If I Had a Son

Step out of your comfort zone and stand up for Trayvon Martin

By Richard J. Rosendall
Published on March 29, 2012, 6:39am | Comments

If you think we live in a post-racial society, look at the flood of hateful comments found by blogger Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs below a March 19 Fox News article on the Department of Justice investigation into the Feb. 26 killing of Trayvon Martin. The last comment Johnson quotes will suffice: "GOOD SHOT ZIMMY. lol."

The president of the United States took a different tack on March 23: "When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids. … If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

With these simple words, praised by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic as "a stunning exercise in political minimalism," President Obama touched the chord of parental anxiety at the heart of the tragedy in which wannabe cop George Zimmerman, armed with a 9 mm handgun, pursued and fatally shot the 17-year-old Martin, who was armed with a bag of Skittles, a can of iced tea and a cellphone.

Coates described the Wild West logic of Florida's Stand Your Ground law on March 22: "The logic incentivizes an armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead."

At a March 23 prayer vigil on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in Southeast D.C. organized by the National Black United Front, we chanted Marcus Garvey's motto, "One God, One Aim, One Destiny!" A Muslim minister read from the Nation of Islam's newspaper, The Final Call. Archbishop George Stallings of Imani Temple led a call-and-response: "What do we want? Justice! When do we want it? Now!" We were told to raise our black fists; I smiled and took part.

Was all this so terribly radical? The young Muslim organizers were entirely courteous. Little children held candles. I was greeted by community activists I have known for years. Afterward, Stallings invited me for pizza at a nearby café. If you're looking for radicals at these rallies, you'll see them. But if we remove our cultural filters, we see concerned parents and young people determined to be full citizens rather than victims.

Trayvon's mother listened to the 911 tape featuring screams for help in the background, then the gunshot. She is certain those were her son's screams. Flashback to 1955 and Mamie Till ordering an open casket for her son Emmett, saying, "I want them to see what they did to my son."

I have recently been advising students at a local high school on their senior theses. They are all Trayvon's age. I think of them when I read that Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America told Current TV's Cenk Uygur on March 23 that Zimmerman was justified in shooting Martin, based on a nameless witness who claimed, after a month of silence, that he saw Trayvon fight back. How is an armed, aggressive white man presumed to be law-abiding, while a black teenager is presumed criminal? This story exposes racial biases so ingrained we don't notice them.

One of my students, whom I heard joking recently about his "Spidey Sense," explained how he would fit his dreadlocks into his Spider-Man costume. But if black people have magical power, it is a grimly ironic one: the ability to make anything in their hand look like a gun.

All too rarely, a great injustice is galvanizing. This one can serve as a call to defeat the forces of hate, with their voter-suppression efforts and violence. It is time to step out of our comfort zones and rebuild the civil rights coalition for a new generation.

Trayvon Martin's death has become a national Rorschach test in which different people see different things. But Trayvon was not an inkblot. He was someone's son.

Richard J. Rosendall is a writer and an activist. He can be reached at rrosendall@starpower.net.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace