“Do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened?” the president said. “And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, then it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.”
Obama: ‘Trayvon Martin could have been me’, Tom Cohen, CNN.
Come the day we die, we are left with only one possession. We take into whatever lies beyond the veil after our last breath not a house or gold or even our body; we take only our reputation. Whatever we have done in life, whatever effects we have had upon the lives of others, they will be remembered and it will mark the memory that becomes our legacy. The legacy of Trayvon Martin will be of a young man, a teenager not yet old enough to purchase or consume alcohol in the state in which he lived and died. It will be of a youth who emphasized the need for social change and justice, who underscored the effects of generations of racial vilification.
If you’ve been hiding away in some secluded outpost without news, radio or visitors of the outside world, the outcome of the prosecution of George Zimmerman in the United States may have passed you by. If so, I suggest you go read the articles and even listen to the tapes on Wikipedia of the events of the night Trayvon died, because ultimately, the question that needs to be asked is exactly as Barack Obama put it: would Trayvon Martin have been acquitted of murder if he had survived and Zimmerman had died?
The experience of being followed and shunned as a black man is not unique to the African-American. Nor is the manipulation of a situation to the advantage of a person of white or lighter colour, leaving the black man to look the fool and criminal. A good friend, an African immigrant to Australia and a professional man of independent means, has recounted to me how he assisted a woman one evening in providing her with a lift to a train station. He was new to the country and somewhat naïve with regard to the slang she used, slang that to any other Aussie male would have been quite clear. She was a prostitute and when they arrived at the train station she demanded he pay her a large sum of money. When he refused, she threatened to scream “rape” and asked him whom he thought the police would believe? He paid the woman the money.
I’ve watched little boys skip down a road chanting politically divisive slogans in a country where such expressions are enough trigger open hostilities and I can see how racial, religious, ethnic and colour marginalization become so entrenched. It is hard to watch someone you love be destroyed by attacks driven by nothing more than misplaced stereotype. It is hard not to be hurt, to become bitter, to not transfer your feelings to your child, your grandchildren. The indoctrination of racism starts long before a child is born and extends well beyond any single individual’s death. The actions of a single racist can and frequently do reverberate throughout generations because the damage is often viewed and experienced by at least three generations simultaneously.
Destroying the reputation of a person in life simply because of his colour is shameful at the least. Decimating the reputation of a person, especially a minor, after he has died is simply reprehensible. Driving a person into a position where they must fight for their life is madness. Because they fear the person stalking them without good reason, because they expect to be hurt, because they know that offence is the only defence. The Zulus believe that you should never leave a man with no means of escape, because he has nothing to lose if you trap him and will fight rather than acquiesce. Trayvon Martin did just that.
Harper Lee, in her poignant novel To Kill a Mockingbird paints a scene in which the black defendant Tom Robinson could never see justice. In a system that refused to acknowledge that racism existed, there could never be justice and hence, never peace between white and black. Black and white would each go on looking over their shoulders for the attacks, each be defensive, but only one would be viewed with righteous dignity by the law when something went awry. Trayvon Martin is the Tom Robinson that Florida should never have tried.
Sullying the name of Trayvon Martin will not be remembered in the long term. Like Redfern’s T.J. Hickey, Martin will be remembered as a child pursued to his death by a society that refuses to reflect on what went so very wrong. Reflection takes time. It must be deliberate, it must involve self-evaluation and it must be honest. But that’s all pretty hard when it’s likely that someone of higher social standing, be it based upon stereotype only, is likely to be held accountable. And without those elements, there can be no progress, there can be no growth and there certainly can be no justice. But there will undoubtedly be ongoing feuding.