Washington, DC – Trayvon Martin was just beginning his life. Trayvon Martin was a son. He was a high school junior, with college to look forward to, a career and perhaps a family of his own.
Trayvon Martin was many things, but for George Zimmerman, he was just Black.
The teenager’s race was enough to raise “suspicion” and trigger the neighbourhood watchman – who possessed no training or authority, except for his racist prerogatives – to murder an unarmed and frightened teenager running for his life.
On November 28, 2011, no other colour but his Blackness mattered – and his rush for safe haven was intercepted by Zimmerman, and the structurally entrenched demonisation of Black men codified in our laws, perpetuated by our police forces and subscribed to by our friends and colleagues, classmates and family members.
Trayvon Martin is not, as many writers and pundits commented following his death, “a reminder of American racism”. For Africans Americans and most people of colour, racism, xenophobia and religious animus are common, if not expected, parts of their daily lives.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, a twin set of correlated racisms prematurely ended his life: Zimmerman’s view that a young Black male must be engaged in criminal or thuggish activity by virtue of his race alone; and the neighbourhood watchmen and police alike who execute the structural racism embedded in police departments and penal systems nationwide in the name of the law.
The myth of the Obama era
The election of President Barack Obama, for white America, signalled the shift away from America’s racially charged past. After 2008, white Americans have contended that the United States is experiencing the embryonic stages of a post-racial moment; Martin’s murder is a reminder of the fatal consequences of racism that makes the headlines. Yet, the intermediary steps – the institutional racism and empowering of people like Zimmerman – to police our communities either formally or informally are not deemed newsworthy.
Racism, generally understood as a conscious perspective, action or decision, is a salient core of the US’ history and present. American racism is interwoven into the country’s narrative, codified in its law and entrenched in its institutions. Its authors and gatekeepers were, and are, still largely white.
Whites seldom experience racism, either in its fatal, frequent, or latent form. This constructs the political ideology that the rest of the US has entered this racism-free utopia. Citizenship to this colour-blind state, however, is denied to African Americans, Muslim Americans and Latinos by virtue of a triumvirate of suspicions: crime, terrorism and illegal immigration.
However, whites are not the only culprits of racism. On March 10, an Arab American gas station clerk on the Westside of Detroit gunned down and killed a 24-year-old African American customer after a dispute over the high-price of condoms. Racially charged crimes and murders between Latinos and Blacks are all too frequent, and the sometimes-explosive tension between Asian American and Arab American storeowners is well documented.
Institutional and structural racism is still robust in the US. This is evidenced by the disparate incarceration rates of brown and Black Americans, the decimation of affirmative action and race-conscious legislation in the US, the crumbling public education systems in minority-populated communities and the all too common cold blooded murders of people of colour – both in the US and beyond its boundaries, whether by policemen, neighbourhood patrolmen or soldiers.
The ‘worst of a national psychosis‘
Kumar Rao, a defence lawyer for the Bronx Defenders in New York City, stated that: “Martin’s killing reflects the absolute worst of a national psychosis: The view that Black males – young and old alike – are inherently threatening and unworthy of personal security; and that the state’s commitment to enduring that belief is perpetuated and institutionalised.”
Trayvon Martin’s murder was avoidable, but yet perversely justified through the cold silence of the state.
Zimmerman was a neighbourhood patrolman – not a police officer – but the distinction is thin in this instance. Some police officers, from Miami to Oakland, exhibit the same reckless and cavalier behaviour as Zimmerman. What is more troubling is that police officers and entire departments routinely cover up racially charged arrests, the roughing up of individuals under custody and operate with impunity under the cover of the law.
Yet, for Zimmerman, he had no such cover. This makes this case more absurd and baffling, particularly because he was given police orders to “discontinue his chase of Martin”, as revealed by 9/11 tapes released on March 19. If Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watchman – a volunteer with no training – had obeyed the policeman’s order, Martin would still be alive today.
Zimmerman ignored those order, and took the law into his own hands; he has still not been arrested.
The importance of Trayvon Martin’s is also based on the urgency of the current socio-political moment. The New York Police Department makes every Muslim in the City, whether Black or Arab, South Asian or Latino, targets of illegal spying or worse – unjust convictions of terrorism based solely on their religion and ethnicity. The fact that the NYPD so far as to label Black American Muslims as an “ancestry of interest” shows how far law enforcement would go to justify religious and ethnic profiling.
Connecting the dots
Arab and Muslim Americans in New York are connecting the dots – whether it is the stopping and frisking of young Black and Latino men or the illegal spying on the everyday aspects of Muslims, people of colour are being targeted by the largest police force in the country. In order to defeat the institutionalised racism of the NYPD and set a precedent for the rest of the country, we must build coalitions, connect our struggles and in unison demand accountability for our communities. None of us will win alone.
In June 2009, a Miami policeman shot and killed Husein Shehada, a 29-year-old Arab American, after an evening club-hopping with his brother and girlfriend. Shehada, like Martin, was unarmed and posed no threat. Yet, the white policeman, Adam Tavss, believed that Shehada’s ethnicity substantiated the suspicion to shoot and kill.
The value of Arab life – whether nameless Palestinian children bombed by American-funded fighter jets or American youth profiled, questioned and incarcerated for frequenting a particular mosque – is spiralling downwards rapidly in the US and at a more accelerated rate in the Arab World.
Trayvon Martin is not a martyr or a symbol of racial injustice. Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Malice Green or Ramaley Graham, are all other young African American men shot down and killed because of the colour of their skin and countless others that remain unnamed. Most recently, Troy Davis shook the nation as another victim of a broken justice system that continues to fail people of colour not one person at a time but through mass incarceration and mass conviction rates.
Trayvon Martin was his own person and an archetype of our brothers, our sons, our nephews, grandsons. Trayvon is Mohammed walking down Atlantic Avenue, vulnerable to patrolmen wary of his beard. Trayvon is Carlos, donning Dodger Blue in Pico Rivera, mistaken by the LAPD Gang Squad as a gangbanger because of the colour of his skin.
Linda Sarsour is Palestinian Muslim American, non-profit leader, public speaker and community organiser.
Follow her on Twitter: @Lsarsour
Khaled A Beydoun is a Washington, DC-based attorney and author.
Follow him on Twitter: @Legyptian
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.