A 'Calm Reflection' on Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and Too Many Others
By Meleiza Figueroa
July 12, the night before George Zimmerman was acquitted, some friends and I went to see the movie “Fruitvale Station.” The film chronicles the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old black man from Oakland, Calif. — who, although a bit of a screw-up like a lot of males at that age, was at heart a devoted son and father — handcuffed and fatally shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit police officer on New Year’s Day 2009. As the credits rolled on the film, I sat there with my friends, stunned, crying and heartbroken, trying, through all the visceral pain and anger, to process what I had just seen.
What struck me most about director Ryan Coogler’s remarkable film was the everydayness of it all. Throughout the movie, Michael B. Jordan’s portrayal of Oscar Grant reminded me of many people I have known in my life: neighbors, friends, past lovers of all colors. Grant’s last day could have been any given day in Oakland — kids, hipsters, blunts, Farmer Joe’s market, the making and breaking of heartfelt promises, the familiar squeal of the BART train as it pulls into a station. Grant’s last night, celebrating New Year’s Eve in San Francisco, could have been any fun night out with friends. I was also reminded of the commonness of police brutality — names called, punches thrown, knees on black bodies pinned to the cement; even the fatal shot, shocking and yet so everyday, the banality of white supremacy. And it happens, literally, every day. Every 28 hours a black man is killed by police or vigilantes like Zimmerman.
As the credits rolled on “Fruitvale Station,” I tried to run through all the other young black men who shared the same tragic story: Trayvon Martin, Sean Bell, Ramarley Graham, Alan Blueford, Kenneth Harding, Raheim Brown, Amadou Diallo, all the way back to Emmett Till. And my heart broke again, when I realized I couldn’t even remember them all. I could barely sleep that night. My whole body was shaking with indescribable, uncontrollable sadness and rage.
My mind, my heart and my conscience were already in a state of unrest a full day before Zimmerman was declared not guilty of stalking, confronting and killing an unarmed 17-year-old kid, before the American justice system determined that Martin, walking home with his candy and tea, was somehow guilty of his own death at the hands of a gun-toting vigilante who identified him as a “fucking punk” at the mere sight of his hooded black face.
The protests, the blockades and the continuing outrage on the streets this week are about a verdict, an epidemic of state-sanctioned slayings of young black men. And they are about race and everyday forms of dehumanization. They are about the fact that people are criminalized all day, every day for the color of their skin, and because of this, their lives are deemed to have no value. It is systemic, and it is deeply personal. It is about Oscar, and Trayvon, and stand your ground laws, and it is also about the fact that my black and brown ex-boyfriend was pulled over 22 times in a nine-month period, and was issued only one citation in that time; that he was asked what he was doing in a certain neighborhood, and when he replied that he was going shopping, he was ordered to pull out his wallet and prove that he had money to shop there. It is for the fact that at times I have had to use my Asian-American model-minority privilege to help get friends with more stigmatized skin hues out of unjustified searches and racially charged confrontations, but my own skin is still dark enough that when I’ve worn the wrong clothing in the wrong place, I too have been followed through a store. It is for the fact that my mother still chastises me for being out in the sun and letting my skin “get so dark.” It is for the fact that at the Occupy Cal demonstrations in 2011, as we linked arms in peaceful protest, my white friend was arrested and asked by a police officer if she was all right, and in the next heartbeat five other officers singled out my other friend, a young black student, for doing the exact same thing we were doing and mercilessly beat him. It is for the fact that just this week I went to a cafe with a black friend in a progressive, predominantly white neighborhood in Los Angeles and made the mistake of not dressing like we had money. As the only dark-skinned people in the place, we were mad-dogged by white bikers at the entrance, while everyone else looked at us and consciously or unconsciously sat up just a little straighter, just a little more alert.
These, and many other moments, are the “little things” that made the killing of Trayvon Martin, and that of innumerable young men like him, both possible and defensible in a court of law. These are among the daily corrosions through which the micro-degradations of racism and white supremacy eat away at all our lives.
And still, I am not Trayvon; I am not black. Though I see it all around me, and experience it tangentially, Trayvon’s reality, and that of his family and community, is not a reality I must contend with every day. I have the privilege of removing myself from it if and when I choose. I have the privilege of being able to look at it as an academic issue and not one of everyday life and death.
President Obama, you ask for “calm reflection” in the wake of a verdict that legitimizes the ending of a life for the way a person looks, for a verdict that confirms what for centuries has been reinforced in so many ways: that a person with dark skin, especially those coded as “black,” can and should be treated as less than human. “Calm reflection” in the face of a reality like this is something you can ask for only in the space of those who are privileged enough to reflect calmly. I can write this letter calmly only because right now I am sitting in a nice house, in a peaceful place, days and miles removed from the anger in the streets. Don’t ask for calm reflection from those who are not allowed that space. Demand justice, by any means necessary. That is the very least you can do.
Meleiza Figueroa is a political activist and Ph.D. student in geography at UC Berkeley. She was formerly a producer at KPFK Pacifica Radio and lead researcher on the film “Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price.”