Hate politics

Published : May 04, 2012 00:00 IST

Trayvon Martin, an undated file family photograph.-AP

Trayvon Martin, an undated file family photograph.-AP

The attack on Trayvon Martin is part of a larger pattern of violence against blacks in recent times in the United States.

If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursd lot.

Claude McCay, If We Must Die, 1919.

ON February 26, in Sanford, Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin walked to a shop in the early evening to buy some snacks. George Zimmerman, a man who fashioned himself as the civilian defender of this private gated community, spotted Martin. He began to tail him, called the police, and was told by them to retreat and to await a police car. Martin, on the phone with his girlfriend, told her that he was afraid because he was being followed. Zimmerman did not stop his pursuit. That much is clear. It is also clear that there was a scuffle, and that Zimmerman shot Martin with his 9-mm semi-automatic pistol (he was driving around with a concealed loaded gun, which is legal in the State of Florida). Martin died.

Zimmerman was not charged with murder. He took refuge behind a 2005 Florida law that is colloquially called the stand your ground statute. It permits anyone to defend himself or herself with lethal force if necessary when they feel imperilled. Zimmerman claimed that Martin was a threat to him. A 17-year-old who was walking down the street could only have been considered a threat to Zimmerman on one ground: Martin was a young black man. It is hardly a stretch of the imagination to recognise that if Martin had been white, Zimmerman would not have pursued him, and he might not have shot him.

Reaction to Martin's death was immediate. Outrage that Zimmerman was not arrested and charged with murder built on anger at the stand your ground law. When a particularly tone-deaf television personality said that the problem was not that Martin was black but that he was wearing the hood of his sweatshirt, protest marches across the country had people wearing hoodies in defiance. Congressman Bobby Rush of Chicago was expelled from the House of Representatives' chamber for wearing a hoodie; the Miami Heat basketball team donned hoodies in solidarity with Martin.

Martin's murder comes alongside a raft of similar vigilante assaults and police shootings against black bodies. In early February, an unarmed 18-year-old, Ramarley Graham, was pursued by the New York police for possession of a very small amount of marijuana and then shot and killed in his own bathroom. In that same week, in Chicago, the police shot at point-blank range 15-year-old Stephon Watts, whose autism prevented him from being properly subservient to the police officers. In early March, the Newburgh police shot and killed Michael Lembhard after an altercation about an arrest warrant. In late March, Kendrec McDade, an unarmed 19-year-old, was shot dead by the Pasadena police. That same week, 22-year-old Rekia Boyd was shot and killed by an off-duty Chicago police officer who had come to tell the young people to keep their youthful zest down. A few days later, 20-year-old Bo Morrison was killed by Adam Kind, who found Bo hiding from a police raid at an underage party in a neighbouring house in Madison, Wisconsin. No charges have been framed against Kind, who has taken refuge in the castle doctrine (Wisconsin's version of Florida's stand your ground statute). What all of these dead people have in common is that they were black, and they were young.

This is only a summary, and many more such murders seem to take place on a regular basis. Robin Kelley, Gary B. Nash Professor of American History at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), told this writer: The numbers of black men killed [in state violence or racist vigilante action or just for sport] haven't increased substantially than, say, last year or 2010, or 2009, or 2008. I was reminded of the wave of police shootings of unarmed black men by the Miami police just last year. These things blip in the media and then disappear. Indeed, violence against African Americans by the police has become routine, and violence against black youth has become sanctioned by the state and a dominant culture that refuses to shake off its white supremacist roots. One can draw a straight line from the brutal shooting by Bernard Goetz in 1984 of Darrell Cabey, Barry Allen, Troy Canty and James Ramseur (all 18 or 19 years old). Between that event and the present we have to go through the 41 bullets fired by the New York police that tore open the body of the 23-year-old Guinean American Amadou Diallo in 1999.

Tricia Rose, Professor of African Studies at Brown University, agrees that there might not be more such incidents now than there were over the course of the past decades. We are simply in the midst of one of the blips and silence might envelop these killings until the next spectacular episode. Nevertheless, Tricia Rose offers three important elements that help us understand why there appear to be an increase in attacks on black bodies, and certainly an increase of hostility towards black bodies. These three reasons are the economic crisis, the rhetoric unleashed by the Republican primary, and a general backlash against democracy. News of an improved jobs situation in the United States is belied by high rates of unemployment, discouraged workers (who have left the unemployment rolls) and vulnerable workers (who fear that they will lose their jobs). Personal debt rates are near record highs, with student debt now over $1 trillion and mortgage debt perilous for most people (the rate of underwater mortgages is now over 20 per cent, which is to say that one-fifth of homeowners owe more on their homes than they are actually worth).

Anger at the failure of the government to do anything to turn around the stagnancy of hopelessness has certainly given fuel to the Tea Party and to the festering anxiety among the shrinking middle class that its future is far bleaker than anticipated at what had appeared to be the trough of the Great Recession (in 2009).

