Connecting the Dots that Lead to Trayvon Martin

Image by ABC News

It has been over a month now since seventeen-year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida.  By now many of the details of the shooting are familiar.  Zimmerman was armed with a handgun that he carried while patrolling the neighborhood.  Martin, wearing a hooded sweatshirt (or “hoodie”), was coming back from a quick trip to the store and had only a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea in his possession.  Zimmerman initially approached Martin, but claims that Martin then attacked him and broke his nose, which led Zimmerman to shoot Martin in the chest at close range.  Police arrived on the scene to find Martin dead.  They did not arrest Zimmerman or seek to administer any kind of test for alcohol or drugs.  They simply took his word that Martin had attacked him, and that he had acted in self-defense.  Florida’s “stand your ground” law that allows a person to use deadly force in self-defense without attempting to retreat when attacked has been cited as the reason the police did not arrest Zimmerman or even bring him in for questioning.  One more thing:  Zimmerman is white, Martin is black.

During the intervening month as more details concerning events surrounding the shooting have made their way into the press, national outrage over the incident has continued to mount.  More than one million signatures have been collected in online petitions calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.  “Hoodies” have appeared everywhere, from Capital Hill’s congressional staffers to pulpits across the nation as pastors and even entire choirs have donned the hooded sweatshirt as a symbol of protest and a call for justice to be done.

What would justice look like in this situation?  For many, it would mean the immediate arrest of George Zimmerman on charges of manslaughter and hate crime and bringing him to trial.  That of course will not give Trayvon Martin back his life, but would at least seem to satisfy the desire to see someone be punished for this crime.  I think there is more that needs to be done.  I think far more is at stake in the Trayvon Martin slaying than a solitary neighborhood watch volunteer taking the life of a seventeen-year old visiting his father in the neighborhood.  The fact that Zimmerman is white and Martin is black is simply too obvious to overlook.  I simply ask myself the question:  what if the racial identities had been reversed?  What if the neighborhood watch volunteer had been black and the victim of the shooting white?  Would the police have allowed a black man to just walk away?

Efforts being made in recent days to tarnish Martin’s image or raise questions about his character cannot hide the reality of racialized injustice.  Furthermore this incident stands in a much longer history of blatant violence against people of African descent.  We need to continue to connect this story to others that have come before.  These are not just unfortunate statistics we are talking about, not just vague abstractions regarding social prejudice and the exercise of white dominance or privilege.  We are talking about flesh and blood human beings, of men and women who have lived and continue to live within what can only be called a racist regime of terror.  Our nation has been overwhelmingly united over the past decade in opposing terrorism on the international front.  Why have we not been equally united in opposing the home-grown terrorism of racial profiling, structural inequalities, and unaddressed killing of people of African descent like the young man in the hoodie?

We need to connect the dots.  The killing of Trayvon Martin is not an isolated incident.  Neither is it but the latest in a long string of racialized violence that has led to the death of black men and women over the past several centuries in the United States.  It is connected to the case of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who is white, pointing her finger in the face of the President of the United States Barak Obama, who is black and of mixed African descent, while the two are standing on the tarmac of an airport.  It is connected to the fact that people of African descent and others who have been historically marginalized in the United States were disproportionately represented among those holding sub-prime mortgages, and have borne the brunt of the economic recession generally.  It is connected to the fact that the criminal justice system punishes people of African descent at a far higher rate than it does people of European descent who have committed similar crimes.  It is all connected in a long and sustained regime of terror that has held a significant number of people in the United States in its grips for more than four centuries.

Connect the dots in one way and all you see is the terror of this long and sustained history of racism, from the days of enslaved Africans being forced to labor in the fields of America, through the post-reconstruction period of Jim and Jane Crow, through a century of Civil Rights struggle, to the New Jim and Jane Crow, and ending up in the killing of Trayvon Martin.  Connect them in one way and a picture is bleak.  But connect them in a different way and you get a picture of pastors, politicians, grass-roots organizers, parents, children, grand-parents, celebrities, office workers, and many, many others donning hoodies, marching in demonstrations, converging on Sanford, Florida, showing up in Facebook, and signing petitions online to voice their refusal to allow this kind of terrorism to continue unaddressed.  Connect the dots in a different way and you spell a sustained commitment to justice that simply will not be silenced, and a hope that is grounded in the belief that God will one day make straight these crooked roads and lift up those who have been downtrodden.  Connect the dots and the hoodie becomes a sign of hope and a call to faithful remembrance that holds on to the promise of resurrection and a day of justice that is to come.

by Dale T. Irvin
President and Professor of World Christianity
New York Theological Seminary

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