An African American blog of politics, culture, and social activism.
Black boys became criminalized. I was in constant dread for their lives, because they were targets everywhere. They still are. ~Toni Morrison
Perhaps, one day, we will think of Trayvon Martin in the same vein we think of Emmett Till. The publicity surrounding Till’s murder so horrified black America that it galvanized a generation to mobilize through direct action on behalf of civil and human rights. Till did not die in vain thanks to the courage of his mother, Mamie Till Mobley. She allowed an open casket at Till’s funeral. The distorted mangled face and body would be publicized in Jet, according to Mobley, so that “all the world [could] see what they did to my son!”
Till’s death was the match that lit and inflamed black Americans to over turn Jim Crow’s personal debasement and fear. Till was not the only one to be heinously murdered. Throughout the South unprovoked black murders were daily occurrences. Nine years earlier, in 1946, in Monroe, Georgia an angry white mob killed George Dorsey, 28, his wife Mae Murray Dorsey, 23, his sister, Dorothy Dorsey Malcom, 20, and Roger Malcom, 24. Neither the local police nor the FBI did much in this assault. Nor is Martin’s case the only egregious case of a racist killing in the United States, the murderous hit and run killing of James Anderson in Mississippi was recently resolved. However, maybe, just maybe, Martin’s case will be flammable enough to galvanize us to fight against the criminalizing black Americans. Trayvon’s life and death were determined by imaging him to be a criminal.
The criminalization of black Americans throughout the 20th century is a staggering, as well as burdensome, historical legacy that began with the convict-leasing system. Trayvon’s murder must be placed in a greater material and intellectual context that includes eugenics, I.Q. testing and even Richard Wright’s Native Son’s characterization of Bigger Thomas. A variety of scholars—Michelle Alexander, Cheryl Hicks, Khalil Muhammad, Randall Kennedy, and Douglas Blackmon have recently put the 20th century criminalization of black Americans in historical and legal perspective. These scholars are must read for all of us who wish to add depth of understanding to their rightful anger and disenchantment with social forces that punish black Americans disproportionately through incarceration and random police shootings.
Although, these engaged scholars have given us critical understanding they are not movement organizers. Analysis is essential to our understanding and informs our movement activities, but analysis alone does not make a movement.
The protest and outrage around the horrible policing in Sanford, Florida has been tremendous and an important intervention into a terrible injustice. Protest has forced the state of Florida to intervene into the case and now George Zimmerman, the alleged murderer of Trayvon, will be brought to trial for 2nd degree murder. This protest has planted the seeds of a movement and we must water it.
Trayvon’s death must lead to a national movement and not simply a fair criminal trial in Florida. This movement must begin by challenging the Florida’s laws on the books that give credence to stand your ground law. The thousands upon thousands who have photographed themselves in hoodies must do more. Here are a few concrete suggestions to start a movement against black criminalization:
It is important that Trayvon Martin’s tragic death, like Emmet Till’s before, inspire oura generation to overturn laws as Dr. Clarence Lang suggested on Monday that began with the “war on drugs.” Criminal laws alongside of deindustrialization have been ruinous to the lives of young black people. Let us hope and work to make Trayvon’s murder an important signpost of our struggle against black criminalization. This young man’s untimely death must be our bloody flag galvanizing and mobilizing us to build a new society where any youngster can walk down an American street without being a suspect or a profiled as a sinister fantastical image.