Looking Back and Looking Forward: Trayvon & the Quest for Justice

mother child

People who know me know that I am not a particularly emotional person.  I’ve been known to raise my voice in the work context, but more often because I am not being heard than in anger.  Though I have had moments … those could be the subject of another post. Believe me, though, when I say that last night’s verdict was devastating.  Devastating to someone who has spent most than two decades working for justice:  for women, for immigrants, for people of color, for lgbt people, for Native people, for survivors of domestic and sexual violence and stalking, for people with disabilities, for poor people.  But more than that, it was personally devastating because I am the mother of a black son, and the proud aunt of 3 black nephews.

I guess I’m this upset because I unwittingly drank the Kool-Aid.  Some of my friends and colleagues have been saying for weeks, actually, that the trial was already over and that Zimmerman would go free.  I couldn’t believe that.  I simply could not let myself believe it.  To do so would be to negate my son’s simple humanity; his right to exist.  As he often does, Alex asked me this morning, “are you alright, mommy?”  “No,” I answered him … “no, I am not.”    And I began to explain how our judicial  system  failed us yesterday.  In all honesty, though, it’s impossible to explain to a 5 year how awful, how terrible, how unjust and simply inhumane yesterday’s decision was.  I take this decision very personally, not only as the mother of a little black boy, but simply as a mother.  Because I was holding out hope that the women on that jury who were mothers could  see that they shared a common badge of motherhood with Sybrina Fulton.  Could give her some small measure of peace despite the fact that no decision they made would ever give her the one thing she truly wanted.  But I was wrong.  We’ll likely never know what those women saw, or thought or believed, but it is pretty apparent that did not, would not or could not bring themselves to acknowledge that the case was centrally about the murder of someone’s child, someone’s son.  I’m not sure they acknowledged Trayvon’s humanity at all.  What they did do was to ratify the lawless vigilante mentality that is enshrined in a stand your ground law.  They made it ok to kill a young unarmed black boy because you find him threatening and believe that he has no business walking through your neighborhood, even if he lives there.  They made it ok, to stalk and confront these “threats” in the middle of the night, then claim victimhood for yourself when an altercation ensues and you take a human life, even after you’re told to stay in your car.  They made it ok to devalue the life of a kid, who was doing what kids do — coming home from the store after getting a snack, and talking on the phone.

A friend asked if I was okay last night, and I responded that I wasn’t.  I’m still not.  Not only because Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton were denied the simple measure of justice that they deserved, but because I fundamentally do not know what I am supposed to tell my son, and how I am supposed to keep him safe. Don’t get me wrong.  There is quite literally a near formula  for what you tell young black males about how to carry themselves, how to stay out of trouble and show respect for authority, and how low the expectations of the justice system — particularly in the south– are where they are concerned.   But I feel that I won’t have told him enough if that’s all that I share.

I won’t have done my job well until Alex knows that the justice system itself — the system represented by justice blindfolded– is a system that was designed to mistrust him, label him, and to protect others from him.  I will have to tell him about how, when he was two, he let himself out of our townhouse in suburban Virginia.  How I discovered our front door ajar and him nowhere to be seen.  How five minutes later I, saw and flagged down a police officer just as I was about to dial 911.  As it turned, out, she was responding to a call from someone who had found him and taken him to their apartment.  Ultimately, I found myself explaining to a second officer  that I had been getting ready for work while Alex, who I’d left playing in the living room, had let himself out and that, no, it hadn’t happened before. And then “IT” happened.  The “it” that I will have to impress upon Alex over and over until he understands it reflexively.  The very “it” that happened in the Zimmerman trial happened to me as I stood on the sidewalk talking to the policeman.  I, the person who had sought his help, who had thought that he was there to help me, became the suspect.  The suspicious party.  The person on trial.  The policeman suggested that I had been negligent, had let Alex wander away, and added to that that I was not behaving as the many other mothers in similar circumstances with whom he’d interacted had behaved.  I had not only become a bad mother, I had become the anti-mother, someone who had wronged her child, rather than someone who had sought his help.  Given that I was standing in northern Virginia having this tete a tete, you may imagine that the majority of the other moms to whom he referred were white.  And here I was, being told by the people to whom I was looking for assistance that not only had I “allowed” Alex to escape, but that I was failing to react the right way.  Until and unless I can drive home with Alex that this is the skepticism with which people of color generally, and in particular young black men are greeted by law enforcement, I will have failed him.  I note with some irony that women are often taken less seriously when they react hysterically or emotionally, but that I was being viewed suspiciously by the cop precisely because I was not reacting that way.  Until he understands that as in that situation, cops are not there to protect us, but to protect others from us, my job will not be done.  Let me be clear:  I have cops in my family.  My point is not that all cops mistrust, or mistreat, or violate their oaths to the public (a la Rodney King, the LA rampart), but that you have no way of knowing which one you’ll get, so you must meet and treat them with equal parts of suspicion and respect. It’s worth pointing out that the cop in this story was black.  So, if he wasn’t able to see my humanity or to see me as a worried mother despite the fact that I wasn’t falling apart, I’m not sure who would have been better placed to do so.

