by Kevin Joseph Ryan
This week, the country has been nearly on fire over the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black youth who was killed nearly one month ago in Sanford, Florida, from a bullet fired by 28 year old neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman. This story has grown in the past week, led every major newspaper, television network and talk show, with stark lines being drawn among ethnic groups and political ideologies as to this event’s implications. It is incredibly sensitive, it has become tremendously provocative and the debate has come to Vermont.
Tuesday night, a rally was held in front of Burlington’s City Hall, with literally hundreds gathering to hear speakers ranging from officials and prominent authorities to members of the crowd, speaking out on their feelings regarding the Florida tragedy. I use the term tragedy specifically and deliberately, because the life of a young man had been snuffed out and no matter what the circumstances, there is no better term than tragedy for such an occurrence. With that sentiment, I’m sure I concur with the majority at the rally. Most there stood in support of Trayvon, and many called for justice, in the form of the arrest of shooter Zimmerman. It was generally assumed by the crowd, that the initial narrative presented by the media was correct, that Trayvon was on his way home from the store after buying Skittles candy and was accosted and killed mercilessly by Zimmerman, simply for being black and wearing a hooded sweatshirt. It was accepted as fact that Trayvon was a victim of racism, and his killer was released by local Sanford police, without charge, simply due to an undefined “White Privilege.”
I try to avoid using a first person narrative when writing a report, as I should be as objective as possible, but in this case, I believe it is unavoidable, for reasons of clarification. As should be obvious from the byline above, I am an Irishman by ancestry. I am also British, Scottish, German and Canadian by the same measure. In short, I am what is considered “white.” Therefore, it has been said, I should not speak about nor comment on issues of racism, as I do not know how it feels to be defined by my race. As an Irishman, I was told as a boy that if my father had been elected to City Council, he was told that he was disqualified, that the Pope would be running the city were he to be elected. I was told that my Grandfather was the “shanty Irish” or “lace curtain”, who while of poor breeding, pretended to be as good as everyone else by hanging lace curtains in the windows. I know what racism is, and I know how violent it can be in its potential, and how evil it has been in its effects.
Some of what was said at the Burlington rally was both disturbing and hopeful. Disturbing in that a black student named Dante from Burlington High School, spoke of how some of his neighbors would not want to know his name. He spoke about power outage in which, he said, “I had to weigh how suspicious I would look walking around my own house with a flashlight, and that’s a freedom denied.” Dante pointed out that no matter what he did in life, “Police and store clerks will still follow me, and I’ll still lose out on jobs I’m qualified for.” To Dante, I say that I have been followed by police, and I have lost out on jobs I was qualified for, and he is right, there are people who will judge him based on his race…. There are people who have judged me on mine. The rally was also hopeful in that UVM student Kristen Nelson pointed out that “Race doesn’t exist and we should all be on the same page.” To her I say, Amen.
Race may not exist, a sentiment which I support, but racism does. However, racism is not the singular motivation behind human suffering or anger, but to hear the crowd at Tuesday’s rally, it would be difficult to discern that fact. Rashad Shabbaz, a Black Cultural Studies teacher at UVM, noted, “Over the last five days, states have spent billions of taxpayer dollars to policing and incarcerating black men in epidemic proportions, a fact to which the liberal state of Vermont is no exception.” He further went on to note that Trayvon pulled up his hood over his face to avoid eye contact at the beginning of his confrontation with Zimmerman, a fact not in evidence in the story of the Florida death. In fact, many of the stories told at the rally seemed preoccupied with a conviction that Trayvon was killed over his skin, another fact that is not clear. Many spoke out about how institutional racism is found everywhere in our society, perpetrated by white men against black men. No one noted that George Zimmerman, the shooter in this case, is Hispanic. There is no doubt that terrible violence occurred that night, but no white person was involved.
It is actually far less relevant as to what the racial makeup of Zimmerman was, but far more important to understand why Trayvon Martin was killed. Trayvon had not yet reached the age of majority, he was legally a child. He was, however, six inches taller than Zimmerman. Zimmerman was likewise heavier than Trayvon, but Zimmerman was heavy-set and paunchy. Zimmerman was a would-be policeman who used racial slurs, but Trayvon was a teenager in trouble for marijuana, with several tattoos, gold teeth, who referred to women routinely as “bitches” on his twitter and went by the online handle “No_Limit_N***A”.
We had two people on a collision course.
According to several eyewitness accounts, Zimmerman, against 911 dispatcher advice, confronted Trayvon about why he was within their mutual gated community. Trayvon reacted angrily, and a violent fight broke out between the two. Zimmerman was bleeding with a broken nose, and had his head rammed repeatedly into the curbside. Zimmerman pulled out a Kel-Tec 9mm pistol and fired a round into Trayvon’s chest, killing him. From these reports, somehow Burlington Mayor-Elect Miro Weinberger concluded, “At this point in the investigation it certainly appears that the killing in Florida that cut short a promising young life is a another harsh reminder of the continuing presence of racism in America.” Upon what facts Weinberger reached that conclusion, is hard to tell.
Rubin Jackson, a teacher at Burlington High School noted that, “We, as a society, have made racism the Bogeyman.” He is so right. In 2010, when 41 year-old Caucasian, David James of Tampa, was shot and killed by the 69 year-old African Trevor Dooley over a skateboard, we heard no outcry for justice. Dooley, a school bus driver, returned to work the next day. When Trayvon Martin was killed last month in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman, the shot was heard all the way to Vermont, and many here, as across the U.S., simply assumed that racism must be the rationale for his senseless death.
What killed Trayvon Martin was misunderstanding, hatred, mistrust and panic. A lack of civility and reason took that boy’s life as surely as a bullet did. Many at City Hall called for unity and understanding, such as African immigrant Ladoux Fancy, who said, “We are all one.” I hope we follow Ladoux’s philosophy. I hope we can keep our heads during a turbulent time. I’m not blaming the victim, I’m blaming our lesser natures as people. It was Trayvon Martin who said, “When it gets real, everybody gets FAKE.” Those are his words. I fear if we continue to blame each other and divide ourselves into literally different races of people, those words may well be Trayvon’s epitaph.