After Trayvon Martin was killed, in February of 2012, protestors gathered across the nation asking for justice for Trayvon Martin. The protestors rallied around the slogan “I am Trayvon Martin,” with people wearing hoodies and carrying bags of skittles. The rallying cry called attention to the fact that young black men are overly-surveilled and viewed with suspicion, considered criminal on sight, and thus frequently in the position of being the target of police or vigilante violence. The “I am Trayvon Martin” protests called attention to the terrifying reality that all of us with black sons could be in the position of Martin’s parents: awaiting a decision concerning the culpability of a man who shot and killed our babies because he assumed he was a criminal—but knowing that regardless of that decision, his life was over. In July of 2013, while the jury was deliberating, I saw a meme posted on facebook that flipped the frame of the “I am Trayvon Martin” slogan. It was a picture of a middle aged white man in a black hoodie, and the caption read:
I am not Trayvon Martin. When I was 14 I was caught in the middle of the night by a neighborhood watch setting fire to a stack of newspapers. Trayvon Martin was walking home with a bag of skittles. I was taken home to my parents. Trayvon was shot and killed.
The message resonated with me, because although there are many young black boys who I love, and often fear for, I am not Trayvon Martin: as a white woman, I have a lifetime of experiences that illustrate what a difference race makes.
Just to share one particularly relevant example, one night when I was 17 years old I was spending the night with a friend, another 17 year old white woman. She lived in a white middle to upper-middle class neighborhood. That night, after her parents went to bed, she and I snuck out of her house on a mission to creep through the neighborhood and find ourselves some fun, and probably some trouble. We were up to no good. At about two o’clock in the morning, after running the streets for hours, we were walking down a street which was lined with boutique shops and small businesses. One of the businesses on that street was a local investment company, The Johnson Company. My friend and I had a mutual friend—a boy who we were excited to impress—named Calvin Johnson, and in our mischievous mood we decided that we should steal the company’s sign so we could give it to Calvin–the was made of wood, it was about two feet long by four feet wide, and “The Johnson Company” was printed across it in huge red letters.
After prying the sign loose from the hooks that held it, we began the walk back to my friend’s house – with me carrying a two foot by four foot sign in my arms. As we were walking we were approached by a police car, which stopped beside us. At that moment, I knew for certain that we were going to jail. Of course we were. I was holding a huge sign that said “The Johnson Company,” and we were less than two blocks away from said company. My only hope was to attempt to concoct some story, some lie that explained my having the sign for a reason other than sheer criminal mischief, and my brain was working furiously as the officer driving rolled down his window. But I was surprised. Stopping me in my tracks, the officer simply asked “where are you young ladies headed?” My friend said “we’re on our way home right now.” I said nothing. I concentrated on keeping the surprise (and even indignation) off my face. The officer said, “where do you live?” She told him her address, which was approximately four blocks away, and, astounding me further, the police officer said, “well hurry and get home, and be careful, its late for you girls to be out.” Then he rolled up his window and drove away.
I was not Trayvon Martin that night. I was a young white woman, walking through a white upper-middle class neighborhood at 2 a.m., so even though I was holding a stolen sign, my presence was entirely unproblematic, except to the extent that I might be in danger. The officer assumed that we were not engaged in wrongdoing – even though we were, in fact engaged in wrongdoing. He had clearly seen the sign I was carrying, since it was more than half as tall as I was, but he also clearly assumed I had that sign for a legitimate reason. So on that night, a police officer showed us, two young white women, human kindness and empathy. He advised us to hurry home, letting us know that it was too late for us to be out, he was worried about our safety, not for the threat we may pose to others or the neighborhood.
On that night my life could have been changed forever. The sign we stole may have been worth enough money to make me eligible for a charge of felony theft. I may have gone to jail or prison instead of college; I may never have gotten the opportunity for an undergraduate education, much less graduate school. I certainly would have had trouble becoming a lawyer since the American Bar Association engages in strict background checks and resists admitting people with felony convictions to the bar. None of that happened because my whiteness never produced a moment of suspicion in that police officer; because I am not Trayvon Martin. I did not lose any aspect of my life as a result of my desire to go creeping that night; Trayvon Martin lost his entire life because he walked to the convenience store in a white gated neighborhood.
Throughout my youth I found that I was often viewed by that police officer as someone to take care of, to show concern for. By contrst, African Americans, especially African American men are viewed as potential criminals. African American men, of all ages, from young teens to elderly gentlemen, from every background, from high school students, to college professors to judges, experience the humiliation of being systematically surveilled and considered suspect—so much so that even a self-appointed vigilante neighborhood watch person, with no legitimate authority, feels entitled to follow a young black man who is merely walking home from the store. But more than that, it is this air of suspicion that leads people to the conclusion that it was reasonable for George Zimmerman to follow Trayvon Martin. The tacit, never fully considered or admitted, assumption that an African American young man in a hooded sweatshirt (as opposed to a white young woman holding a stolen sign) is a potential criminal. And through this nearly axiomatic presumption of black male criminality people can come to the outrageous conclusion that Zimmerman chasing after Martin and confronting him with a gun could lead to a scenario in which Trayvon Martin was viewed as an aggressor.
Several days ago a jury acquitted George Zimmerman (failed, even, to find him guilty of manslaughter, which would have only required recklessness in the shooting). The legal basis for the acquittal was the Florida “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows people to defend themselves with force from an attack without having to attempt to retreat or escape the situation. Evidently the jury decided that after Zimmerman chased Martin down, Martin’s defensive physical response meant that Zimmerman was justified in shooting and killing Trayvon Martin. Metrotrends analysts John Roman and Mithcell Downy have discovered that in the 29 states that have Stand Your Ground laws, shootings are more likely to be legally considered justified. More insidiously, Roman and Downy found that the shooting scenarios that have the highest likelihood of a ruling of justifiable homicide in Stand Your Ground states result when white civilians shoot black civilians. This racial disparity is not surprising to social scientists who study race, the pattern of racial disparity exists in every segment of the criminal justice system in the United States. Moreover, legal scholar Michael Tonry, in his 2011 book Punishing Race, notes that research indicates that when white people are made aware of the racial disparities that affect African Americans in the criminal justice system, their support for punitive criminal justice policies actually increases. (See pp. 91-97).
At this moment the Justice Department is in the process of considering charges against George Zimmerman for civil rights violations (civil rights violations!), and the Stand Your Ground law will not save Zimmerman from a civil suit. But whatever the outcome of that case, Trayvon Martin’s killing must become the motivation a critical systematic interrogation of the criminalization of African Americans in all its insidious forms. We must acknowledge that we are living in a police state in which the lives of young African Americans (especially boys and men) are threatened by extreme surveillance and suspicion, police and civilian harassment, mass incarceration, and even execution. The time has come to stop casually using the words democracy and freedom, and start interrogating what those words should substantively mean.
Dr. Wendy Leo Moore is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Texas A&M University. She is a sociologist and a lawyer and is the author of the award-winning book Reproducing Racism, White Space, Elite Law Schools, and Racial Inequality.