(Contribution by Slik Magazine / Stephen Lawrence Foundation)
Millions worldwide have signed the petition to seek justice for the killing of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. He was killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, a 28 year-old self appointed neighbourhood watchman who decided that he should play judge, jury and executioner of an unarmed teen because he thought Trayvon looked “suspicious”.
Trayvon armed with “Skittles and Iced Tea” was walking through the gated community on his way home when he was shot and killed by Zimmerman, who initially walked free under the Authority’s interpretation of Florida’s self defence laws. The news of his death, and how Zimmerman had not been arrested, sent shockwaves throughout America and beyond.“I am Trayvon” has become the rallying cry at protests and various congressmen and celebrities have donned “hoodies” in solidarity.
Following the global outrage and weeks impassioned campaigning, Zimmerman was arrested and charged with second degree murder. However, Civil Rights veteran Rev Al Sharpton said: “Without the pressure there would not have been a second look [at the case]. This is a not a night for celebrating, this night should not have happened in the first place.”At a time like this, it is vital to consider what can be learned from such tragic circumstances. What we learn from this, and the way we combat the racist discourse we have been assaulted with from the media, is crucial, so that we can work towards change, as we step out from under this canopy of injustice into brighter and more hopeful days.
A rather myopic analysis of events is that Zimmerman was merely an overzealous individual whose ill thought out actions resulted in the death of a minor. Ultimately Zimmerman is responsible for his actions which were contrary to the instructions given by the Police Dispatcher he called whilst fol-lowing Trayvon. However, as uncomfortable as it is for many, it is important to throw the net of culpability wider and view this tragedy against a backdrop of wider societal and deep rooted injustice.
Some have tried to create an artificial division between his actions and the thought process leading up to this, condemning the vigilante act of shooting, yet legitimizing the fear and suspicion upon which he acted. This was best illustrated by Fox News commentator Geraldo Rivera, who urged young blacks and Latinos to stop wearing hoodies in order to avoid Trayvon’s fate. Implicit in this paradigm is an uncritical acceptance of profiling and negative stereotyping. This case goes way beyond gun control laws and Florida’s interpretation of self defense laws although these were tools used to facilitate this injustice.
As Britain gets ready to point a smug finger of accusation across the Atlantic, it would be salient to highlight how US events are mirrored here in the UK. We are facing a huge problem with stop and search. According to the London School of Economics and Open Society Justice Initiative, black people are 30 times more likely to be stopped and searched under Section 60 powers. This is linked to racial profiling – the same prof ling which would have ultimately led Zimmerman to kill Trayvon.
While there was understandable delight at the convictions for the killers of Stephen Lawrence, it took 17 years to achieve any sort of justice for the Lawrence family. More pertinently, it would not have happened without the persistence and unrivaled determination of Doreen and Neville Lawrence who fought, and still are fighting, for justice. The fact that three of the five killers are still walking free is a blight upon the Justice System. The numbers of deaths in custody remain at an unacceptably high level and we have witnessed, in particular, a sharp rise in the numbers of black deaths in police custody in recent years. The circumstances which these men have died in are suspicious, and the reasons for death put forward by police lack credibility in the eyes of many. The United Friends and Families Campaign has been formed in response to this.
These acts of aggression are all on a continuüm; from the policeman who stops and searches, to the one who kills the unarmed black male because he decides he is a threat, to the system that is slow and unwilling to bring justice. Each method of control, humiliation, and subjugation is held up by the other, inextricably joined together in an ugly coalition of prejudice and fear.
The eyes of America, and indeed the world, are closely following the developments in the Trayvon case. While Trayvon’s death has received the media coverage that it deserved, others in America have not. Ramarley Graham, a drug suspect shot dead in his mother’s apartment, and Rekia Boyd, shot dead by an o duty police officer, were both young, unarmed and black. 15 year old Asperger’s sufferer Stephon Watts was regarded as such a threat when he approached officers with a butter knife that they shot him dead in his parents’ house.
If this case teaches us anything, it is that a guilty until proven innocent approach is untenable. If someone is engaged in criminal activity, real or imagined, due process must be followed. President Obama has urged that America does some ‘soul searching’ following this incident. As MLK Jr said “Every step towards the goal of justice requires…the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.” As a rainbow coalition of people from all walks of society, stand together in taking action against this a ront to justice and humanity, we have seen progress made in a short time. The journey has opened with dialogue, however Trayvon’s legacy will be more than words alone..
By Amma Priscilla Mante