trayvon emmit

As I said to a friend last night:  “Tonight, we grieve.  Tomorrow, we plot a revolution.”  And tomorrow is upon us, good people, so it is time to rise and make our voices heard so that Trayvon, Emmit Till and the thousands of other Trayvons and Emmits whose names we will never know, will not have died, been profiled, or stopped and frisked in vain.  We do this first by showing up. Show up when Planned Parenthood clinics are being picketed, when Donald Trump is meeting with the RNC , when Arabs and Muslims are being profiled and harassed on planes, or when trans folks are being harassed about which bathroom they use. And be clear:  if you are silent, you are saying you are ok with the status quo.  If you are silent about NC, then you are ok with domestic and sexual violence survivors being at risk if NC’s bigotry costs survivors access to the services that the Violence Against Women Act requires be made available in a non-discriminatory way.

Most importantly, show up by embracing community and acknowledging that if the George Zimmermans of the world have carte blanche to harm Sabryna’s child, then mine is not safe; if LGBT people in NYC are being profiled, then injustice against them is injustice against me;  and if a survivor of violence can be jailed for 20 years for firing a warning shot into a ceiling to defend herself against an abuser against whom she had a protective order, then none of us is safe; if brown people in the southwest can be stopped on suspicion of “looking foreign” then all our rights are at risk; if Arabs and Muslims, and South Asians are being harassed because they are “deemed” to be a threat to security, then no one is secure.   The next thing we do is organize, organize, organize so that the rubber stamps who keep mindlessly enacting these dangerous stand your ground laws gets voted out of office, and someone with an encompassing vision that sees us and embraces our communities gets elected, instead.

As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere, is a threat to justice everywhere.”  The time for talking the talk is long over.  Where and how will you be counted?  When your children, your nieces, nephews, grandchildren or community ask for your help, what will you say?  When they ask what you did after the Trayvon verdict, what will your answer be?  Stand up and be counted as if our children’s lives depended on it … because they do.

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5 thoughts on “Looking Back and Looking Forward: Trayvon & the Quest for Justice

  1. I couldn’t stop thinking about his parents last night, especially his mother. I don’t know what it is to be the mother of a black son, but I do know what is to be a mother. Your words are powerful and your determination even more so. Love you and Alex.

    • I can’t imagine their pain. I think they are committed to seeing this through, though, and ensuring that something is done. You are the “mother of other,” too, and understand well what it is to deal with all the preconceptions. Love to you, Way & the boys.

  2. Words continue to be inadequate when I think of the two parallel trials that took place in FL, one resulting in not guilty and the other in a 20 year sentence. I’m tired of the battle; I’m tired of the 3/5 foundation, the false necessity of a war that killed of 500,000 Americans, the continuing presence of Jim Crow, know nothingness, violence, and exceptionalism; and I want to withdraw into agnosis. But that is not an option. It is not an option because of the consequences to my children, to your wonderful child, for your three extraordinary nephews. It is not an option when I think that all are children of God. I don’t know where and what. I know that racism, sexism, and all the “isms” too numerous to list. It takes determination, intent, and long-term thinking to transform. So a revolution must begin again or, perhaps, the revolution started some 2000 years ago in Jerusalem needs to be lived. Thank you for your words, Lisa. You help me in ways that you do not know.

    • You covered a proverbial “multitude of sins,” there, Murdock! Well said. We still have a lot of work to do … another thing to add to the list would be stopping the nimrods in your NC legislature from sucking the life out of your state with all their crazy legislation. Am so worried about the schools, in particular …

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