The African-American community in Las Vegas spent a week soul searching as it tried to wrap its head around the death of Trayvon Martin and the not guilty verdict of George Zimmerman, who shot the 17-year-old in February 2012.
The case exposed a hole in this country and opened an old wound of racial tension. As individuals and in groups, we joined a national conversation on the sobering question of why is a black life undervalued in America.
Being biracial, I faced the same questions.
But somewhere between the tragedy and the anger and all the questions, I think we might find a rare gift in this incident.
“This started, or I should say restarted, a conversation,” said Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus. “It is to talk about, again, how we live differently than you live. You have a different advantage than we have.”
It’s not just about processing our feelings about the events — although we use each opportunity to rightfully process the range of emotions that have risen to the surface. The reason this tragedy has offered a gift is because we can talk about the racial issues in Nevada, whether it be within law enforcement, education or our criminal-justice system.
“At some point, people have had enough,” Williams said. “This happens every day. [Martin] was the line in the sand. We are not budging anymore. We are not shutting up.”
Though we may never be in the same circumstance, many of us saw ourselves in Trayvon Martin. Many of us know we could have found ourselves or our families in similar circumstances and that is part of the power of this story.
WATCHING THE STORY UNFOLD
The text alert from CNN lit up my phone just a few minutes before 6 p.m. July 13. A verdict had been reached. It had been 15 months since I read an NPR story about the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Much had happened since — marches, protests, petitions.
Zimmerman was arrested.
I had waited more than a year to see this.
In hindsight, I always knew it would be not guilty. But when Zimmerman was acquitted of manslaughter and second-degree murder, those words still stung.
Williams said she also knew he wouldn’t be found guilty because it seemed as though the justice system in Sanford, Fla., had no appetite to prosecute. “They took too long to arrest him,” she said. “When they did, they were just going through the motions.”
Yet we watched with the slight hope that maybe this time would be different. Maybe this time it could be different.
The story starts on a rainy February evening in Sanford, with 17-year-old Martin walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house, wearing a hoodie and carrying a pack of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea.
Zimmerman, an armed neighborhood watch volunteer, called the police, once again, to report “suspicious” behavior. Despite orders from the dispatcher, Zimmerman followed and confronted Martin.
Only God, Martin and Zimmerman can truly account to those four-plus minutes in the rain. But one thing is clear: Martin’s life ended with one fatal shot.
“When I first heard the story I thought, ‘Here we go again,’” Williams said. Zimmerman wasn’t arrested immediately, which sparked a national outcry.
We knew early on that an arrest needed to be made.
The African-American community saw racial elements within this case from the beginning and demanded they be rectified. It was not an innocuous comment made by President Obama — “If I had a son he would look like Trayvon” — that incited racial tension. Obama simply reflected a sentiment shared by the rest of us.
As Zimmerman was arrested and the trial began to shape, Martin, although not present, was the one on trial. Unlike Zimmerman, he wasn’t given the presumption of innocence. The question became more about who Martin was as a person and whether he attacked Zimmerman. Did he give Zimmerman a legitimate reason to shoot him?
Then the defense attorney suggested that Martin armed himself with the concrete sidewalk — that the sidewalk in general was the weapon.
That shocked Williams. “That’s saying our teens no longer even have to have a weapon to be considered armed and dangerous,” she said.
THE MYTH OF POST-RACIAL AMERICA
I am biracial. My mother is white and my father is black. Because of my color — I am what some refer to as light-skinned — I faced my own problems with stereotypes and racism. “Well, what are you?” people would ask.
Because I spent my high school years in the South (even though I was born in Las Vegas and spent most of my life here) my answer usually greeted with, “Oh, well, we don’t believe in mixing the races.”
Welcome to post-racial America.
Regardless of what city I am in, there are always moments when people accuse me of “playing the race card” or “race baiting.” I constantly have to explain why certain issues in our society are racially motivated and why I am angry about it. Explaining my feelings this time was no different.
Some people conclude that racism in America ended at the Emancipation Proclamation, or the 13th Amendment, or the passing of the Civil Rights Act, or the immortalization of Dr. Martin Luther King, or the election of President Barack Obama.
Surely, in one of those momentous occasions, we had defeated it — or at least that all of these things together meant racism is behind us.
And then someone demands to see Obama’s birth certificate. Again.
