I have two nephews that I love with an amazing passion. Anyi, 28, is a Los Angeles based comedian, who kinda looks like me and acts like me. He is my absolute escort of choice when I am in Southern California. Armand, 25, is an Oakland-based aspiring writer, and a 2008 graduate of University of California, Santa Cruz. Both of these young men are well over 6’3”, but neither carries any extra weight. Both of them wear hoodies. And both of them have had unfortunate run-ins with so-called law enforcement officers that have tainted the way that they see law and order. Whenever they share their stories with me I am sickened by their experiences and our nation’s myopia about the way young black men are treated because of a series of sick stereotypes gone amuck.
A few years ago Anyi, then working for Berkeley-based Youth Radio, parked his dilapidated car in the public transit parking lot and headed to meet colleagues who were also taking the train to an assignment. A police officer followed him, said his car was stolen, pulled a gun on him, forced him to his knees, even as his colleagues begged the officer to stop. What I remember from Anyi’s account is that he had dirtied his “clean white shirt” when he was forced to the prone position. As it turned out, the officer had miscued one digit in the license number, looking for a new Toyota, not an ancient jalopy. There was never an apology, nor any discipline for the officer who, unfortunately, happened to also be a young African American. Indeed, from our family there was gratitude that Anyi had so many witnesses around him that the police officer could not pull a Trayvon on him. But here is the deal. The experience embittered Anyi. It reminded him that the police are not his friend.
This is post-racial America. You can shoot and kill a young black man in a hoodie then claim self-defense because you find him threatening. There was a case, perhaps three decades ago, when a white man was able to claim disability because he was “afraid” of working with black people. What if each of us could claim disability because we are afraid of working with hostile whites? Instead, we suck it up each day and walk into a world where we know that our race makes us suspect. Hoodie or not, we are all Trayvon Martin.
In other words, there is still a manufactured fear of a black presence in our nation and in our world. We have an African American president who has been assailed, not because of his mostly moderate politics, but because he happens to be of African descent. We have an attorney general whose motives have been maligned because of his race. And we have a baby boy walking the streets with iced tea and some candy, whose height and hoodie made him suspect to a deranged white man (yes, it is possible to be white and Hispanic) with a temper and a history of domestic violence who disobeyed 911 orders and took his gun out to get vigilante justice. If George Zimmerman had an ounce of integrity he would turn himself in instead of hiding out. But Zimmerman is not the problem. The climate, these “stand your ground” laws are more the problem. What if we, black people, chose to stand our ground?
Once upon a time, we did. In Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, a young black man, Dick Rowland, happened to jostle a white woman elevator operator, Sarah Page, in the office building where they both worked. The unintentional contact was too much for the crazy white powers that existed and they threatened to lynch Rowland, who fled to Greenwood, the area once called Black Wall Street. Black men rallied to Rowland’s defense, with a militia that threatened white power. Whites responded by rioting against black people and holding us in concentration camps. It is likely that bombs were dropped on the black community by our own government (see the work of Dr. Kimberly Ellis), but the newspapers documenting the attacks can now not be found. A wealthy community was eliminated, but in the words of poet Claude McKay, “If we must die, let it not be like hogs, haunted and penned to this in this inglorious spot. …Like men we’ll face the murderous cowardly pack, pressed to the wall, dying but fighting back. “ Find McKay’s Harlem Renaissance poem and ruminate on it.
We are all Trayvon Martin. When do we start fighting back in an organized, disciplined, focused and effective way?