When I spoke to hundreds of students in central Florida last week, only one mentioned the recent murder of Trayvon Martin, a story now blazing across the global media. “You have no idea how bad it is down here,” the student told me in a one-on-one conversation. “They have a license to kill you if they think you’re a threat to them, and that’s what happened in Sanford,” he said. He expected no justice, nor even publicity, about the case.
But thanks to the family, the black community, and many in the media, the silence and immunity have been stripped from a pattern of systemic vigilante and police abuse which is reminiscent of the very worst of the bad old times.
When I was speaking at Seminole State College on March 15, I suspect that many in the crowd were aware of the case. But it never came to my attention during 45 minutes of questions and answers. I believe the reason was a pervasive acceptance that what happens to youth of color in small towns like Sanford will never merit the attention of the federal government and national media.
Fortunately, that painful cynicism is being proven wrong – for the moment. As the press coverage increased, as the police cover-up was revealed, as the agonized screams of the dying boy were broadcast again and again, the Justice Department moved to investigate.
My son, now turning 12, was riveted to the story on television. My son is African-American, wears hoodies, eats Skittles, and now must come to understand, at a tender age, why he too might be targeted as a dangerous threat. The Trayvon Martin case will be a turning point and teaching moment for many of our children. I am sure it is being discussed within the Obama family, where the question is what can and should a father do?
One more mask of racism, racial profiling, and hate crimes – in this case, the right to kill if “threatened” – is being peeled away. With enough pressure, there might even be an arrest. And an awakened public will wait and see, and learn, to see if justice is possible.
A letter from Florida:
I just read your piece on the Trayvon Martin murder. It had been covered up for weeks and exploded on the scene right after you left. The murder happened on NBA All-Star weekend down here and they didn't want to have it overshadowed so they never told us about it.
However, now of course it has reached the Justice Department. It has been really difficulty in my African-American History courses. The students have just learned about Emmett Till. They were crying pretty bad, and it's frightening to see how similar the police dept.'s response was to Till and Martin.
My students continue to ask my advice. I have told them three things:
1) we obviously want justice for Trayvon and want his killer arrested
2) I think we should try to get an investigation of the Sanford PD. They are a joke. They have a history or racial profiling and police brutality. They covered this up from the beginning.
3) In my opinion, the most important, is the long term effects. I think we should fight to change the gun laws in Florida and introduce a bill int the Senate called the Trayvon Martin Bill, which will end this idea that anyone can shoot anyone and claim self-defense down here.
I had no idea the gun laws were like this. It's so easy to get a gun down here and it's like the O.K. corral. If we succeed in this, then his name will not be forgotten and we ensure this doesn't happen again. I have warned them though this won't be easy since the NRA will lobby with millions to defeat us.
It never ends down here Tom.