The Murder of Trayvon Martin

trayvon2

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Paul Laurence Dunbar, We Wear the Mask

trayvon1The first stanza of Dunbar’s poem articulates  the racial anxieties felt by black Americans in the late nineteenth century. Tragically, this poem and its sentiments are as timely now as they were in 1896, the same year the Supreme Court ruled in favor of institutionalized racial segregation with Plessy v. Ferguson.  Now, in our supposedly “post-racial” society, issues of racial bias and profiling have sprung into the national discourse with the killing of an unarmed young man in Florida by an armed neighborhood watchman.

Corporate media conglomerates like MSNBC and FOX News immediately politicized the killing of Trayvon Martin, selectively hiding facts and starting rumors that fit each channel’s predetermined ideological stance. For MSNBC, this case is one of a murdered young black man at the hands of a racist white vigilante. For FOX, the tragedy in this case lies mostly in the “mainstream media’s” rush to judgment.  Hosts like Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly proactively obfuscate the facts by smearing the victim through character assassinations that have no bearing on the case. Even more offensive, these figureheads blame the victim for his death, attributing the killer’s violence to natural fear of a young black man wearing a hoodie.

These are the facts as we know them. Armed with just a bag of Skittles candy, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is talking to his girlfriend on the phone as he walks to his father’s girlfriend’s house around 7 p.m. in the rain. He senses that he is being followed by a man in a car and tells his girlfriend. She tells him to run, but he calmly says that he’ll just keep heading home. In what appears to be a shortcut, he goes through the back public walkway only to see that the man who was following him in the car has gotten out and is now trailing him on foot. The man is George Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood watchman 40 pounds heavier than Trayvon, with a history of domestic violence and a prior arrest for attacking a police officer.

Zimmerman is upset over recent robberies in his neighborhood. He calls the police to make them aware of the situation.  In the recording of his call it is clear that he suspects Trayvon may be the thief. The dispatcher asks if George is following him and George says that he is. The dispatcher tells George to stop. Instead, George gets out of his car and continues to follow Trayvon back through the public walkway. Neighbors report seeing a larger man on top of another man and hearing a shrill cry for help before a shot. Independent voice analysts have since claimed that the voice could not be George’s. When police arrive at the scene they find George Zimmerman with an alleged broken nose and a mark on the back of his head; at the time of this writing, released police videos only show the mark and don’t give indication of further harm.  Trayvon Martin has been shot dead.

Florida has a law called “Stand Your Ground,” that gives legal immunity to killers who claim self-defense. This was Zimmerman’s claim. For weeks, no arrest was made. Only under growing mass pressure, protests, public outrage, and polarization were charges of second-degree murder filed against Zimmerman. The hypocrisy is revolting. Over 2.2 million Americans are incarcerated, and another 5 million are on parole, with blacks making up a far higher proportion of those under “correctional supervision” than the rest of the population. Who can doubt that if the roles had been reversed, and it was Trayvon who had shot and killed an unarmed white teenager, that he would have been in police custody that very day? And yet, Zimmerman walked free for nearly 2 weeks.

Racism is deeply institutionalized in this country’s misnamed “justice” system. Sure, there is plenty of justice to be had—as long as you have enough money to buy it. The United States is a bourgeois democracy. By definition, this means that there is democracy and justice for the bourgeois—for the rich. But for the workers and the poor, justice is all-too-often an empty word. And if you are also black or Latino, the injustice is compounded even further. This discrepancy did not go unnoticed, and spontaneous protests were organized around the country. Americans are increasingly aware that this is a system in which the color of your skin determines your right to a trial or the ease with which you can claim immunity.

The Trayvon Martin case has again brought the question of race and racism in America to the forefront. Many naively believed that simply by electing a black president, racism would magically disappear. The issue is not that simple. Racism is used to divide and conquer the working class, to divert our attention from the real problems facing us. Instead of fearing and fighting against the cuts, austerity, and crisis that capitalism rains upon us daily, we are instead taught to fear and fight each other. Working class unity is the only way to fight against the poison of racism and its root cause. Malcolm X put it best when he said, “You can’t have capitalism without racism.” We would add: “You can’t have racism without capitalism.”


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