As I stood on the Higgins Avenue Bridge Monday afternoon with friends and allies in the social justice movement in support of Trayvon Martin, I was horrified at the blatantly racist reactions from the passersby. My hope was that in participating in this demonstration on Monday, I would find some outlet for all the feelings the Zimmerman not-guilty verdict evoked in me as a young black man in America. I was heartened by the turnout for the event, and was moved that as a person of color I was not again forced to represent the whole of my race, but instead was supported by some wonderful allies who organized the event due to their own deeply felt feelings of injustice. During my participation in in the demonstration we received what in my activism in Missoula was a record number of negative responses to our presence and signs on the Higgins Bridge. We had people giving us the thumbs down, the middle finger, folks yelling racist tirades out their windows, etc. I had stood on that bridge for Choice, Healthcare, Marriage Equality, Peace, and many other issues, and never had I been so negatively received.
I had started my day on Monday lying in bed reading various news outlets and blogs discuss the emotional and moral responses to the verdict in the Zimmerman trial. Several of the “facts” surrounding the case I felt were totally irrelevant to this case. So I purposefully avoided any discussions of Trayvon’s past actions, Zimmerman’s level of security, whether or not people were going to riot in response to the ruling, and instead focused on the things I felt were important. How were black people being portrayed in the media? Was the victim of the crime being blamed for his murder? What did society see as an acceptable reason for killing a 17 year old child? I am an organizer for social justice, and have worked my entire career focusing on LGBT rights, racial justice, and women’s rights. This made my focus in this case not surprising…
After hours of anger, frustration, and fear in response to a constant slew of blatant racism disguised as social commentary, I found the outlet for my feelings. Some friends had decided to hold the demonstration in Missoula on the Higgins Bridge. As I prepared for this action, I found that I was having trouble expressing in a sound bite my complex thoughts. More disturbing was my trouble in finding a connection that I felt would resonate with people isolated from the case, thousands of miles away. I felt little distance from this case, as I was profiled, harassed, and threatened as a young black man living all over the country. I had spent several years of my life in FL, and had experienced much of the racism that exists there. But how was I to truncate these feelings and experiences that had created the late twenties black man that I was today? How was I to communicate the urgency and overwhelming despair that had caused me to cry in my kitchen only hours before? Was I allowed to reference explicitly my blackness? Would the mostly white population of Missoula resonate with me if I did?
In organizing we teach that when things get complicated, break them down to the most simple and identifiable elements. You can’t write a dissertation on a piece of foamcore board, even if your message is really important. So I landed on one of the familiar images of a black hoodie, “Justice 4 Trayvon,” and Black Skin + Black Hoodie Does not Equal Criminal. I did not want to attack Zimmerman, hash out the details of the case, or blame any of the players in the trial for a miscarriage of justice. I just wanted to express that I did not feel that the case ultimately ended in placing any responsibility with someone who had for whatever reason ended the life of a child, and that the constant attacks on the clothes that he was wearing, the language that he used, his alleged past indiscretions should all be irrelevant to the ending of his short life by a man who used bad judgment when he willfully exited his car with a firearm after following a child ultimately shooting him.
Many people around the country did not understand why so many of us saw race as an issue in this case. They didn’t understand why in this post-racial America, we need concern ourselves with the race of the perpetrator or the victim. The “unbiased facts” of the events of the evening should reveal the truth without any messy discussion of race relations. The only problem was that for many people of color, the case screamed racial motivation. Even before allegations of Zimmerman’s statements that night, or his passed activity on social networking sites; the narrative was familiar to us. Why? Because we live it all the time.
