As the collective forgetfulness falls on the minds of the USA, Sam Smotherman revisits the killing of Trayvon Martin and the protests that erupted in response to the not guilty verdict with long time political organizer, Chris Crass to find out what can be learned to move forward to a more just society.
Protestor In Front of Los Angeles City Hall
Kenny (Father) and (Son) Kai | “I brought Kai here to teach him about politics and justice.”
What was the significance of the Trayvon Martin case? Why do you think it grabbed the nation’s attention?
The murder of Trayvon Martin exposed the enduring and brutal reality of white supremacy in the United States. We heard the logic of white supremacy on the 911 call Zimmerman made. We heard Zimmerman turn a Black kid on his way home into a violent criminal. We witnessed the murderous results of Zimmerman assuming that a Black teenage boy needed to be contained and punished by any means necessary, not because he had done anything wrong, but because in a white supremacist society, Blackness equates to a pathological culture of crime and violence that must always be monitored, policed, imprisoned, and feared. It isn’t that Zimmerman acted far outside the bounds of society, it’s that he expressed the murderous, paranoid, dangerous results of the racism deeply ingrained in our society.
Systemic racism in our society that affects everything from housing to jobs to life expectancy is often denied as being a thing of the past or alternately, the result of the failures in communities of color. For example, while studies consistently show that Black and white youth use illegal drugs at around the same rate, Black youth are more then twice as likely to be arrested, and far more likely to be incarcerated.
Michelle Alexander’s best selling book, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” argues that the criminal justice system in the U.S. “operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.” Trayvon Martin’s murder showed the world that the New Jim Crow is the new racial order in the U.S. today.
How did protest and public expressions of outrage help make this one of the top national stories of 2013?
While the original murder grabbed headlines, what kept this story in the national spotlight, and ultimately forced the hard of the police to arrest George Zimmerman was the organized resistance of the Black community. Demonstrations erupted around the country within days of Trayvon’s murder. His family was vocal and public, and with the support of national Black leaders like Al Sharpton, they voiced outrage and grief that resonated in and beyond the Black community. Hundreds of demonstrations of tens of thousands of people took place in the initial weeks of Trayvon’s murder and this not only kept the story in the headlines, but it brought a strong race analysis to the forefront as Black people of all backgrounds denounced racial profiling and racism – from the Miami Heat basketball team to working class Black churches throughout the South.
To be clear, there were people of all backgrounds protesting the murder of Trayvon. In Knoxville, Tennessee, where I was living at the time, hundreds of white people joined with hundreds of Black people in one of the largest anti-racist demonstrations in recent memory. But that said, the organization and mobilization in the Black community is why Zimmerman was arrested, why he went on trial, and why the name Trayvon Martin is not only known around the country, but known as the name of a young man who’s life was stolen from him and all of us because white supremacy continues to shape U.S. society.
You were part of actions expressing outrage both when Trayvon Martin was murdered and when George Zimmerman was acquitted. What were you trying to accomplish and do you think it was successful?
As I mentioned before, I was living in Knoxville, Tennessee at the time of both the murder of Trayvon and the acquittal of Zimmerman. When Trayvon was murdered a coalition of groups and individuals in East Tennessee came together to form Knoxville United Against Racism. With leadership from the white, Black, and Latino community, we were able to mobilize over 400 people to express our outrage, grief, and resistance. With cities and towns around the country calling for Justice for Trayvon Martin, we brought together church groups, labor groups, LGBTQ, immigrant rights, and environmental groups, and we put forward a powerful message of unity against racism.
The Trayvon Martin murder created a dividing line in the country. Do you think Zimmerman murdered Trayvon or was it an act of self-defense? Was racism a major factor in this case or not? It is in moments like this when all of us who believe in social justice, who believe in equality, must step up and turn this travesty into a clarion call for change. Our goals were to raise awareness of the enduring reality of racism, to build momentum on the community and in society to fight racism and work for systemic equality, and to build unity across racial divisions in the process. For me, a major goal was to raise awareness in white communities and then turn that awareness into action. While there is far more that must be done, overall, I do think we were successful. Rather then Trayvon Martin’s murder being yet one of hundreds of cases of young Black people being murdered, it became a case that helped us draw attention to the epidemic of racist murders in this country. While it is true that since Trayvon, there have been dozens and dozens of horrendous murders of Black people – include several involving young Black women and men going for help after car accidents only to be shot and murder at the door of white neighbors who said they “feared for their lives” upon seeing Black people at their doors – we must do all we can to raise consciousness and get people active in the movement to end the New Jim Crow.
That brings up two important questions for me. First, how can we go from outrage of cases like Trayvon Martin and move to on-going work for social justice?
Shortly after Trayvon was murdered, I wrote the following for a national call to white people to deepen our efforts as we moved from outrage to organizing: “Let us turn our outrage and pain into commitment and action. Let us sound the alarm that silence and inaction in the face of injustice is consent and support. Let us learn from those who have come before us and get involved with those organizing for racial, gender and economic justice today. Let us be mindful of white privilege, but also remember to be powerful for racial justice. Let us act from our vision, see opportunities to challenge racism, engage in courageous efforts, create beloved community, and build our movements for collective liberation. Now is the time.”
Outrage is an important part of the journey. Outrage connects us to our sense of right and wrong and can motivate us to take action. Joining in demonstrations or organizing them ourselves is an important next step. Coming together with others in our communities is key to overcome the feelings of powerlessness and isolation, feelings which systems of inequality from apartheid, to capitalism, to white supremacy both create and thrive on. Come together with others to express our outrage, our opposition. But the next step is vital and that is the step of joining on-going efforts to win social, economic, racial, gender justice. This can be on the local, regional, national or global level, but the most important part is that we come together with link-minded people to work for positive long-term changes to the problems we face.
