When news first broke about the death of Trayvon Martin, protesters held demonstrations across the country where they wore hoodies and held cans of iced tea and bags of Skittles, just like Martin did on the day he was killed by then neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.
The protesters chanted, “We are all Trayvon Martin.” For many, that slogan was not mere rhetoric; it was literal.
On July 20, a rally of Trayvon Martin supporters gathered at the federal courthouse in downtown to demand the federal government file civil rights charges against Zimmerman. The event was sponsored by the National Action Network and was held in concert with similar rallies in 100 cities across the U.S.
When interviewed, African-Americans at the rally also discussed their own experiences with racial profiling. They all had been viewed with suspicion at several points in their lives.
“I’ve always been profiled,” said Jamal Ashworth. “Ever since I was seven, I knew it’s not good to be black.”
Like others interviewed, Ashworth spoke of encounters with law enforcement as being a common experience of racial profiling in his life.
“It always happens,” he said. “I could be walking down the street, minding my own business and a pig will stop me and search me.”
“What’s the speed limit for walking for a black person?” he quipped.
Michael Shiver can relate.
Shiver, a 56-year-old resident of Hollywood, said he was recently stopped and questioned by police in front of his local 7-Eleven. He was only drinking his recently purchased green tea.
“[The officer] told me that I looked like someone who skipped court,” he said. “Three times he asked me, ‘Do you have a criminal record?’”
Because Shiver, who works as a nurse, doesn’t fit the stereotypical appearance of a street criminal, he assumes he was stopped on the basis of his skin color alone.
“I have no gang tattoos; I look nothing like that,” he said. “Why should I have to be harassed in the street because of my race?”
Shiver attended the rally, in part for Trayvon Martin, but like many others, he came for justice in general. He would like to see such blatant profiling of blacks, or anyone else, to stop.
Shiver believes that the profiling experienced, whether by law enforcement or by someone like George Zimmerman, comes from years of inculcated television, film and news images that depict black people as a group to fear. Television and film have both made good use of the inner-city black as a dangerous, criminal element in society. And local news stations, fixated on crime, show disproportionate images of black criminals, cementing a nonfictional element to the myth.
“That kind of put a stain in everyone’s brain, [so much so] that black people don’t even trust themselves anymore,” he said. “That’s why I don’t even watch TV anymore. It’s so belittling to me.”
Maria Lauren, also a Hollywood resident, said she was recently treated with suspicion in Burbank, and she was merely sleeping in her car at the time. While waiting for her sister, who is a mobile notary public, to finish with her client, Lauren took an afternoon nap in the car. It wasn’t long before police arrived wanting to know why she was there. They said there had been multiple robberies in the area.
“You can tell I’m sleeping, that I’m no threat to anyone,” she said. “After I spoke to one officer, a second came, to the point where the supervisor came. There were about three or four patrol cars for little ol’ me.”
Lauren would like to see a boycott of Fortune 500 companies based in Florida so as to put pressure on state politicians to change their self-defense laws. Her solution is indicative of those interviewed, in that they don’t consider white people to be the problem. Lauren, like others, said it’s the system.
“We can place blame on George Zimmerman, but George Zimmerman was aware that he could take the action he took knowing that [Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws] had his back,” she said. “This is what people are missing. It’s the system overall that needs to be restructured so that it can work for everybody.”
Those interviewed saw a rift between whites and blacks based on experience. This bore out in a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center.
Eighty-five percent of blacks were dissatisfied with Zimmerman’s acquittal with 78 percent seeing a racial element to the case. Forty-nine percent of whites on the other hand were satisfied with Zimmerman’s verdict with 60 percent of them saying that race was getting undue attention in the case.
Los Angeles resident Meleika Gardner thinks differences in experiences between the two groups creates a gap in understanding. Being routinely stopped by police and searched for no apparent reason, or followed through a neighborhood only to be asked why they are there, are indignities the average white person will likely never suffer.
“Like [President] Obama said, until you’ve been followed in a store for no reason while you are shopping, or you’re walking behind a Caucasian couple and they are checking their wallet or purse — I mean, it happens to me all the time,” said Gardner. “And look at me, I don’t look threatening, but the color of my skin is still something they don’t trust.”
Gardner said she has had to unfriend many of her white Facebook friends after Zimmerman was acquitted. After the verdict, a certain insensitivity bordering on racism began to appear in their posts and comments concerning Trayvon Martin. She feels these differences in attitudes stem from the lack of shared experiences, causing some to feel indifferent about Martin’s death.
“They have never been targets; they’ve never been profiled before,” she said. “So, they don’t understand. They don’t get it.”
Photo: Dan Bluemel
Wednesday, 24 July 2013