It’s Sunday early evening and we’re at Victory Square, a park in Vancouver, holding a Vigil for Trayvon Martin. We’re here to mourn Martin’s murder and express our outrage with the system that made it happen.
Martin, 17 years old, was simply walking home one day when George Zimmerman spotted him, called 911, assumed he was “up to no good,” confronted him, and eventually shot him dead. In the aftermath, Martin’s character was analyzed and condemned. Many believed Zimmerman’s story that Martin attacked him. Many accepted that Martin was a menace. Many clung to “damning” reports that he had marijuana in his system, that he’d been suspended from school, and that he, like so many young kids, had a habit of macho posturing in photos.
Few of them lingered on the fact that Zimmerman has a history of violence and paranoia. He was once arrested for fighting an officer, his former fiance filed a restraining order for domestic abuse, and he’d made 46 separate 911 and nonemergency calls between August 2004 and the day he murdered Martin. One relative even accused him of sexual assault.
The facts strongly suggestive of Zimmerman’s past as an unhinged vigilante were conveniently diminished. Everything that sought to confirm the deepest fears about Martin, this young black man, was exaggerated and highlighted. “Only in America,” tweeted Syreeta McFadden, “can a dead black boy go on trial for his own murder.” The justice system, in turn, acquitted Zimmerman of both second degree murder and manslaughter. And he is now a free man.
When that news broke, I saw a steady stream of surprise and anger. Yes, there are far too many who supported Zimmerman and justified his unconscionable act. But many also expressed sincere revulsion at a system which would create someone like him, with all his fears, and make the murders of people like Martin not only inevitable but legally permissible. Many of my friends and acquaintances noted with sincere empathy and searing eloquence the insanity of what just happened.
It’s definitely heartwarming to see large numbers of people in Vancouver so deeply concerned about this case, but something’s missing in Vancouver.
I suspect that people need a bogeyman. We need to believe in “the Other”. Look how persistently Western ideology maintains its fevered delusions about blacks, immigrants, defiant women, gays, and so on. Look how much Western “civilization” needs to believe that the dangerous and menacing sub-humans are just outside the gates waiting to attack when the evidence shows again and again that, as the cartoon character Pogo put it, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
“I imagine one of the reason people cling to their hates so stubbornly,” James Baldwin once wrote, “is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.” This underlies the scapegoating and blame-shifting inherent in racism. And, maybe, it underlies our seemingly admirable outrage over what just happened in Florida.
We’re quick to condemn the developments “over there”. We correctly denounce Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, or institutional racism in the United States, or its gun culture, or inequality’s best apologist, FOX News, or whatever else distinguishes them from us.
But our indignation is farsighted, perceiving with clarity the misdeeds of distant societies while blurring those, due to our acquiescence and negligence, taking place right here. Some of the same structures which churn out Zimmermans, kill Martins, and prosecute the latter instead of the former, operate right here. So let’s turn inward and quit this grandstanding. “And any time some white liberal wants to jump up in my face and tell me something about the Gestapo tactics that are practiced in Nazi Germany, I’ll bust you in your mouth,” said Malcolm X in a speech, excoriating the tendency of many to condemn the unjust practices of others while refusing to admit their own complicity and proximity to similar ones.
“I contend that if Trayvon Martin were a young black woman, we would not even know her name,” wrote Jamila Aisha Brown. Our Trayvon Martins are the missing and murdered women of Vancouver whose names are too often forgotten. Their deaths were a monumental failure of our justice system, and an expression of the worst systemic violence against racialized women in Vancouver. The police and the courts did nothing. VPD officers actively ignored evidence given to them by Downtown Eastside women. Pickton was free for a full five years after the Crown stayed charges against him in 1998. During that time, 19 women disappeared in connection with him. The inquiry into the murdered and missing women was flawed and unjust and even after the case was closed, justice remains unserved.
Our Trayvon Martins are First Nations — people who, despite making up only 4 per cent of the Canadian population make up 23 percent of prison inmates. Aboriginals face systematic discrimination by the criminal “justice” system and are more likely to spend more time in segregation or maximum security, sentenced to longer terms, less likely to be granted parole, and more often busted for minor breaches of release conditions.
Our Trayvon Martins are the criminalized poor people in the DTES, the 93,000 children in British Columbia living in households below the low-income cut-off, our growing number of temporary migrant workers, and those whose living situation is precarious at best.
So, I’m happy that a lot of people I know in this city got up in arms about what happened in Florida. But now we need to take the next step. If our outrage over that travesty of American Justice is sincere, we must face up to and eliminate institutional discrimination and inequality right here.