Holiday had been right about the tension. One of the first people I meet scans me up and down and looks at my notebook. “Write something down for me,” he says. “Get the fuck out of here.” He’s an exception. The people stopping and shopping in the late afternoon are reluctant to talk, until they get a few sentences in. And then it sounds like they’re picking up on a monologue they started weeks ago, stopping to take breaths.Do you hear the drums? The natives are restless.
Jamelia Jarrells and Jakivia Franklin talk about the killing as customers stroll in and out of the convenience store where they work. There’s no air conditioning, and the door’s constantly open, so most of the lights stay off while the fans stay on.
“I thought Zimmerman should have been arrested that night,” says Jarrells. “Regardless of the fact of whether or not he thought he was defending someone, he killed someone. Even if they arrested him, and he got out that same night, I think people would have felt better.”
...“If I shot somebody who looked like you, or you, shit, I’d be on death row.”
“If he was a white 17-year-old,” says Jarrells, “he wouldn’t have been shot.”
Rashid Abdul Rahman, a retiree, chimes in. “Since we’re in central Florida,” he says, “and there’s so many movements coming through here, it’s going to be OK. If we was in California, they’d be burning this up.”
Burning what up? “The city!”
The national news media are going through the obligatory motions in their coverage of Trayvon Martin's murder at the hands of George Zimmerman. In an era of the 24 hour news cycle (when the public's attention span is short), the spectacle surrounding Trayvon Martin's shooting apparently still has some exhausted legs supporting it.
Race, crime, guns, violence, and the law are old elements in the American story. In keeping with this script, there are obligatory acts to our national play. The Trayvon Martin saga has featured many of them.
1. The good negro and "best black friend" of the white offender has been trotted out to defend him.
2. According to his associates and family, George Zimmerman is actually a "friend" and "defender" of the colored people. Zimmerman is misunderstood and unfairly maligned by the public, the NAACP, and the news media.
3. "Outside agitators" are riling up trouble among the good, peaceful, obedient, and docile black folks of Sanford, Florida. There would be no "race troubles" if "race hustlers" such as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson were not involved in the Trayvon Martin controversy.
4. The murderer is actually the victim. As a defender of white civilization, Zimmerman did what many conservatives (and others) wished they could...but lacked the courage or opportunity to follow through on.
5. White people are victims. Historically, it was an absurd fear of "white oppression" by free blacks that helped to legitimate white racism. In the present, this language has been recycled as "reverse racism." Both rely upon a White racial imagination which sees blacks as perpetual criminals, brigands, and killers.
Across the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries the formula remains the same: race, crime, guns, "scary" black men, and white fear. This holds true even if Trayvon Martin (unarmed and innocent) is dead at the hands of George Zimmerman (armed and hunting his human prey).
The historical irony is rich. For example, as demonstrated many times in places like Rosewood, Chicago, Tulsa, and East St. Louis, racial violence in the United States is almost the exclusive province of whites against blacks. Race riots are almost by definition the murderous mob actions of whites against people of color. Funny then, how in the popular imagination such matters are muddied and inverted.
The anxieties about a "negro uprising" in Sanford, Florida has a storied historical pedigree. For example:
Negroes in Liberty City, Georgia are plotting an insurrection. They are gathering in the woods to burn down the homes of white people in retaliation for violence against them. The local Sheriff has sent out a plea for assistance to the Governor.
Evil progressives are attempting to excite mischief among the negroes of Helena, Arkansas. There is an armed revolution afoot as the black population is going to attack and destroy the white community!
The mayor has ordered 1,000 bullets! Communists are causing agitation as the negro population is planning violence and a Socialist redistribution of wealth against the good white people of their town.
Good white people have been surrounded and held hostage. Thank goodness though! A negro has been bribed to seek out help for the innocent whites laid siege in Orangeburg County, South Carolina by angry blacks. Fifty whites are in route to break the siege by 200 blacks against the vulnerable and at risk whites of Norway, South Carolina!
In thinking through the historical antecedents of Trayvon Martin's murder, and white apologists' reactions to it, here is an eerily prescient news item from the year 1904:
Memory echoes across time: our collective conscience is trans-historical. White supremacy, what is a changing thing, reaches back to the past to find life in the Age of Obama. While the temptation is to focus on the Southern Strategy of the 1960s in order to explain the virulent anti-black and anti-brown animus of the New Right and the Republican Party at present, the roots are in fact much older.
The Conservatives who instinctively rally to defend George Zimmerman are actually the intellectual and emotive kin of racist White populists who lived centuries before. In all, matters would be much improved if the reactionary Right owned their philosophical and intellectual wellsprings in the hanging tree, chain gangs, and press gangs of post-Reconstruction America.
History is real; the past is present in the year 2012. This is true for all black folks. It applied to Trayvon Martin. It also applies to someone as powerful as the President of the United States of America.