Before mass shootings at Aurora and Newtown put gun control at the forefront of the nation’s attention, America’s trigger-happy gun
culture also crystallized when 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
A year later, we must ask ourselves if Martin's senseless death and the movement that erupted in its aftermath taught our country the lessons we so desperately needed to learn.
Long before Zimmerman and Trayvon ever crossed paths, it appeared that a particular psychology was driving Zimmerman’s calls to the police and his subsequent actions. Mother Jones described it as an obsession “with law and order, with the minutiae of suburban life, and with black males.”
Notwithstanding the protestations of his family and friends, who argue that Zimmerman has a multi-racial group of friends, Zimmerman appeared to live in a cultural bubble in which his understanding of the world was dangerously limited to those things most familiar to him. His “suspicion” of Trayvon mirrored the gaze that looks upon many blacks and Latinos with fear, distrust and expectancy of criminal behavior.
The hoodie that Trayvon wore on the night he was killed became an iconic symbol becuase it perfectly represented the criminalization of black men in America. Even in death, the young man who was gunned down after purchasing Skittles and iced tea was reduced to a weed-smoking thug who was delinquent in school.
We can’t begin to address gun violence prevention until we acknowledge that the criminalization of Trayvon was a mere extension of the racial profiling that millions of African American men face every day.
Considering the limiting depictions of black Americans in mass media, this shouldn’t be surprising. We can’t expect to have our minds saturated with destructive, violent images of a particular group of people day in and day out without that affecting how we view and operate in the world. This was why Trayvon’s murder reaffirmed my committment to media representations of communities of color
But Trayvon’s murder also affirmed the power of media as a tool of social change. The blogosphere, for example, is often credited for pushing mainstream media outlets to begin giving coverage to the case. This “bottom-up” effort included Kevin Cunningham, who was a 31 year old Howard University student at the time, starting a Change.org petition calling for Zimmerman’s arrest that resulted in international attention and over 2 million signatures.
Cunningham struck a nerve. As part of a generation whose sense of identity is so deeply tied to technology and social media, many of us came alive this time last year. Wanting to ensure Martin's death would not be in vain, we used every medium at our disposal to tell his story. It was our moment to get informed, educate others and mobilize our spheres of influence. But we weren’t alone in doing so. The tragedy had bridged generational divides so much so that the likes of Rev. Al Sharpton were just as necessary as the Howard University students who launched the “Am I Suspicious?” campaign.
For many of us, this became our modern day Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, having an African American president seemed to have little bearing on the pursuit for justice in Trayvon’s case. Beyond President Obama’s endearing “if I had a son” statement, he was absent from the national dialogue. And if that didn’t teach us anything else, we should know that we can’t continue to soley rely on politicians and lawmakers to spark tangible progress in our local communities.
The passion and “righteous anger” that Trayvon’s death inspired in millions of people worldwide is a testament to the power that we all possess to be agents of change. We can no longer sit on our hands waiting for a charismatic, messianic figure to rescue us from racism and class inequities. We must fiercely engage in the work of social justice everyday, ushering in the improvements that we hope to see locally and globally.
There’s something to be said about Trayvon’s parents and brother refusing to let us forget that they had prematurely lost their loved one. They instilled in us what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called the “fierce urgency of now.” Hearing them speak on television was not only heart-wrenching but it was also awe-inspiring - constantly motivating us to fight on their behalf.
A year later, as the Martin family has faded from the national stage, our sense of urgency may have diminished. Thus, the question becomes: what will it take the next time around for us to declare that there is no other time but now?
Rahiel Tesfamariam is a columnist and blogger for The Washington Post. She is the founder and editorial director of Urban Cusp , an online lifestyle magazine highlighting progressive urban culture, faith, social change and global awareness. Follow her on Twitter @RahielT .
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