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Trayvon Martin Had To Be Guilty Of Something, Right?

A few words on the innocence of Trayvon Martin.

The very idea will outrage certain people. Experience says the notion of Trayvon Martin being innocent will offend them deeply.

But they can get over it. Or not.

Because it is five years now since Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin’s unarmed son died. Five years since he was killed in Sanford, Florida by a neighborhood watchman who dubbed him, on sight, a “f—— punk” and one of “these a–holes.”

Five years. And there are things that need saying. His divorced parents say much of it in Rest In Power, their new book about the tragedy.

“My son had been intensely alive!” writes Martin. “My son had been a life force, a teenager who had hopes and dreams and so much love. But in death, he became a figure we could only see through the dark mirror of evidence and testimony, a cursed single night when our son and all that life inside him was reduced to a stranger, a black kid in a hoodie, a young man in the shadows. A suspect.”

George Zimmerman was the first to make that reduction when he stalked Trayvon through a gated community despite a police dispatcher advising him to stay with his car. Then the police did it, testing the shooting victim for drugs and alcohol while telling his killer to “go home and get some rest.” Then the jury did it when they set Zimmerman free.

Much of America did it, too. One reader wrote — without a shred of evidence — that Trayvon was “casing” houses when he was shot. This was a boy walking back from 7-Eleven to watch a basketball game at his father’s girlfriend’s house.

Another person, upset that family photos made Trayvon look too young and, well … innocent, forwarded a chain email showing a tough-looking man, with beard and mustache, tats on his hands and face, insisting, “This is the real Trayvon.” It was actually the real Jayceon “Game” Taylor, a then-32 year old rapper.

Supplied with a death scene image of Trayvon — darker skin than Taylor, younger, slimmer, no facial hair, no visible tats — the woman was unmoved. “They’re both Trayvon,” she insisted.

Because Trayvon could not, at all costs, be innocent. The very idea was a threat.

So people embraced absurdities. Like a 140-pound boy jumping a man 12 years older and 50 pounds heavier. Like the boy hitting the man 25 or 30 times and bashing his head against concrete, though Zimmerman’s “injuries” amounted to a bloody nose and scratches on the back of his head that needed no stitches. Like Trayvon, shot point blank in the heart, dying like a villain in some 1950s western, groaning, “You got me.”

They seized upon his suspension from school. For them, it proved not that he was an ordinary boy who needed — and was receiving — the guidance of two loving parents. No, it proved he was not, could never be, innocent. Trayvon was no angel, they would announce triumphantly.

But why did he have to be? And why was there no similar requirement of the killer, who had been arrested once for scuffling with a police officer and had been the subject of a domestic-violence restraining order? The answer is too obvious for speaking.

Five years ago, a black boy was shot for nothing. And many Americans made him a blank screen upon which they projected their racialized stereotypes and fears.

They could not allow him to be a harmless child walking home. No, they needed his guilt.

They knew what it proved if Trayvon Martin was innocent.

Namely, that America was anything but.

IMAGE: This undated file family photo shows Trayvon Martin. Martin was slain in the town of Sanford, Fla., on Feb. 26 in a shooting that has set off a nationwide furor over race and justice. 

America Rarely Lets You Forget That You’re Black

So I had myself an epiphany.

Actually, that’s not quite the right word. An epiphany is a moment of sudden clarity, but mine rolled in slowly, like dawn on a crystal morning.

I’m not sure when it began. Maybe it was in 2012 when Trayvon Martin was killed and much of America held him guilty of his own murder. Maybe it was in 2013 when the Voting Rights Act was eviscerated and states began hatching schemes to suppress the African-American vote. Maybe it was on Election Day. Maybe it was a few weeks later, when a South Carolina jury deadlocked because the panel — most of them white — could not agree that it was a crime for a police officer to shoot an unarmed black man in the back. Could not agree, even though they saw it on video.

I can’t say exactly when it was. All I know is that the dawn broke and I realized I had forgotten something.

I had forgotten that I am black.

Yes, I know what the mirror says. And yes, I’ve always known African Americans face challenges — discrimination in health, housing, hiring, and a racially biased system of “justice,” to name a few. But I think at some level, I had also grown comfortable in a nation paced by Oprah, LeBron, Beyonce, and Barack. The old mantra of black progress — two steps forward, one step back — had come to feel … abstract, something you said, but forgot to believe.

So when we hit this season of reversal, I was more surprised than I should have been. I had forgotten about being black. Meaning, I had forgotten that for us, setback is nothing new.