Dire news for the white middle class, Tricia Rose suggests, must be part of the context. The level of economic crisis, social fragility and the nagging fear it generates could very well encourage well-trod emotional avenues for blaming and fearing black bodies, she said. The historical pattern of policing and doing violence to black bodies as a release valve for white (and white-identified) feelings of fear for safety and stability is long-standing. Professor Amy Wood from Illinois State University, author of Lynching and Spectacle: Witnessing Racial Violence in America, 1890-1940, agrees. In the past, we know that episodes of racial violence rose at times of economic distress. So, for instance, lynching rates had been steadily decreasing throughout the 1920s, but then rose again in 1930, at the onset of the Great Depression.

The Republican Primary

Bakari Kitwana, author of Hip Hop Activism in the Obama Era, says that the conservatives went tooth and nail after Barack Obama from the day he took office. They began to work overtime to divide the coalition that elected him by focussing on old wounds, race being one of several easy targets, Kitwana told this writer. Indeed, not long after Obama took the presidency, the Tea Party appeared as his challenger. The core base of the Tea Party continues to believe that Obama is an illegitimate President on deeply troubling grounds: that he was not born in the U.S. (the Birthers) and that he is a Muslim (half of Alabama's Republican voters believe that this is the case, and they also believe that this is a problem). Both of these claims are false (he was born in Hawaii, and he is a Christian). The Republican Party hastily mined a seam of racist anxiety about Obama.

During the primary battle for who will be the Republican challenger to Obama, these barely coded racial anxieties have been on full display. As Tricia Rose puts it, The lengthy and highly charged and deeply conservative Republican primary season has emboldened the largely quiet but still quite potent sleeping giant of anti-black hate or fear. [Newt] Gingrich, [Rick] Santorum and [Ronald] Paul spent a good deal of energy using racist and coded neo-racist frames to energise their nearly entirely white supporters. This kind of foment encourages collective behaviour among those who are predisposed to racist acts, including violence. At a campaign event, Santorum seems to have almost used a racist obscenity, and when he was at a shooting range, a woman yelled that she wished the target were Obama at such moments Republican candidates have not challenged their base. Their silence gives legitimacy to the return of racism.

In some cases, it is not even silence. Obama, Amy Wood notes, a black President, is the symbol of the supposed redistribution of resources to the poor something that is simply not happening, with the Obama administration largely continuing the long-standing policy of upward redistribution of social wealth. Nevertheless, this hallucination that the liberal presidency is taking from the white workers to give to the black indigents (the welfare queens, as in the days of Ronald Reagan) compounds the anger, fear and resentment. This is the basis of Newt Gingrich's race-baiting charge that Obama is the best food stamp President in American history'. In fact there is a crisis in the food stamp sector, and so acute hunger has grown.

Backlash against democracy

One of the habits of the American Right has been to deny racial minorities the vote. During the Civil Rights movement, it was the question of the vote that bedevilled those who felt that they had the most to lose. If they allowed blacks and other minorities the franchise, this might turn out to be the death knell of white supremacy. Over the past two decades, methods of disenfranchisement of the black and Latino vote have been ingenious. Voter ID cards, disinformation about polling booths, voter fraud initiatives and so on have been part of the arsenal of the American Right. Add to this the massive growth of police forces and prisons (the U.S. has the highest per capita incarceration rate) and the denial of rights to former convicts, and you get what Michelle Alexander calls the new Jim Crow, the new forms of American apartheid. The Right knows that the black community is a staunch constituent of the Democratic Party, even when that party does little to transfer power and resources to African Americans. To attack the political rights of the African-American population is a clear way of undermining the political fortunes of the Democrats. But these very attacks on minority and poor communities, Tricia Rose notes, grow out of and then embolden the negative and threatening associations of race and poverty with social decay, which in turn trigger the kind of racially motivated responses from the police and others. The attack on the rights of blacks leads to a denial to blacks of their rights.

Things are not all that bleak. Adam Green, Professor of History at the University of Chicago, notes that the organising by African-American and Latino communities against gun violence and police violence provides a window into a new sensibility in these communities. It is their persistence that has brought many of the otherwise ignored cases to notice, and it is what keeps these stories alive despite the shabby treatment by the justice system. But the way forward is not clear. We in this country can barely acknowledge our mass homicidal error in invading Afghanistan or Iraq, Green says, so clearly we are going to have that much more difficulty taking responsibility for liquidating our industrial system, divesting from our public schools, and gutting vital services (not least of which are those related to trauma and public health) so that our youth are left abandoned, as well as hunted because they dare to give voice to a justified resentment.

Silence is the great enemy of people like Trayvon Martin. Thank goodness for others, Green notes, beginning with [Trayvon's] parents and local folk, including students from Florida A&M, who built awareness about the case for two weeks before the story finally went national. Yet again, it provides a testament to the effectiveness of activist organising in a year that has re-established its power.

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