The death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy. Not just for his family, or for any one community, but for America. I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son. And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our own communities. We should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that’s a job for all of us. That’s the way to honor Trayvon Martin.
I personally read this statement and thought, “The president – just like white conservatives – is more concerned with preventing Black rebellion and retributive violence, than he is with ensuring justice for Trayvon Martin.” We cannot take his statement lightly. It means that the American preoccupation with Black violence, rather than anti-Black violence, has now been reaffirmed by the presumed leader of America himself. And yet, none of these obsessions have thus far proven valid.
Even Obama’s hometown newspaper the Washington Times, noted yesterday that the majority of the protests in connection to the verdict have been peaceful. Yesterday activists and outraged citizens held protests in New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Oakland, Boston, San Diego, Oakland, and of course Sanford, Florida. With the exception of some graffiti and flag burnings in Oakland, protesters maintained civility.
Nevertheless, Miami police began engaging in civil unrest training since at least a week ago, though according to one police official, they haven’t done such training in two years. Clearly these actions stemmed from worries of rioting after the verdict, even if the police won’t admit it. As I reported earlier, Sanford police were meeting with local preachers to work on preventing violence after the trial. Just four days ago 20 pastors met with the police to discuss joint plans to ensure post-trial peace.
While reasonable people can understand the universal concern for peace, it is nevertheless disconcerting that the attention of many white citizens, law enforcement agents, social commentators, and now the president, has consistently focused on potential Black violence rather than justice for the 17 year-old victim of anti-Black violence. Truth be told, the actual problem that has persistently confronted America has been the THREAT of Black violence as a RESPONSE to the EXISTENCE of actual white violence. And the greatest legal contradiction in America has been the questionable prioritization (Michael Vick sentenced to 3 years for running a dog fighting ring while Zimmerman goes free after killing an unarmed teen) and blatant hypocrisy exercised in how America interprets law where non-Black vs. Black people are involved (the legal treatment of Zimmerman as opposed to that of Marissa Alexander).
The president’s call for peace, calm and discussions of gun control therefore fell on millions of deaf American ears. To my knowledge Black people in THIS country have exhibited almost supernatural compassion and understanding for centuries. Even during the turbulent sixties and seventies, when our people were at their most militant, how many white people did we kill? How many of their places of worship did we burn? How many Black militants led urban guerrilla warfare raids against whites? How many racists did we lynch, rape, torture or frame for murder? Indeed, Black people paid their dues in this country with blood, sweat, and tears, surviving enslavement, Jim Crow and all the brutality, denigration, and exclusion that accompanied these injustices. And when we did “revolt” in the latter half of the 20th century, most of the casualties (people and property) occurred in our own neighborhoods! Interestingly, with all this focus on (potential) Black violence, the American judicial system/law enforcement apparatus, along with hyper-paranoid white citizens, seems to excuse if not implicitly support, violence against Black people. And this is the sad reality that left an acidic taste in our collective mouths when jurors pronounced George Zimmerman not guilty.
Furthermore, as violent as president Obama and his administration are in Yemen, Syria, Libya, and Afghanistan, as many drone strikes as he’s commissioned, as many individuals as he’s placed on his once secret “kill list,” he has little moral authority to discuss “peace” or “compassion” or at least to do so with a straight face.
Perhaps I speak for others when I suggest that we don’t need the president to give us moral platitudes. We have spiritual leaders for that; We don’t need the president to suggest we create compassion and understanding in our communities. We have spiritual and community activists and educators/social workers already doing that; Nor do we need him to suggest we discuss and create a plan for gun control. THAT’S what we elected president Obama and other public officials to do. Do you see the irony here?
While Obama directed his statement to all American citizens, it’s paternalistic tone and content sounded much like that he’s typically employed when speaking to all-Black audiences (like the NAACP and Urban League for example). He’s fond of telling Black students to study hard rather than play video games, telling Black parents to guide their children properly and restrict their TV-watching, and telling Black people to educate and empower themselves rather than idly complaining and finger-pointing.
The problem with this approach of course (besides the fact that it promotes and empowers troubling Black stereotypes), is that the president is not an ethical, educational or parental expert or leader. He is in fact, a political leader. Therefore we need far less conservative blaming-the-victim rhetoric and far more LEGISLATION, FEDERAL INVESTIGATION, and FINANCIAL APPROPRIATION from America’s executive chief!
Of course Obama doesn’t deserve all of the blame for his lack of action concerning Black folks. His starry-eyed Black cheerleaders in this country, by failing to hold him accountable, neglecting to be critical of his policies, and by failing to develop an agenda and pressuring him to support it, allow him to sit on the presidential fence on so many issues affecting us. So at a very sensitive and divisive time in this nation when he should speak forcefully about a Federal investigation, legislation or money for programs to curb the tide of anti-Black violence, his big idea is to have Black folk become unpaid and unwilling ambassadors for peace and reconciliation in a country that has typically met our compassion with “Niggers go home,” stubborn resistance and in the worst cases, mob violence.
Once again the President that 95% of Black people voted for has disappointed his largest and most loyal support base. He initially ran for office with the inspiring rallying cry “Yes we can!” But the verdict in the Zimmerman trial and his lackluster response to it only reminds Black people in America that “Yes we can” be murdered with impunity, “Yes we can” NOT trust the system of American justice to defend us, and “Yes we can” expect the devaluation of Black life and issues to continue unless we challenge them.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, please visit his page at the Great Black Speaker’s Bureau.