Those who live amid the perpetual devaluation of African-American life, we see the disproportionate numbers — of those targeted for drug crimes, of those incarcerated or on death row, of those who drop out of high school, or those on a number of other scary lists we seem to be on the negative side of — as proof that racism is still a reality.
When speaking at the Pearson Community Center during a post-verdict forum for African-Americans, Laura Martin, a community activist, eloquently described it as a different phenomenon.
“There is the racism that exists with white sheets and saying the N-word,” she said. “But there is the racism that lives in the subconscious of people and manifests with the thoughts that certain people don’t belong.”
What struck a nerve about this case is that Martin was, and by some people still is, perceived as the criminal who courted death.
“Why do we villainize Trayvon?” asked Assemblywoman Dina Neal at a “Justice for Trayvon” vigil last week. “They say he was criminally profiled but not racially profiled. It was 7 p.m. and he was wearing a hoodie in the rain. What was it about him that you profiled?”
The case also reminded us that not all laws are created equal.
Stand Your Ground laws, for example, seem to work best when the person invoking them isn’t black. Take, for example, Marissa Alexander, who received 20 years for discharging her firearm into the wall to ward off her abusive husband. Alexander, who is black, invoked Stand Your Ground, but because she went to get her gun, the prosecution asserted that she didn’t have the element of fear required for the law to work.
But this is just one aspect of the criminal justice system where minorities are at a loss. According to a study released by the Sentencing Project, African-Americans were 14 percent of drug users in 2006, yet represent 35 percent of those arrested in drug offenses, 53 percent of drug convictions and 45 percent of drug offenders in prison.
There are more than 2 million inmates — 38 percent African-American and 37 percent white — while the U.S. population is about 13 percent African-American and 77 percent white, according to the Sentencing Project.
Williams feels Clark County has its own troubling statistics to deal with, even beyond the justice system. “Black kids are being expelled at a higher rate,” she said. “How can the make up 15 percent of the school district yet 51 percent of those expelled?”
Unemployment, Williams said, is higher among African-Americans — almost twice as high (13.5 percent) compared to the overall rate (7.6 percent). As one small counter measure, the Clark County Black Caucus advocated for the passage of Assembly Bill 281 in the 2013 legislative session, which goes into effect Oct. 1 and is supposed to offer suggestions on how to improve diversity and inclusion efforts in the workplace.
Williams said Martin was just a straw that broke the camel’s back.
“No justice,” one person shouted.
“No peace,” the crowd responded.
No matter what event people attended, they were bound to hear a call-and-response echo through the crowd at some point, whether it was at the march July 16 down Las Vegas Boulevard, the forum at the Pearson Community Center on July 17, or the rally July 20 outside the Lloyd George U.S. Courthouse.
Williams, Laura Martin and Neal were joined by other African-American community members, such as state Sen. Aaron Ford and Victory Missionary Baptist Church Pastor Robert Fowler. Those attending weren’t just ready to listen. They were ready for change.
“We can’t hit-and-run this issue,” said one speaker said at a community forum. “We can’t talk about this at one meeting today and do nothing tomorrow. We need more of these meetings and more discussions. We have been dying for over 100 years. I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of us dying.”
Neal, along with many of the activists, has issued a to-do list.
“It’s not going to be easy,” she said. “Be prepared to be consistent for the next six, 12, 18 months. Believe you can be both a leader and a helper.”
As a community, Williams said, it is our job to keep our eyes on legislation to make sure we don’t pass laws that target minorities. Leaders are ushering a call to register more black voters, who can come out in the 2014 and 2016 elections to vote not just for politicians but judges whose decisions are integral to the community.
Martin said people often don’t vote because they feel things never change. “Then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” she said. Voter registration also gives us another power, which the trial showed us must be harnessed.
As registered voters, we have the chance to serve on juries and perhaps weigh in on decisions that desperately need another perspective.
But the community seems ripe for a much-needed change that will affect the lives of the entire community and in particular young black men. “Not a day goes by that I don’t wake up and pray for our black boys and young men,” Williams said.
And so we will continue to ask questions with the hope to get answers and find solutions to systemic injustice we see in Clark County and the nation.
But in this moment this is the one thing we know: I am Trayvon Martin. You are Trayvon Martin. We are Trayvon Martin.