Written March 20th, 2012
The recent shooting death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin, an unarmed young man shot by his neighborhood’s Neighborhood Watch captain while on his way home, has reopened the wounds characterizing the relationship between African Americans and law enforcement in America. These wounds had been stitched—not healed, but aesthetically stitched—since the Reconstruction Era of the late-19th century. This era, which spanned from 1865-1877, marked the emergence of the Freedmen’s Bureau, an agency designed to aid Blacks in stabilizing themselves in the post-slavery period. In hindsight, though, we see how ineffective the attempts made by the Freedmen’s Bureau were, as anti-Black sentiment in the south thwarted the bureau and any attempts toward mending the afflictions of Blacks in America. Fast-forward to present-day, and we find ourselves in familiar waters: The image of harmony and unity we so commonly associate with our country has been torn down, only to reveal an ugly backdrop, marked with turmoil, unrest, and, in some cases, injustice.
George Zimmerman, 28, serves as the captain of his neighborhood’s Neighborhood Watch program. Trayvon Martin, 17, was making his way to his father’s home in a gated, Orlando suburb, carrying a bag of Skittles in his pocket and an iced tea in his hand when Zimmerman spotted him from inside his car. Upon spotting Martin, Zimmerman dialed 911 and voiced his unfounded suspicion that Martin had been carrying out a string of burglaries reported in the neighborhood. To date, it is unknown what specifically led Zimmerman to this inference, though records of the 911 call reveal Zimmerman describing Martin as “looking like he’s up to no good”, “on drugs or something”, “having something in his hands”, and “walking around, looking about”. Zimmerman followed Martin as he made his way through the neighborhood, explicitly defying the instructions of the dispatcher who told him not to do so. “These ass——- always get away,” Zimmerman told the dispatcher, as he continued his pursuit. Little is known about what happened after Zimmerman’s 911 call ended, aside from the fact that he left his car and, after numerous 911 calls from nearby neighbors, a bloodied Trayvon Martin lay dead upon the sidewalk.
The intent of this piece is not to paint Zimmerman as a racist; I know not whether he is, and though I may have assumptions, painting one man as a racist isn’t the type of dialogue capable of changing the world. Instead, what’s at hand is the overt and disproportional criminalization and incarceration of Black Americans in a society claiming to be post-racial. It is fascinating how a Black population in America comprising a mere 13% of the total population can provide over 50% of the prison population. For that statistic to exist, greater powers are at work than that of individual criminals. Greater powers, perhaps, which have subjugated a race for centuries; Greater powers, perhaps, which profit from said subjugation; and greater powers, perhaps, which have propagated a fear that drove George Zimmerman to assume Trayvon Martin brandished a gun when all he carried was…just Skittles and iced tea.
What if, just like the presumed gun tucked in the waistband of young Trayvon Martin, the oft-peddled, hyper-aggressive, criminalized image of African Americans in the United States was nothing more than a facade—nothing more than a fabrication? What if it was and is nothing more than an excuse to justify America’s irrational fear of African American culture? What if… it was nothing more than Skittles and Iced Tea?