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Monday, March 26, 2012

Outrage unites people of all colors, divide still exists

ORLANDO, Fla. – The rolling outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager in Sanford, Fla., has found an unifying slogan.

It was shouted by a young man with a raised fist in New York City. It was tweeted by country singer and gay activist Chely Wright. It was recited by a line of black youths on the steps of a Brevard County church and chanted by FAMU students in front of the Seminole County criminal court building.

It speaks to a feeling that transcends age and race: “I am Trayvon Martin.”

Across the country, whites can empathize, and mourn, along with blacks in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon. So can Hispanics and Asians. All can agree that what happened is tragic.

“A young man died. A 17-year-old has been shot and killed,” said Elizabeth Reichert, owner of The White Cup Coffeehouse in Sanford. “It’s just so unbearably sad.”

Similarly, black Deltona resident Ernie Slater said Trayvon’s killing brings tears to his eyes.

“I have grandkids, and it would upset me if something would happen to them,” said Slater, 67, a former juvenile detention superintendent and executive director of a Boys and Girls Club in Michigan. “A lot of things just don’t add up to a lot of people. Why is it so obvious to us and not to the Police Department?”

But beyond the common ground of sadness and outrage, whites and blacks diverge on the larger – and more delicate – issues of Trayvon’s death.

Katheryn Russell-Brown, director of the University of Florida’s Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations, said it’s natural for people to view crime through the lens of their own race and identify with victims who look most like them.

Whites might not understand the depth of the black community’s outrage over Trayvon Martin’s death any more than blacks understood the national obsession with Natalee Holloway or the disappearance of Jennifer Kesse, or the time, money and attention devoted to the Casey Anthony case.

“It’s who you see as a family member, who you could step into their shoes and it could be you,” Russell-Brown said.

In the face of Trayvon Martin, blacks see reflected back their own sons and brothers. Shirley Harris, a 72-year-old grandmother, feels a connection to Trayvon because of her own teenage grandson who lives in Orlando. She feels nervous each time he goes out.

“I hope to myself that Mikey gets back home safely,” she said. “I always tell him, ‘You have to be very careful. Obey all the rules when you’re driving, because if the police stop you, they might do something terrible to you.’ “

Blacks don’t see the “suspicious” black kid that George Zimmerman suspected as being up to no good Feb. 26. They see a child stigmatized as something he was not.

“He’s a good victim. He’s a representation for many African-Americans of what can happen even when this person, who hasn’t done anything wrong, still is seen with a criminal stigma,” Russell-Brown said.

And that makes Trayvon’s death a much more intimate experience for blacks than whites.

“It’s a visceral, heartfelt punch to the gut. It’s personal,” Russell-Brown said.

Trayvon’s death is the tragedy so many black parents hope to avoid when they sit down with their children – especially boys – for “the talk,” a code-of-conduct survival guide handed down from generation to generation.

It includes some variation of the following: Don’t talk back to the police. Don’t touch too many things in the store. Don’t run in public, and especially not while carrying something in your hands that might be mistaken for a weapon.

Add now to that: Don’t wear a hoodie.

New Jersey resident Marta Fernandez felt the same way in the 1980s when her own teenage son, who is half-black, wanted to wear an Adidas track suit like the rap group Run-DMC. Just as the hoodie sweat shirt has come to represent teenage hoodlums, the track suit was associated with rappers and gangsters.

“I told my son he couldn’t wear it, because the last thing I needed was for him to get shot on the subway,” said Fernandez, an anthropologist and mother of five children.

Race also alters how whites and blacks view the larger issues of Trayvon’s death – particularly the actions of law enforcement. Many whites are less inclined than blacks to interpret one act of injustice as an indictment of the police.

“You see this man in blue through different sets of eyes and different experiences,” said Julian Bond, historian and civil rights leader. “Generally speaking, the experience white people have with police is they are guardians of your safety. For many black people, it’s exactly the opposite. They are threats to your safety.”

Whites are more hesitant to condemn the Sanford Police Department’s decision not to arrest Zimmerman as a classic example of the double standard of justice applied depending on whether the killer is black or white.

Reichert said she doesn’t feel she has enough information to determine whether Zimmerman’s justification of self-defense was valid or contrived. She wants to see justice served, but she thinks that’s the job of law enforcement and the court system.

Her opinion was echoed up and down Sanford’s First Street by white merchants and customers who professed faith in a legal system that differs sharply with the perspective of black residents – who have expressed their distrust of Sanford police in meetings, rallies and protests demanding Zimmerman’s arrest.

“Demanding that somebody be arrested is subverting the process,” said a white 81-year-old Sanford resident who would only agree to speak frankly about the issue on the condition his name not appear in the paper. “It’s a law enforcement issue so let them handle it.”

For blacks, especially those raised in the South, the decision not to arrest Zimmerman is seen as solid proof of the justice double standard. But it goes even deeper than that.

It is a 21st-century reminder of the days between the Civil War and civil rights when whites who were not involved in law enforcement had de facto police power over blacks, said Daryl Michael Scott, professor of history at Howard University in Washington.

“This is not a criminal justice situation,” Scott said. “It’s about an individual white man who felt he was empowered to exercise police power over a black person.”

And that idea – a white man is within his rights to kill a black man – evokes everything from the terror of the Klan to the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955, to Bernhard Goetz, the “Subway Vigilante” acquitted for shooting four black teenagers in 1984 in self-defense.

“The white man is the law, he is a law unto himself,” Scott said. “That is the essence of what black people experienced until the civil rights movement.”

But just as some Southern whites objected to civil rights “outsiders” stirring up trouble in their communities, there are whites in Sanford who object to the demonstrations that have drawn black leaders such as NAACP President Benjamin Jealous and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

“Everybody just needs to cool it,” said the 81-year-old resident. “We don’t need trouble getting out of hand in the community here.”

Yet just as it took a mass movement to ensure the civil rights of blacks in America, a mass movement is under way to challenge what many blacks – and whites, Hispanics, young and old – perceive as a license to kill in the name of self-defense.

The more than 90,000 online signatures collected by ColorOfChange.org calling for an investigation of Trayvon’s killing and the lack of an arrest represented people of all races.

Executive Director Rashad Robinson said his black empowerment group is part of a nationwide movement to focus attention on the injustice taking place in Sanford.

“We know that our raised voices won’t bring their child back, but we’re committed to this growing effort to change the culture that allows such a tragedy to happen,” Robinson said in a written statement.

In New York, thousands joined in a “Million Hoodies March” on Wednesday, demanding the arrest of Zimmerman and justice for Trayvon.

But this is very much a movement unique to its time – an era of social media fueled by the speed of the Internet.

In just two weeks, Change.org collected more than a million online signatures. Young people have kept the issue alive in real time with thousands upon thousands of Twitter messages and Facebook postings.

Many call for Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution, while others seek prayer for Trayvon. Overwhelmingly, the messages call for justice:

“Right is right and WRONG IS WRONG no matter how you slice it!!! Justice NOW for #TrayvonMartin”

“Justice for #TrayvonMartin ... sign the petition for Geo Zimmerman’s arrest. God forbid if this happened to your child.”

In this way, Trayvon’s death transcends not only race, but time and geography as well. What happened in Sanford can’t stay in Sanford. There are no insiders or outsiders when it comes to justice. Blacks were the first to stand up, but they are not alone.

“They are not going to take this sitting down. No people would,” Scott said. “Groups cannot have power unto themselves against other groups. That is not good for a multiracial society.”