Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence and the Dangers in Demanding Justice

Stephen Lawrence & Trayvon Martin

Stephen Lawrence & Trayvon Martin

By Aviva Stahl

“There isn’t a good reason for me to be as angry as I am over the not-guilty verdict handed down for George Zimmerman in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. I always knew that would be the outcome. No amount of inconsistencies in Zimmerman’s story, nor compassion for two grieving parents who lost their son in the most heinous of ways, could override the lack of respect the US justice system has for black bodies.”

These words, published in The Nation a few days after the Zimmerman verdict, captured my sentiments about the outcome perfectly.  As expected as it may have been, the verdict enraged me, so like thousands and thousands of others I joined a local protest the next day to demand justice for Trayvon. We started in Union Square and marched for several hours, holding hands to block traffic as we crossed busy streets, skirting past police lines and weaving through cars one by one as we reached Midtown.  By the time we arrived at Times Square it was getting dark, yet it felt as if we had finally arrived in the place our message needed to be heard.  I’m sure this sounds naive, but it occurred to me as I took in the brightly lit advertisements towering over us, and the gawking tourists standing nervously on the sidewalk, that this could be the moment that would spark another civil rights movement.

It was just a few weeks ago that I moved back to the United States – to New York City – after living in England for several years, and as the last few weeks have unfolded the legacy of Stephen Lawrence has lingered on my mind.  Two young Black men murdered in racially motivated crimes; two criminal justice systems unable or unwilling to hold racist killers to account.  I’ve wondered, what could the Lawrence case teach Americans about how to move forward in demanding justice for Trayvon?  Certainly, a government report naming the police as “institutionally racist” is inconceivable in the American context; here it is still legitimate to argue that racial profiling benefits people of color by keeping their communities “safer”.

No, we may never have a MacPherson, but just a few days ago Obama stood in front of the White House press room and described the daily, painful realities of racism by framing it in the personal: “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago… There are probably very few African-American men who have not had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars. That happens to me – at least before I was a senator. There are very few African-Americans who have not had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had the chance to get off…” Few of us could ever have imagined that a President would one day utter such words.

Another striking parallel between the Lawrence case and the murder of Trayvon is the “top-down” push to hold the murders to account. In January 2012, nearly 20 years after his death, Stephen Lawrence’s killers were finally found guilty. In recent days, the Obama administration has promised to look into filing federal charges against Zimmerman, although a successful conviction may be a far-fetched dream.

It seems though, that in our hunger for justice, for a naming and undoing of the painful realities of racism, we overlook the tangible dangers of approaching the state for assistance, or even presuming such an alliance is possible. This is another important lesson that can be gleaned from the Lawrence case and the subsequent state response: that we are easily connived into believing that things have really changed.  The Metropolitan Police has MacPherson, but it also has Smiley CultureJean Charles de MenezesMark Duggan, and many others.  Not to mention the racially targeted use of stop and search powers and more recently, the Met’s disgracefully “soft-spoken” response to attacks on mosques.

And yes, Obama can eloquently orate about the brutal nature of discrimination, but he is also (as Dr. Cornell West has so apt described him) the “global George Zimmerman” – a man who lambasts pre-emptive, race-based killing in Florida on the grounds of self-defense but borrows this same logic to defend drone strikes abroad. Our President can spend one day moving us to tears in his remarks on racism, and in the very same week praise a police commissioner made infamous for his love of the discriminatory policing tactic “stop and frisk”.

These are perplexing, confusing times. How do you when the wool is being pulled over yours eyes?  I don’t want to sound paranoid and I certainly believe that some reform from within is better than none at all.

Back in Times Square, what was left of the march started to move northward; the plan was to end in Harlem. Exhausted, my friends and I decided on dinner instead, and walked a few blocks eastward to find some cheaper places.  After we ate, we backtracked to Times Square to catch the subway home.  The space previously occupied by people of color and allied activists was now filled with tourists. They stood watching a street performer, entranced. How strange that a moment could feel so palpably momentous, and then dissipate, just like that.

It seems so difficult to know what to demand, when even the most ideal outcomes may be fruitless endeavors, or even perilous in the broader struggle for racial justice.

Aviva Stahl writes on Islamophobia in the US and the UK and its links to other manifestations of racism, homophobia/transphobia and the prison industrial complex. Follow her work on @stahlidarity.