For far too long, violence targeting young people of color has been tolerated, even condoned, in the United States. The killing of Trayvon Martin is part of a horrific history—one that can only be stopped if all of us, of all colors, take a stand. That means standing up to individual acts of violence, but also to systematic efforts to make our laws friendly to big corporations that profit from guns and violence.
Slavery was where it all started, of course. But Reconstruction, when former slaves were promised opportunities for education, full citizenship, and livelihoods, gave way quickly to a backlash that returned many former slaves to miserable conditions and forced labor. Michelle Alexander, in her book, The New Jim Crow, recounts how variably enforced laws—vagrancy, for instance—were used to lock up large numbers of African Americans for nothing more than walking while black. Convicts were often forced into labor not unlike that of slaves, leased out to plantations, railroads, lumber camps, and corporations.
African Americans who found fault with this system—or who committed such infractions as daring to succeed in business or failing to yield to a white person on a sidewalk—could find themselves dead, victims of domestic terrorist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan.
Fast forward to February 26, 2012, when Trayvon Martin, age 17, returning to his father’s fiancée’s home in Sanford, Fla., after buying a bag of candy and an iced tea, was followed by a neighborhood watch member, shot, and killed.
Although he admitted killing Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman has not been arrested. Under Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, the use of deadly force is allowed if someone “reasonably believes” it is necessary to prevent harm or to avert a “forcible felony.”
What can we, the American people, do to put an end to this violence?
As a starting point, the man who killed Trayvon Martin must be arrested and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. We must send a strong signal to other would-be murderers that we don’t tolerate vigilante violence.
The police and prosecutors who failed to pursue this case should be investigated, and, if it is found that they failed to enforce the law or conducted a cover-up, they should be dismissed and, if appropriate, prosecuted. The federal Department of Justice must maintain oversight and assure that justice is done.
Stand Your Ground laws across the nation must be overturned. These laws are vague and too easily interpreted as condoning violence by those who believe that the simple presence of a person of color in their neighborhood constitutes a threat. Allowing the use of deadly force because someone “reasonably believes” it is necessary to prevent harm is an open invitation to vigilantism. Indeed, self-defense killings have nearly tripled in Florida since the law took effect.
And we should challenge the role ALEC is playing in this ramping up of gun violence. Paul Krugman reports in his Sunday New York Times column that ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) is pressing state legislatures across the country to adopt Stand Your Ground or similar laws that offer impunity to those who shoot first and ask questions later. ALEC is dominated by large corporations, including gun dealers like Walmart, and groups like the National Rifle Association.
The only silver lining to this tragic episode is that it has caused massive expressions of outrage and revulsion, calling attention to the dangerous discrimination that young men of color, like Trayvon, face every day.
Some are attempting to justify Trayvon’s killing by pointing to minor infractions and old stereotypes of scary black youth to portray the 17-year-old as dangerous. But teenagers from all communities have their squabbles with authority—it’s black teenagers, though, who are most often victims of violence. They're also the most often taken to the ground by police forces over-eager to arrest and charge youth of color, but, at least in this case, reluctant to do so when the victim is black. Imagine, if you will, the attitude if the racial profiles in this situation were reversed.
Student walkouts and street protests have erupted from Florida to Seattle, where thousands marched on Sunday, many wearing hoodies and carrying Skittles candy and cans of iced tea—the snacks Trayvon was carrying when he was shot. Churchgoers, pro basketball players, lawmakers, and others are wearing hoodies as signs of solidarity with Trayvon Martin. The Change.org petition by Trayvon Martin’s parents now has over 2 million signatures, making it the fastest growing petition in the site’s history.
The “soul searching” that President Obama called for last Friday is something everyone can do. But beyond that, we must insist that our law, and our law enforcement, treat every human being with respect and protect all of us. It may be small comfort to his family, but if, as a result of all this, young people of color can grow up without facing random violence from those who fear their very existence, then Trayvon Martin’s death won’t be in vain.