Right after the election, as I was grappling with this, I chanced to see this young black woman — Melissa “Lizzo” Jefferson — on “Full Frontal With Samantha Bee,” and she performed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the “Negro National Anthem.” Something about that song always gets to me. Something about it always stirs unseen forces, shifts something heavy in my soul.

“Lift Every Voice” was written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900. That was 23 years after the Republicans sold out newly freed slaves, resolving a disputed election by striking a backroom deal that made Rutherford B. Hayes president on condition he withdraw from the South federal troops who had safeguarded African-American rights and lives since the end of the Civil War. It was five years after the first “grandfather clause” disenfranchised former slaves by denying the ballot to anyone whose grandfather did not vote. It was four years after the Supreme Court blessed segregation.

And it was a year in which 106 African Americans were lynched — a routine number for that era.

Yet in the midst of that American hell, here was Johnson, exhorting his people to joy.

Lift every voice and sing

Till Earth and heaven ring

Ring with the harmonies of liberty

Let our rejoicing rise

High as the listening skies

Let it resound,

Loud as the rolling sea.”

Lord, what did it take to sing that song back then?

I pondered that as the year deepened into December, as Christmas came and went, as the ball dropped in Times Square. Now here it is Black History Month, and I know again what I had somehow forgotten.

I had forgotten that we’ve been here before, that our history is a litany of people pushing us back after every forward step. I had forgotten that it long ago taught us how to weave laughter from a moan of pain, make a meal out of the hog’s entrails, climb when you cannot see the stairs, and endure.

I had forgotten that America is still America — and I am still black.

But it won’t happen again.

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama (R) is joined onstage by first lady Michelle Obama and daughter Malia, after his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois, U.S. January 10, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Did We Expect Too Much From Obama On Race?

With less than two weeks to go before Barack Obama vacates the White House, an apparently racially motivated crime has once again ignited debate about how race relations have changed under America’s first African American president.

In Chicago, four African Americans have been charged with kidnapping, beating and tormenting a mentally disabled young white man whom they bound and gagged. They live-streamed the victim’s shockingly cruel ordeal on Facebook.

At one point during the attack, one of the perpetrators cursed “white people” and President-elect Donald Trump. Based on this and/or perhaps his disability or some other evidence, authorities have charged the suspects with hate crimes.

When asked by a Chicago reporter to comment on the incident, Obama called it a hate crime and “despicable.” Yet, in the measured tones that he has always brought to the sensitive issue, he disagreed with the contention that race relations have become worse in his adopted hometown.

As anyone can attest who was around in Chicago in 1985, when Obama first came to Chicago, there’s no question that they have improved. Harold Washington, Chicago’s first black mayor and a progressive reformer, was besieged by hostile white aldermen in an atmosphere of frank racial animosity. A notorious Chicago Police commander was torturing black suspects to extract false confessions in a series of murder cases. Thanks to gerrymandering, blacks and Latinos were underrepresented in the city council.

Whatever its problems today, race relations in Chicago have come a long way since then — which was Obama’s point to the reporter.

Another change is that mobile phone cameras and social media have made the visuals of various crimes and violent incidents widely available to the public; for the better and, perhaps in some cases, for the worse. Violent crime rates have broadly declined in America since three decades ago — even in Chicago! — yet this is not apparent to many, thanks partly to “viral” blood-and-guts news.

A similarly equivocal assessment of “progress” applies to Barack Obama’s legacy as the nation’s first African American president. Most Americans greeted his election as a watershed for American society. And yet the achievement came with unrealistic expectations for what he could do for America under that label.

It was unfair to expect that Obama’s election signaled a massive turning point to America’s past racial divides, as if the event was a stopping point, a culmination, rather than a milestone on a long historical journey.

This is the fantasy of America as a post-racial society. People of all races, arguably goaded by media, bought into it. We liked the sound of hope and change. And an optimistic America is good thing, as long as it’s honest.

It was also unrealistic to believe that a black man waking up every day in the White House and going about the presidential duties was going to suddenly lift all minority-led households.

Many black people, especially those at the bottom economic rungs, became fed up with the lack of change under his watch. They’d bought into the idea sweeping change might come to their lives under Obama. But the problems at the root of the angst — poverty, the state of many urban school districts, gang and drug violence, fragmented and dysfunctional families — started long before he took office and cannot be solved with a stroke of the president’s pen.

There is a second, equally delusional notion that Obama somehow caused race relations to fester and boil. As if his very presence is the reason that Americans are sensing higher racial tensions.