Shortly after the Zimmerman verdict was announced I write this short essay called, The Verdict is In: We Must Organize to Get Justice. I outline 10 steps people can take to move from outrage to organizing. Anyone who wants to explore that question further can read the essay here:
My next question is, why should white folks care about cases like Trayvon Martin? How do white folks participate in meaningful anti-racist organizing?
The question for white people is really, which side of history do you stand on? Do you stand with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that made every neighborhood watched by the slave patrols? Do you stand with the courts, police and juries that time and time again acquitted anyone accused of lynching a Black person? Do you stand with the White Citizenship Councils who were the most “respected” men of their community, who defended Jim Crow apartheid? Do you stand with the Klu Klux Klan who were the first to make the argument that the Voting Rights Act and Affirmative Action gave “special rights” to Blacks, an argument that quickly became a rally crying for white Americans around the country.
Or do you stand with the Abolitionists like Frederick Douglas, William Garrison and Harriet Tubman who were routinely told that they were creating racial hostility and disturbing the natural order. Do you stand with Ida B. Wells who launched an international campaign against lynching and used her skills as a journalist to expose the false accusations of rape and theft in story after story of Black men who were lynched? Do you stand with Emmett Till and his family when he, at 14 years of age, was brutally murdered by white men because he “didn’t know his place” and was supposedly flirting with a white girl. Do you stand with Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., the Freedom Riders and the Civil Rights movement as they faced angry white mobs from Chicago to Alabama?
My nephews, 5 and 7 years old, recently asked their Grandmother, at the Lincoln Presidential Library, “Nana, how could Christians have supported slavery?” It’s a heartbreaking question. And many of us who are white would respond with indignation about slavery, as we should. But how often do so many of us look back and wonder “how could people have supported slavery and segregation.” And when we look back, we are usually pretty clear that we’re not just talking about the people who actively supported, but also the people who through their indifference and inaction supported these systems. The argument is frequently made, well that was just considered normal at the time, even though it is appalling to us now. But what isn’t as frequently named is that it was the resistance of Black Americans, people of color and white anti-racists who took on those injustices and won institutional and cultural changes.
However, most white Americans would either say that they would have been on the right side of history working for justice or at the very least, they would not be on the wrong side of history supporting the slave system and segregation. But it is always so much easier to assume you would have been on the right side of history in retrospect. What is much more difficult is being on the right side of history in the here and now. Because in the here and now, we are living in the “what was considered normal,” the normal that in retrospect is so clearly racist.
The Trayvon Martin murder, and the verdict which acquitted George Zimmerman is just the tip of the iceberg, as a recent report found that in 2012 a Black man, woman or child was killed every 28 hours by police, security guards or vigilantes. It not the uniqueness of Trayvon Martin being racial profiled and killed for being Black “in the wrong neighborhood”, it’s that his story is so tragically familiar. While there have been many white people outraged by the murder and the verdict, there are many more who say “it’s just so complicated,” “they both made bad decisions that night,” “Martin got what he deserved,” or simply “the jury did a good job.”
It’s time to speak honestly. At all the points in history that we look back on and can’t understand how people supported such racism, in all those eras, white people said “it’s too complicated,” “it’s the way things are,” “that Black person must have done something to deserve it.” Even in the murder of Emmitt Till, many white people said, “it may have been extreme, but the boy forgot his place.” Today, the verdict of Zimmerman is now part of our history, but these cases continue to happen, over and over again, and white people have to choose what side of history we are on. It can be an intimidating prospect, but ultimately it is about who we choose to be as people. Our character, values, and legacies are shaped by the choices we make in the times we live, not by the stands we imagine ourselves taking in the past. I believe in our ability to stand, in the millions, in the tradition of the Abolitionists, the Freedom Riders, and the Dream Act students, the immigrant rights movement and the Justice for Trayvon Martin movement.
I believe that we can learn from white anti-racists of the past and present and make powerful and important contributions to creating a multiracial democratic society based on equality and justice for all. I recently wrote a book called Towards Collective Liberation and one of the main themes running throughout it is the process of white people coming into consciousness about racism and moving into anti-racist action. For me, anti-racism isn’t something I do on behalf of other people, it’s a struggle for the heart and soul of our society, for my family, and for myself. Racism is a cancer in white society. I organize for social justice and do this work in part because I don’t want my son to grow up to fear and hate others based on the color of their skin, I want him to grow up in the proud tradition of white anti-racists like Abbey Kelley, Anne and Carl Braden, and people I talk with in my book, contemporary white anti-racist leaders like Molly McClure, Carla Wallace, Z! Haukeness, Amy Dudley, and Marc Mascarenhas-Swan. I also do this work because I know that when we come together across divisions and work for a better world, we begin creating that new world in the here and now. We build the beloved community, that Dr. King envisioned, when we act against injustice, stand on the right side of history, join with others in our community and around the world, and work for political, economic, cultural, and social change. This is how we honor Trayvon Martin, Emmet Till, and Renisha McBride. This is how we create the world we want to give to our children and grandchildren. This is how we live with purpose, vision and values to guide us. We can do it.
Tre’ Love, Safiyyah and Safiyyah | He brought his daughter out to his first protest so, “As she grows up I want her to know when there is injustice to stand up
Ayesha Forrest | First protest | Age 13
Marion The Last / Self described Pray Fast Warrior who prays that she and others gain “revolution knowledge and deliverance from evil
Chris Crass is a longtime social justice organizer who writes and speaks widely about anti-racist organizing, feminism for men, lessons and strategies to build visionary movements, and leadership for liberation. His book Towards Collective Liberation: anti-racist organizing, feminist praxis, and movement building strategy was recently published by PM Press.