Saturday, July 20, 2013

"Oh what sorrow! oh, what pity! That tears and blood should mix like rain and terror come again": reflections on Trayvon Martin

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, I am haunted by these two sets of photos. One is cleverly photoshopped to show what Trayon Martin would look like if he were white, and what George Zimmerman would look like if he were black. I can't help seeing the boy on the left as an all American kid, and the man on the right as a criminal. I realize how deeply and unconsciously influenced I have been by the pervasive (though often subtle) racism of our culture.
The picture below shows Trayvon Martin and Emmett Till, the African American boy murdered in Mississippi after allegedly flirting with a white woman. He was savagely beaten by whites and thrown into the Tallahatchie River. HIs murderers were acquitted amid public outcry in a case that received national attention, much like Trayvon Martin's During Friday morning's meeting of Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace, Bonnie Blustein, a Unitarian friend of mine, gave this powerful and prophetic reflection about Trayvon Martin and the current state of race relations in the United States. She teaches math at a community college and isn't afraid to share her passion for justice with her students, some of whose comments she shares. Bonnie was part of a vigil and march that was organized by the First AME Church of Pasadena on Wednesday, in which Jill and I took part. Bonnie begins her
reflection with this poem that Langston Hughes
wrote about Emmet Till and includes some incisive comments about the prophet Amos.

Oh what sorrow!
oh, what pity!
Oh, what pain
That tears and blood
Should mix like rain
And terror come again

Come again?
Where has terror been?
On vacation? Up North?
In some other section
Of the nation, OR WORLD?
Lying low, unpublicized?
Masked—with only
Jaundiced eyes
Showing through the mask?

Oh, what sorrow,
Pity, pain,
That tears and blood
Should mix like rain
And terror, fetid hot,
Yet clammy cold

Langston Hughes wrote this poem in 1955, after the brutal murder of 14-year-old Emmet Till in Mississippi.  I made only a few changes.  If you look up the details of Emmet Till’s story, including the acquittal of his murderers (who later confessed), it eerily prefigures Trayvon Martin’s.
Emmet’s mother courageously insisted on an open-casket funeral in Chicago, and the images of the tortured body galvanized many – including youth – into action.  Myrlie Evers reflected that the Emmet Till case resonated so strongly “because it said not even a child was safe from racism and bigotry and death." 
A middle-aged black woman I spoke with at a meeting and march on Wednesday, organized by FAME of Pasadena, had the same thought:  “We have told our children not to act stupid, not to give anyone an excuse to stereotype them, but what are we supposed to tell them now?”
All I could think to say was, “I guess we need to tell them to get active in the movement to change this racist system.”  Immediately she said, “That’s right.”
I’ve talked a lot this week with my summer-school students about the George Zimmerman trial.  (Yes, it was Zimmerman on trial, and not Trayvon!)  At least three out of the 24 students were involved in the protests in Crenshaw/Leimert Park – the first time they’d done anything like that.  They were contemptuous of the “kids with nothing better to do” who were widely seen on TV trashing cars and beating up bystanders, but insisted that most of the marchers, like themselves, were serious.
Many have their own stories of racial profiling:

A black student who was asked by Culver City cops, “What are you doing in Culver City?” He lives there. 
A Latina student stopped in Whittier by cops there who asked, “What are you doing here?  No Hispanics live here.” 
Another black student who was stopped by cops who came up to his car from behind, claiming that his front window tint was too dark.  It was standard factory issue, and how could they see it from the rear?  He suspects it was his skin that was too dark for the cops. 
And another student who was leaving a Hollywood club with a group of friends who were surrounded by half a dozen cop cars as they got ready to pull out of the parking lot.  Next thing he knew, a cop was pointing a shotgun at the head of the friend standing next to him.
What are we supposed to tell these young people, except to get active in the movement to change this racist system?
What are we ourselves supposed to do?

The FAME event Wednesday started with Bible study of the Book of Amos.
Describing the sins of the leaders of his society, Amos said that “at such a time the prudent person keeps silent, for it is an evil time.”  But Amos himself was not prudent, and he did not counsel prudence.

We are told that Amos was a herdsman and grower of figs, a working man.  And what did he see as the sins of “Israel”?  Turning judgment into wormwood and gall, and the fruit of righteousness into hemlock.  A pretty good description of the Zimmerman verdict, secret “National Security” courts, prosecutions of whistle-blowers, and many other developments in the last few years.

But Amos was enraged by much more:  Imposing heavy rents on the poor.  Exacting tributes of grain from them.  Accepting bribes and turning aside the poor.  Storing up violence and robbery in their palaces.  Storing up.  Accumulating wealth robbed from people like Amos:  from the poor, the working people.
Accumulating wealth by exploiting the masses has reached an extreme in today’s world, from Bangladesh to South Africa to Brazil and right here in LA.  This racist system has a name, and its name is CAPITALISM. 

The industrial cities of England, notably Bristol and Liverpool, grew up as hubs of the 17th-century slave trade.  In the US, it was not only the southern plantation owners who amassed their riches by selling the products of the harrowing exploitation of black people; it was also the New England merchants who built the foundation of their commercial empire on the slave trade.  Ezra Stiles imported slaves while president of Yale. Six slave merchants served as mayor of Philadelphia.  Eight US presidents owned slaves during their presidencies.

Michelle Alexander makes a compelling case that the criminalization of black youth – we could add immigrants – and their mass incarceration is the latest incarnation of slavery and of the Jim Crow racism of a century ago.  George Zimmerman was right in tune with law enforcement and the mass media when he looked at an unarmed 17-year-old black youth and saw a dangerous criminal. 

And when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon, he was right in tune with the drone attack, personally authorized by President Obama, that killed 16-year-old Abdulrahman (a US citizen, if that matters) in Yemen two years ago. 
The ramifications of the Zimmerman verdict go far beyond “Stand Your Ground” and permissive gun laws.  They even go far beyond racist stereotypes and prejudice.

So what are we supposed to do?
We are called now to seek and dig out the roots of racism in exploitation and super-exploitation, in the divisiveness intentionally fostered by the few in order to divert the righteous anger of the masses, in capitalism itself. 

We are called now to seek another way of living, one in which love, instead of money, is the currency of society.  One without exploitation, in which goods are produced to be shared as needed, not to be sold for profit.   One in which, in the words of Amos, our people “shall rebuild the waste cities, and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink their wine; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them.” 
What are we supposed to tell our young people? 

That they, themselves, must develop their ability and confidence to envision, articulate, and spread an increasingly clear vision of the world that is not, but still can be.
That that future is in their hands, and in the hands of the masses in motion from Bangladesh to South Africa to Brazil and right here in LA.

That one day tears and blood will no longer mix like rain, and terror will no longer remain. 

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