For many, especially white conservatives, any time Obama weighed in on the mistreatment of black people by police, he was “playing the race card.”

It was during Obama’s time in office that these events resonated in the news: the killing of Trayvon Martin; the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, and endless other cases of police shootings followed by unrest; the Black Lives Matter movement; and the horrific assassination attacks on police.

It’s naive to believe Obama flipped some switch for these events to occur. As if the problems between police and urban black communities aren’t far more complicated, more long-standing and entrenched. It’s offensive to both police and those communities to see it any other way.

Obama never should have been expected to heal all racial grievances in America. If that is what you expected, sorry, but the last eight years obviously haven’t sufficed.

Obama’s real and lasting impact on race relations in America will be seen in less sensational policy decisions: who he brought to the federal benches, his efforts to protect the Voting Rights Act, measures to expand access to health care and quality schools. None of this can be easily measured at this point.

So we’ll muddle and march forward. And if we admit Obama’s limitations, we’ll also have to see that the work of creating a more perfect union is really ahead. The goal is to take it on — eyes and ears wide open.

IMAGE: U.S. President Barack Obama pauses as he delivers a speech during a visit at the the Parque de la Memoria (Remembrance Park), where they honored victims of Argentina’s Dirty War on the 40th anniversary of the 1976 coup that initiated that period of military rule, in Buenos Aires, March 24, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Deadlocked Charleston Jury Is Another Big Letdown

“There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love.”  – MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.

“Make me want to holler, way they do my life.” – MARVIN GAYE

I find myself burdened by the faith of my elders.

They were generations of cooks and farmers, poets and laborers, of porters and housekeepers, soldiers and slaves, and they navigated a very different America.

It was an America of signs barring entrance, and torture killings in the town square and how much am I bid for this fetching wench who is sure to bear you a litter of pickaninnies.

Yet somehow, for the most part, they never lost the conviction that this thing called America could be hammered into conformity with its own values if only they were patient enough, tough enough, resilient and excellent enough, to see it done. So they hammered at it.

And they hammered at it.

And in the course of time, they passed the hammer down to me. And I have hammered as best I know how.

But Lord, I am just tired.

On Monday, a jury in South Carolina deadlocked in the trial of a former North Charleston police officer who shot a black man named Walter Scott in the back.

There was cell phone video, so jurors knew that when Michael Slager said he feared for his life, he was lying.

What threat is posed by the back of an unarmed man — even a black one — who is 18 feet away and running from you?

And yet, a panel of 11 white people and one African-American could not find it in themselves to hold Slager accountable for this summary execution, could not bring themselves to say that this black life mattered.

This comes a year after a Cleveland grand jury declined to indict a police officer who shot 12-year-old Tamir Rice dead, two years after a Staten Island jury declined to indict the police officer who choked the life out of Eric Garner, three years after a jury in Sanford, Fla. acquitted the self-deputized neighborhood watchman who stalked and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, 24 years after a jury in Ventura County, Calif. acquitted four police officers who beat Rodney King very nearly to death, 61 years after a jury in Sumner, Miss. acquitted two white men who murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till so savagely that he was found with his right eyeball resting on his cheek.

It comes four years after the Supreme Court tore down the Voting Rights Act because it worked too well.

It comes a month after white supremacy was elected president.

And it comes about four months after NFL player Colin Kaepernick, later joined by other, mostly-African-American athletes, first refused to stand for the national anthem.

Infuriated white conservatives could not understand why this handful of black people would not rise to honor America. Frankly, the marvel is not that some black people don’t stand, but that most still do.

You get tired of being disappointed, you know? You get sick of being let down.

Yet I am challenged by the hope of my elders.

I hear King reminding me how the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice.

I hear Thomas L. Jennings declaring that “our claims are on America.”

I hear Curtis Mayfield ordering me to keep on pushing and Sam Cooke prophesying that a change is going to come and Mahalia Jackson testifying how she got over.

And I know that probably, eventually, my elders will beguile me back into faith, convince me there are reasons to keep hammering at America’s ideals, or stand for America’s song.

But in this moment of fresh betrayal? Sorry, elders.

I’m damned if I can think of one.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at lpitts@miamiherald.com.

IMAGE: Judy Scott (R) is held by her son Rodney after a hung jury was announced in the trial of former North Charleston police officer Michael Slager outside the Charleston County Courthouse in Charleston, South Carolina December 5, 2016. REUTERS/Randall Hill