to Martin. It was followed by an Oberlin College Dialogue Center-facilitated discussion on the safety of youth of color in the streets of Oberlin.

Gerber said the event was an “attempt to begin dialogue about the ways in which we see the violence that occurred in Sanford occur also in our own space.”