When I was young, a neighborhood friend of mine asked me to go to a Walgreens with him. He was an overweight white kid from a middle class background, and I a mixed skinny kid from a somewhat lower socioeconomic status. We had lived only a few blocks from each other for years in Rockford,IL. At the time the city’s population was around a quarter of a million people, and there was a definite race problem. I said sure, and we entered the Walgreens. As soon as we entered he said he had to go to the bathroom, and asked me to meet him in the toy aisle. As I walked toward the toy aisle I was immediately followed by the store clerk. I perused the toys, and then went to the candy aisle to grab a few packs of my favorite grape double bubble. My friend was already in the candy aisle, so once I had gathered my purchases, we went to the checkout line, the clerk eyeballing me the whole way. I paid for my gum, after turning out my pockets at the clerk’s request. My friend, who was standing next to me, said he had decided not to get anything, so after my purchase we left. When we got back home, my friend emptied his pockets to reveal his five finger discount purchases. He had liberated toys, cigarettes, and various kinds of his favorite candy. I was horrified, and asked him why he thought it was ok to steal. He replied that he had seen a dateline news episode on racial profiling, and wanted to see if it worked. Obviously it had. This is only one of my experiences with profiling. Since that day early on in my childhood in IL, I would be profiled by many more store clerks, I would be dismissed as stupid by teachers who were entrusted with my education, I would be assumed the assailant and not the victim when I called the police to ensure my safety, accused of stealing property by white friends when things went missing in their homes, ad nauseam.
I was a mouthy skinny black kid, fearless, and “entirely too smart for my britches” as my grandmother used to say. I really could have been Trayvon walking in a community, of mostly white people, with some “creepy ass cracker” following me. If I had been confronted by him, I would likely have responded with indignation at the attack on my basic human dignity, and the continued entitlement of those white people who assume that because I am black I somehow do not belong in the same places they do. And had I felt that my person was in danger, I likely would have fought back.
What saved me in my youth was that I was taught to expect racism, to trust the police but to always have witnesses, and to speak as eloquently as possible when interfacing with white people in authority so that they could identify with me. Growing up with mostly white relatives, I had watched them have positive experiences with the police, and get what they needed from government institutions. My uncles were all firefighters, and I learned early on to trust uniforms. When I was little my grandmother made me memorize the family telephone numbers, and she even sewed an old film canister into my coat to make sure that I would always have them with me. Had I been walking on a FL street I likely would have hung up with my friend, and dialed the police. Told them that there was a creepy dude following me. I might have even asked the dude what he was doing, and if I could help him find anything before I called the police.
What was different for me is that I grew up straddling two worlds. I know that for many black children, the narrative taught to them is not that the police are your friend. For many of them this is bolstered by profiling, harassment, and other barriers to justice. I remember the differences in narratives when I would visit my father’s family who is black, and hear all of the injustice and harassment they had experienced as a part of their daily lives. We did not want to see racism in this case, we couldn’t help but see it.
Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book some years ago called Blink, and as a student of Political Science, I was subject to pieces of it for years of my college education. In the book, much is made of Harvard’s Implicit Association Test, and for some it is quite the lightning rod. Some point to it to prove that Institutionalized Racism exists, and is alive and well. For this discussion, the important part of this test is that those that hold these associations like black = bad are not consciously aware of this. It is important to note that this test does not claim to measure a person’s beliefs, only the associations they make about certain groups of people. Any class in the social sciences will likely have some reference to sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. And without fail there will be students in the class who will deny the current existence of the bias, and state that in this day and age that we are beyond all that, and that “X” special interest group is just hypersensitive to their particular issue. For many, these biases are invisible. They are unaware of why having a jury of primarily white females who have been socialized in this country to fear black males might return a not guilty verdict when the defendant is a white male seen as the legitimate authority figure. And they are obliviously unconcerned as to why.
For many black Americans this case represented a great deal. It represented an opportunity to validate the existence of black people in society. It served as an indictment of profiling and harassment of black bodies. It served as a catalyst for discussion and change in our society about black people’s access to justice.
And when we heard the verdict, many of us felt disappointment, rage, frustration, all centered in our collective memories of oppression.
I found myself deeply saddened by the responses of my fellow Missoulians who I have lived alongside for close to seven years. I felt compelled to write something to express all the emotions and experiences that informed my participation in that demonstration. My dissertation that would not fit on foamcore board.
Many of us hope that the result of this case, and all the media attention it garnered will lead to momentum in our continued struggle to battle erasure, oppression, and lack of access to agency and justice for people of color. I hope that my fellow Missoulians and the greater Montana community will join me in engaging with empathy to ensure that we all can share this great state that we love.
Sincerely, John Blake
Student and Community Activist
John is a biracial, Montana transplant, twenty something, social change activist, agitator, and student.