As I engage the death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman, I cannot help but feel both anger and sadness. The anger that I feel stems from my perspective that the literal death of Trayvon Martin is also a metaphor for the lived experiences of African-Americans in the United States, past and present. Trayvon's death and the subsequent symbol he has become point toward a foundational problem in American society: the state-sanctioned violence placed upon black bodies. Trayvon Martin was stalked, improperly engaged, harassed and subsequently murdered by the hands of George Zimmerman. A major component of the black experience in the United States contains an element of such treatment at the hands of white America.
America was violent against black bodies prior to even its founding — through the institution of chattel slavery — and, yet, it has been acquitted of guilt. American society was violent against black bodies in the years immediately following slavery's abolition — as Ku Klux Klan riders engaged in state-sponsored terrorism against black people — and, yet, the country has been acquitted of guilt. American society was violent against black bodies in the Jim Crow era — as the lie of "separate but equal" created unbearably unequal access to economic stability — and, yet, this country has been acquitted of guilt. American society has been violent against black bodies more recently — as we have watched the rise of a for-profit prison boom capture African-American men through over-policing and unjust laws (to the point where there are more black men in jail, parole or on probation today than there were slaves in 1850) — and, yet, America remains acquitted of guilt. It is within this historical narrative that the death of Trayvon Martin must be situated.
While our nation gravitated to this trial, African-Americans as a whole have been symbolically put on trial and accused of causing their own plight. Despite the fact that Zimmerman pursued and confronted Martin, the young teenager has been labeled as responsible for his own death. "Why did he flee? Why did he fight?" Likewise, despite the historical and contemporary injustice heaped upon African-Americans, we, too, have been put on trial and deemed guilty of our own oppression. In reference to the role of the media, Malcolm X once said the oppressor is "good at making the victim look like the criminal, and the criminal look like the victim."
Trayvon Martin's death and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman symbolize the everyday trial of young black men, one in which they are being found guilty. These victims of systematic oppression in American society have been found guilty solely for being black, for being the "other," for being unwanted and suspicious. Their sentence has been the slow, calculated removal from mainstream society. For Trayvon, that removal was a literal one. But, for millions of other black men, while they may be "alive," they certainly are not "free": for them, their removal is state sanctioned through the grips of the heinous prison-industrial complex.
My second emotion is sadness. I am saddened by the lie that the George Zimmerman acquittal continues for American society: that the removal of black bodies through state control serves to increase safety and security for white America. In reality, the continued expression of violence only turns us all inward and destroys those who seek to wield its destructive power — whichever group that may be at the time.
I believe our nation truly sits at a crossroads. Life cannot be sustained through violence. Peace, equity, opportunity and safety for all are what will enhance and further life in this country. The metaphor that Trayvon's death has become provides America with a new opportunity to have a deep, vulnerable conversation about race, life's value, access to justice and what it means to move away from our historic reliance on violence, oppression and exploitation. We have a profound opportunity to go deep with one another and to create lifelines to healing for the vulnerable that live amongst us. If we continue to miss moments like this one in our midst to right our wrongs, oppression and violence will only grow and eventually choke out the very potential of a just society. If that day comes, I pray God be with us.
Trayvon Martin's death and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman symbolize the everyday trial of young black men, one in which they are being found guilty.
Bryson White is the young-adult minister at Saint Rest Baptist Church in west Fresno and a community organizer with Faith in Community (www.faithinfresno.org; www.facebook.com/faithincommunity), member of the PICO national network and PICO's "Lifelines to Healing" campaign.