By Comrade Sloth
A lot of things have changed over the past century of social progress in America, but it seems that the consequences of vigilante execution of young black men have not.
It was a hot Alabama afternoon in late August of 1955 when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American boy, entered a convenience store and whistled at the white woman behind the counter. Just a few nights later, that woman’s husband and his brother abducted Till from his uncle’s home. They beat him to the point of mutilation, shot him, and left his unrecognizable body in a nearby river. Despite overwhelming evidence of their guilt, both killers were acquitted by the all-white jury.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that society has progressed very far in the intervening years. In the spring of 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking down the street in a gated neighborhood where he was visiting his father. A neighbor, George Zimmerman, saw him outside and called the police to report “suspicious” behavior- wearing a hooded sweatshirt and talking on a cell phone. Although police ordered Zimmerman not to follow or approach Martin, he ran out of the house in pursuit and provoked an altercation in which the unarmed teen was shot and killed. Zimmerman was determined to have acted in self-defense and was acquitted of Martin’s murder.
Martin’s death sparked national outrage and debate- there were even several false photographs circulating around the internet allegedly showing what the real Martin looked like. These included a photo of a black man with sagging pants and boxers flipping off the camera with both hands and, more commonly, a portrait of the 31-year-old rapper The Game covered in face, neck, and hand tattoos.
The injustice of Martin’s killer walking free was enough of an injury without the added insult of this misrepresentation. Not only is it inaccurate, it seems to tell the story that maybe his killing would have been justified if he had looked a little more like the rapper: that maybe those tattoos would have made his death acceptable. But where the black community should have been flooded with support and a commitment to keep this from happening again, they got this ridicule and vitriol.
Riots broke out across the country in response to Zimmerman’s acquittal. The media, as it so often does, was quick to jump on the participants, pointing to their actions as needlessly violent and counterproductive. At first consideration, many would agree that looting and property destruction within a community can be harmful to an area’s economy, even further exacerbating problems that are caused by economic instability.
But portraying these riots as the behavior of depraved criminals who lack the intelligence or morality to do otherwise is a dangerously simplistic view of a much more complicated problem. As much as Americans have praised and encouraged the practice of non-violent protest in the case of bringing about social change for African Americans, it hasn’t proven terribly effective. Martin Luther King himself said it best in an interview with Mike Wallace: “I contend that the cry of ’black power‘ is, at bottom, a reaction to the reluctance of white power to make the kind of changes necessary to make justice a reality for the Negro. I think that we've got to see that a riot is the language of the unheard.”
The answer to the glaring problem of racial injustice probably isn’t setting buildings on fire and throwing bricks through windows, but by dismissing these actions as the illegitimate tantrums of violent criminals, we are ignoring the cries of a voice that will only rise in volume until it is heard.