Thursday, March 29, 2012

Trayvon's Tragedy

On a rainy February evening a seventeen year old boy was returning home from the local store after buying himself a bag of candy and a can of ice tea. He entered the gated compound through the main entrance and was on his way to his father's friend's house where he was visiting for the past few days. As he was walking past the club house he was spotted by a self appointed neighborhood watchman. It was a few minutes past seven in the evening and the boy like most teenagers in this country, was wearing a hooded sweat shirt, probably because it was raining. The watchman who was in his car called the police to report an intruder. The policeman on the phone asked him to identify the race of the intruder. He revealed he was black. The policeman asked the watchman if he was following the intruder. The watchman replied yes. The policeman asked him not to do so and he agreed to comply. Minutes later somebody was yelling and screaming and a shot rang out. The boy was dead from a single bullet wound fired from the watchman's gun. The frightened neighbors hearing the screaming and the shot called the police. The watchman was taken to the police station and then let go as he claimed self defense.

Four weeks later this incident that took place in a small suburban Florida town called Sanford went national and even international. Major television channels, radio stations, newspapers and websites were consumed by the story and a national debate began to form around the idea that this could have been a racially motivated "hate crime". Civil rights leaders like Al Sharpton and Rev. Jesse Jackson picked up the bullhorn calling for the arrest of the watchman. Rallies and protest marches around the nation and social media on the internet organized around the same demand. Even President Obama was forced to weigh in on this story as it began to infiltrate every living room across America. Even I was hired by BET Television (Black Entertainment Television) to edit a half hour program on this story. The boy Trayvon Martin and the shooter George Zimmerman became household names as the nation went on yet another soul searching journey to come to terms with what happened on that ill fated night.

Whether the shooting was racially motivated or it was a scuffle that went terribly wrong or whether it was a trigger happy vigilante who gunned down a teenager who looked suspicious because of his clothing, only time will tell. But what irks a vast number of people is the fact that the shooter was allowed to go free as a result of an absurd law passed in the state of Florida in 2005, called the "stand your ground" law. The law states that a person may use deadly force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without an obligation to retreat first. In some cases, a person may use deadly force in public areas without a duty to retreat. In a nation that is awash with guns, the outcome of such a law could be deadly as it was in this case.

When Trayvon did not come home that night, his father was worried. But he went to bed thinking he would return late. When he was not back the next morning, he filed a missing person's report. A few hours later the police arrived at his doorstep and showed him the photos of his dead son. His world was shattered. When asked what happened the police told him that Trayvon was in an altercation and was beating up Zimmerman and therefore was shot just fifty yards from his home. Trayvon's father had to call his ex-wife who lived in Miami to give her the devastating news. Trayvon lived with his mother and was visiting his father in Sanford as he was temporarily suspended from school for bad behavior.

The explanation that was given to Trayvon's father by the police did not make any sense. It did not fit his son's character. Trayvon had never been in trouble with the law before and was considerably lighter than the shooter to be physically able to subdue him. What did not make sense either was the fact that Trayvon was tested for drugs and alcohol and the shooter was not. To the father it appeared like the police were trying to brush his son's death aside, by calling it another "no good black kid killed in the hood" story. Since the police were not willing to investigate further, he hired an attorney and decided to find some real answers about his son's death. Along with his divorced wife he launched a media campaign to seek justice for his boy's senseless death. Their campaign became more successful than they could have ever imagined. A truck driver with limited means could not have asked for more. The dignity, composure and grace the separated couple have shown in the face of media scrutiny, six weeks after their young boy's death, has given renewed momentum to bring issues of justice and race to the foregfront of the national debate.

In a country where the sale of guns keeps rising exponentially even when the economy falters, and where gun violence kills more young people than any other nation in the world, it is important to take notice of Trayvon's tragedy. A nation that has grappled with stories of Emmet Till, a 14 year old black boy who was murdered in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman, Rodney King, a black man who was brutally beaten by a gang of white policemen and O.J.Simpson who allegedly killed his white wife and her boyfriend and got away with it, Trayvon's story again brings to the surface the racial tension that is always simmering. The national debate that is currently taking place with Congressman Bobby Rush wearing a hooded sweat shirt on the floor of the house to make a statement to the Black Panthers setting a bounty for the capture of Zimmerman and Fox News not adequately covering the story or carrying it in a way that boggles the mind, is an indication where this incident has taken the country.

Racism is always present not just in America but around the world. Fear of the other, suspicion of ones skin color or garb, blaming a group of people for the misguided actions of a few is a practice humans have indulged in since time began. Religious hatred, ethnic cleansing, genocide etc. are all forms of racist human expression.

The recent brutal killing of an Iraqi mother of five in California and the killing of Jews in France by a crazy misguided murderer were racially motivated. The call Zimmerman made to the police on the night of the shooting to some extent did make clear his racial presumptions. Just from a visual observation of Trayvon in a hooded sweat shirt he branded him as "Suspicious", "He's on drugs", "Something's wrong with him", "These assholes they always get away". Based on the conversation recorded on the police dispatch, to prove he did not have a bias could be difficult in a court of law. In the court of opinion he has already been branded a white racist.

For those who face racism in the slightest of fashion, it is a heavy burden to carry. America unlike many other nations is more racially forbearing and has enacted stringent laws to enforce tolerance in all spheres of life, partly because of its shameful apartheid past. That does not mean it has eradicated racism. Yes it did elect a non-white president, which was a monumental moment for this nation, but that in no manner means that it has crossed the color line.

I came to this country as a student almost two decades ago. I have had my share or racial epithets hurled at me and have dealt with veiled discrimination in the professional field. These moments have taken me on soul searching journeys which have only made me stronger. I feel proud to be who I am as this nation guarantees me rights which I can feel good about and offers me stories of courage to live by. When in a nation everyone is an immigrant or a descendent of one, no single person or group can claim supremacy over another just based on the color of their skin or ethnicity. No individual group defined by their ethnicity can lay claim to this land as the United States of America was formed out of history's largest land grab. Therefore when a crime is committed where the sole motivation behind it is hatred of the other based on race, it must be investigated and punished to the fullest extent of the law, otherwise America loses its meaning. And so Trayvon's killer must be arrested to investigate his motivations and understand what happened that night. Hiding behind an absurd law can only make the situation worse than it already is. It is what it is.