“Well, the first difficulty is really so simple that it’s usually overlooked: to be Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”—James Baldwin, The Negro in American Culture (WBAI-FM New York, 1961)
For many of us, Saturday’s late announcement of the legal innocence of George Zimmerman was a deadly blow to what little faith was left in our justice system. Our outrage—however expressed in conversations with close friends, family, and on social media—is evident. We are hurt, disappointed, and angry that yet again the system espoused to protect us and deliver blindly a verdict consistent with simple facts of Trayvon Martin’s murder has failed. But what do we do with this rage? As Baldwin questions, how do we manage the emotional heartache and pain so that it doesn’t destroy us? While many possible solutions exist, here are several worth our consideration in the immediate future.
1. Realistic self-appraisal: We need to take a truthful, personal inventory of how we feel and why. In doing so, we should deeply consider from where these emotions emerge. Drawing again from Baldwin, these emotions are not merely what is happening now, but what is happening all around us all the time, “in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference,” the indifference and ignorance of many Zimmerman supporters in this country. Given the long and tragic legacy of gun violence toward and with our communities, urban and suburban, working class and affluent, we are not new to the realities and impacts of firearms. What is more, we are all but unaware of the ways in which the law and criminal justice system disproportionately arrest, prosecute, and convict African-Americans in gun-related offenses while vindicating White counterparts who have used lethal force against us as perceived criminals. This is to say, how we are feeling is the result of an unjust system continuously creating our mental and emotional unrest. Within this broader context, our hurt, disappointment, and anger are as much our right as they are our reality.
2. Define “justice”: Secondly, we must answer the very poignant question, which has been posed earlier, “what does justice for Trayvon Martin look like?” For each of us, that answer may be very different. For some, it means legislative measures regulating the ownership of firearms. For others, it may mean vigilante justice as Zimmerman spends the remainder of his life concerned with citizens “taking the law into their own hands” much the way he did when he profiled, approached, and ultimately killed the son of Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton. While I am not advocating for the latter, it is a very real thought for many. Do remember that it is unlikely that someone charged with killing George Zimmerman would find a similar outcome to his if placed on trial for his murder. Focus on solutions that will support the living, such as continuing to support Trayvon’s parents as they continue to wrestle with civil and possible federal cases in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal.
3. Organize: Next, we must collaboratively determine our agenda, detailing short-term and long-term goals at various levels of our involvement locally, regionally, and nationally. Again, different beliefs regarding justice will shape the conversations and action items among different groups. However, we at least agree on the need to eradicate the contributors to how we perceive and treat Black boys and men while concurrently criminally penalizing those who break the law. Coalitions of individuals and organizations already doing this work and those recently heeding the call to serve should develop, finding common ground to identify measurable objectives and strategies toward specific ends (e.g., repealing gun laws similar to “Stand Your Ground”).
4. Mobilize: Finally, take it to the streets! In many areas we have already planned for and begun this process as evident by the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, which released a listing of non-violent, direct action opportunities in cities across the country. At the very least, these gatherings provide some deliberative space for those deeply affected by the court’s verdict. Within them we find a place to express intense emotions amongst a community of empathizers who understand and share our sentiments. We also find a place to heal, through solidarity with others looking for a way to cope. Lastly we are able to share ideas, strategies, and tactics toward achieving our collective goal—justice—however defined. If your city was not listed, or has yet to announce a communal response, create your own course of action in your local barbershops, community centers, religious meeting places, or your own home. Localized grassroots mobilization is often the first step in affecting local-level policies and practices often contributing to scenarios similar to that which ended tragically for Trayvon Martin.
It is critically important to remember that how we manage the deep-rooted discontent of the legal exoneration (and factual guilt) of George Zimmerman is about more than ourselves as individuals. While the politics of race and respectability do much to shape “appropriate” responses, we also have power to determine responses absent of these social pressures on our own terms. This is not the time to obsess over being “good, respectable Negroes,” but rather, one for us to focus on finding some semblance of justice for a family that has buried a son, and a community that has been told, once again, that Black life is to be treated with little worth.
Our choice not to retaliate through violence should not be read as dishonest to our feelings, but as a choice to remain a part of very necessary conversations and actions to change. Essentially, we do this for Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin who need our continued support. We also do this for the many others whose lives were affected or taken by gun violence, especially Black men and boys (i.e., Oscar Grant III, Jordan Davis), every day by law enforcement, self-deputized citizens, and one another in cities like Chicago. We do this so we can find a way to preserve what little sanity we have left in reconciling our own humanity within a world, which, at every ebb and flow, treats us as less than human. We do this because, unfortunately, this scenario will arise again. When it does, we must be ready and able to respond, heads “bloodied, but unbowed.”