A “modern-day lynching” is what they called it. That’s what some Howard University students have dubbed the killing of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old from Florida whose death at the hands of an overzealous neighborhood watch volunteer, who has yet to even see the inside of an interrogation room, has sparked a tremendous amount of outrage.
“I am Trayvon Martin” isn't an empty catchphrase for them. Black college students across America see their 17-year-old selves in those school photos of the baby-faced teenager.
This isn’t the latest chic political movement. It’s a stark reminder that no matter how high their GPAs are, how many degrees they get, how many plans they have, they still fit shooter George Zimmerman’s definition of the word “suspicious.”
Howard students are familiar with lynchings, too. Their history professors make them look at old photos of lynchings from some of darkest times in America’s history. They read beautifully written fiction about them in Afro-American literature courses.
They know that being lynched doesn’t always mean being hanged on a tree in the backwoods. It also means being dehumanized. It means being shot and killed and then having your killer go home for the night, with the gun that shot you still in his possession. It means your body lying in the coroner’s office for days on end while police ignore your parents’ frantic calls to your cellphone. It means being given a post-mortem drug test, even though your killer wasn’t.
All of those feelings swirled around as the students gathered around the flagpole, joined by people from the surrounding community. Skittles and iced tea — the items Martin were carrying when he was killed — were handed out, and the crowd raised them high as they sang “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”
The vigil was a call to action. Although Martin’s slaying has been the talk of campus all week, the vigil was the first major event in response to it. Students were urged to sign online petitions to have Zimmerman arrested, and to help distribute fliers about the case across the District this weekend.
The theme of most of their testimonials was: “It could have been any of us.”
They hissed about Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee’s announcement that he is stepping down “temporarily.” Many of them have already signed an online petition started by a recent Howard graduate calling for Lee to be fired.
Some are offended that the Sanford Police Department thought it could play judge and jury, at the scene of the crime, deciding that there were no grounds to immediately arrest Zimmerman. One student blamed the prison-industrial complex and capitalism for Martin’s death, but most agreed that a blend of racism and the cover provided by Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law,” which gives people who claim self-defense wide leeway to use deadly force, led Zimmerman to fire that gun.
Afterward students lingered, discussing the case. Many of the older people from the community chatted with the students, telling them how proud they were to see young people take action. Some chatted with friends about other, less hurtful topics, laughing awkwardly to help break the tension.
As the crowd broke up, one girl said her friend loudly, “I just don’t want to bring a black man into this world. How can you protect them?”
Lauren McEwen is a senior at Howard University and interns for The Root DC.
Read more on The Root DC