There are fewer things more difficult than watching a grown man cry.
The swelling tears of Trayvon Martin’s father, as he was interviewed by Al Sharpton on MSNBC’s Politics Nation this week, is a watershed moment that reveals the stark tragedy at the heart of a lost American Dream.
Trayvon, the 17-year old A-student and athlete, was gunned down in Sanford, Florida on Feb 26th by a neighborhood watch volunteer and wannabe police officer, George Zimmerman. Martin is dead because Zimmerman — in his own words — found the child “suspicious.” When pressed by a police dispatcher for what made the young man’s presence a cause for concern, Zimmerman said, “he’s a black male”.
Despite probable cause and an onslaught of media attention, Florida officials have filed no formal charges against Zimmerman, and no arrest has been made. Eric Holder’s U.S. Justice Department recently chose to launch a federal investigation alongside the FBI, following calls from the Congressional Black Caucus that there is sufficient evidence of a hate crime.
PRESIDENT OBAMA SPEAKS ABOUT TRAYVON MARTIN AT THE WHITE HOUSE
By all accounts, Trayvon was a model student and son, having saved his own father from a burning house at the tender age of 9 years old. According to the Orlando Sentinel, Martin’s English teacher described the young boy as “an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness.”
President Barack Obama waded into the national controversy over the child’s violent death. “My main message is to the parents,” Obama said in remarks outside the White House. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
Though measured, the subtext of Obama’s statement was easily understood, especially for an African-American community eager to hear him address the matter.
The president has always managed to discuss issues of race with a unique subtlety that seeks to avoid controversy while acknowledging the challenges inherent in America’s dark and tortured racial past. But, unlike his statement on the arrest of famed Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates, or the 2008 controversy concerning Rev. Jeremiah Wright, today’s message was more deeply personal.
“When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids,” Obama said, “And I think every parent in America should be able to understand why it is absolutely imperative that we investigate every aspect of this.”
The president concluded the nation should do some “soul-searching to figure out how something like this happens.”
The nuance of contradictions and divergent realities were most evident, as President Obama spoke from the Rose Garden. The very nation that elected its first African-American president still struggles with racial prejudice and violence so stark as to end the life of a child.Just 44 years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, this other young Martin has been murdered in cold-blood and denied the very freedom to which King’s dream aspired: namely, to be judged by the content of his character, not the color of his skin.
Unlike so many stories of violence against young black males, this one has struck a deep chord, sparking a national debate about gun laws and racial profiling.
The innocent, idyllic nature of the boy is largely responsible for the outcry, as Trayvon seems to represent the best in all of us: a bright, attractive youth, just on the cusp of life.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee announced Thursday he is “temporarily” stepping down after being criticized for his handling of the fatal shooting. But that did little to soothe the pain. Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, said at a rally: “We want an arrest, we want a conviction, and we want a sentence for the murder of our son.”
The case has opened a Pandora’s box of sorts, calling into question the apparent disregard and lack of respect both citizens and law enforcement have for the lives of African-American males.
The Sanford police department questioned Zimmerman and released him without charges, though 911 tapes reveal the dispatcher explicitly told the 28-year old not to pursue the young boy. Zimmerman instead left his car and confronted the child, who was likely scared and confused. Claiming self-defense, Zimmerman pulled a 9mm gun and admittedly shot the boy in the chest. Yet despite his confession, no background check was completed, and no alcohol or drug tests were initiated. Instead, this white male, reportedly of partial Hispanic descent, was allowed to walk away.
But what was Zimmerman defending himself against? Police reports show Trayvon was holding a bag of Skittles candy and a can of Arizona iced tea, as he headed back to watch basketball with his father and friends.
By not arresting Zimmerman, Florida authorities effectively sanctioned a Jim Crow-style lynching in the name of self-defense. This truth resonates deeply, especially with African-American men and boys who, as Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post explained, “carry the unfair burden and weight of other people’s suspicions.”
The absurd argument that Trayvon posed any danger to Zimmerman, and the Florida polices acceptance of that storyline, speaks to the warped, misguided view that black males are dangerous and foreboding simply by nature of their brown skin.
Of what is our Constitution made, when a promising young child is gunned down because his skin color causes “suspicion”? And worse, can the virtues of the 14th Amendment’s ‘Equal Protection Clause’ offer any safeguard when the assailant in question is allowed to go free?
What is a life worth, when there is no recompense or repercussion for the taking of it?
James Felton, a 67-year-old African-American father of four and grandfather of thirteen said, “I’m outraged. And my sons and daughters are as well. How can police show up, find the young boy dead, but let the man walk away? This is institutionalized racism. Some things never change. I tell my grandsons they must watch themselves, because there remains such a thing as walking while being black.”
Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law was used by local officials to justify their failure to arrest Zimmerman; but it is clear from the 911 tape, and the intent expressed therein, that Zimmerman was the perpetrator. Martin was the only person who could claim use of the “stand your ground” defense, considering he was being stalked, and subsequently attacked.
From the child’s perspective, Zimmerman could have easily been a pedophile, thief, or kidnapper. The law was put in place to guard Martin against that very kind of danger.
Not since the gruesome 1955 murder of 14-year old Emmett Till has a young black boy’s life been so cavalierly disregarded, while police authorities acquiesce in silence.
Julie Madison Jacoby, a white school-teacher, with more than 35 years experience mentoring inner-city kids, described the dilemma more broadly: “Yes, we have a black president, and his beautiful wife and children living in the White House, but there remains so much ignorance, lack of education and lack of experience. Racism and prejudice are born of ignorance, and the great sadness is that ignorance is still very much alive.”