Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Trayvon Martin

Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Danroy Henry. Ramarley Graham. Orlando Barlow. Aaron Campbell. Timothy Stansbury. Oscar Grant. In the land of freedom and opportunity, the possibilities for these names to become household ones should be endless, and are what fundamentally define for what America stands, at its core. Instead, these names represent a reality which has been carved out specifically for Black males of this country. Sadly, we add 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to this list of people who will never reach the potential on which America thrives in theory, but fails in practice.

The story of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, Black teenage boy who was stalked and subsequently murdered last month by a crime watch volunteer who deemed him “suspicious” as he walked home from a convenience store, has been elevated to an international one, largely in part by social and Black media outlets.  President Obama has called for  Americans to do some “soul searching”, personalizing the tragedy in a statement last week.  Nationwide rallies and public statements from influential figures in politics, entertainment and elsewhere have taken over mainstream media, which initially all but bypassed this story.  As a mother of a young son, as a journalist, and as a part of the jazz community, it remains a priority for me to do my part in keeping this story in the forefront of the American conscious.  It was also important that sentiments within the jazz community be well represented alongside those of the rest of the world.

Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, (who was not part of a registered watch group, and who has a record for previously assaulting a police officer), has yet to be arrested; protected by one of the scariest laws in the nation. “It’s this backward, unjust, NRA- driven law that has let Zimmerman go free,” says pianist Vijay Iyer of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law which is currently in place in 24 states. “[President Obama’s] choice to step into this firestorm was courageous, and also strategic. All the focus has been on the 3-second-long ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon’ quote, but he said some other very important things, too.” Iyer points out that as President, Barack Obama cannot override the law, which was passed in Florida in 2005, but says his statement that ‘we examine the laws and context for what happened’ is a ‘clear reference’ to “Stand Your Ground”.

The following is courtesy of Al Jezeera:

Here is a full explanation of the “Stand Your Ground” bill, as explained by Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (“Arming Zimmerman”).  The first prong of the law explicitly removes an individual’s duty to retreat from a conflict when he/she can safely do so . The second prong explicitly protects killers acting under the first prong:

“A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force … A law enforcement agency … may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.” [emphasis added.]

Despite the racial divide which this story has illuminated, President Obama’s imploring of the nation and its parents to have basic empathy in this case is something drummer Otis Brown III is relating to and coping with. “I explained the whole case and we talked about it,” says Brown who has two sons under ten years old.  “It’s like, do I really have to have a talk with them now about how some people are not going to like them or immediately treat them a certain way  because of the way they look?  We did, and they understood it, but as a parent, it’s kind of disheartening when you see a look come over their face… you see their mind working and I saw it when I was talking to them.  It was definitely a teaching moment. It’s the reality of how we live that you have to talk to your kids, especially Black males and for me, it was a crazy juxtaposition because we were just featured in [Esperanza Spalding’s] “Black Gold” video, and I’m explaining that concept to them… understanding and knowing your worth, and no more than a year later I have to, on the other hand, explain that some people think you’re worthless.”
Like so many others, Brown used his social media platform to denounce the notion that Trayvon’s hoodie sweatshirt somehow led him to a death sentence.  “The stats of how violent Black youth may be or how they dress is an ad hominem argument to the Trayvon Martin case,” says trumpeter Nicholas Payton.  “Zimmerman killed that boy in cold blood. He pursued a young man who was clearly more scared than he. You mean to tell me I need to modify my behavior or style of dress to thwart the danger of being shot by a pathological killer?”

Saxophonist and educator Wade Fulton Dean adds, “Let me be clear, a hoodie or any article of clothing for that matter, is not a catalyst for suspicion or a prediction of criminal activity.  Let’s be real, brothers Malcolm and Martin were struck down in suits.”

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland recounts “one of many” reminders that no matter how Black males may try to appear less “threatening”, (which is a poisonous ideology to begin with) they are not exempt from racial profiling.  “At 19 years old I had the great honor to play with Wynton Marsalis at a very exclusive event.  People of all races were very generous to us with their kind words after the performance.  I felt great!  Then as I walked home from the train that night, still dressed in a tuxedo, with an instrument that was appraised to be $5,000 at that time, strapped to my back, an elderly lady looked back at me and proceeded to walk much faster and get her keys out so she could quickly enter the safety of her apartment building (she also yanked at the door to close it faster).   I thought to myself, ‘No matter what I do, where I go, or how I dress my skin color will always conjure up the same image in the mind of people like this woman.’  Trayvon could have easily been me or anybody else of color, and as you see, a hoodie has nothing at all to do with it.”

“There is nothing we as Black people need to do to stop people from committing hate crimes against us,” says Payton.   “What needs to stop is the idea that the killing of another person based on prejudice is ever justifiable, no matter the race. The notion that we as Blacks have somehow brought this on ourselves is the same red herring they’ve been trying to sell us for centuries. I ain’t buying.”

“A hoodie is worn by people of all colors, not exclusively by dangerous Black males,” adds Strickland.  “Furthermore, not all Black males are dangerous.  The hoodie is not the issue, bigotry is the issue.  Although I deeply appreciate the many pros of the The Post Civil Rights era it is not an era of Post Racism, it is merely the spawn of more excuses and more subtle ways to carry out racism. The Sanford Police Department is full of it, Geraldo is full of it, and Zimmerman should have been arrested by now.  Given George Zimmerman’s history of violence, his racial slur in the 911 call, Zimmerman’s agressive pursuit of Trayvon, and the eye-witnesses’ accounts of no reason for the shooting there is already enough reason to make an arrest.  The tragedy has garnered a response from the President of the United States and the FBI  – shouldn’t that, in addition to the evidence, be enough warning that it’s time for an arrest and trial?  Furthermore, if Trayvon were not Black with a hoodie on would he be shot by Zimmerman?  If Trayvon were were not Black would it take this long for the Sanford Police to realize there is not enough evidence to prove Zimmerman’s innocence?  Has Trayvon’s skin color influenced the Sanford Police departments benefit of the doubt for Zimmerman?  Should the benefit of doubt rule over due process and evidence against Zimmerman?”

The questions posed are deserving of answers, especially to Trayvon’s parents.  Iyer is optimistic, but also calls out the silence and ignorance of right-wing media. “The nationwide grassroots protest movement formed around [this case] has been inspiring.  The national conversation about this incident has been characterized by typical racism and hotheaded ignorance that has become commonplace in the FOX News era, as television commentators continually weigh in without any factual knowledge or expertise.  This has created an ongoing atmosphere of hostility that validates prejudice over justice, righteous indignation over compassion, and divisiveness over community.”

Community has been a big part of this story, and it seems the Black community’s reaction is being put to the test, with a sort of call to action for how Blacks should respond to Black on Black crime.  Spiritual advisor and life coach Iyanla Vanzant spoke this past Sunday on Washington Watch With Roland Martin about the pathology of Black on Black crime, and that by devaluing life, it leaves the community vulnerable to these types of horrific crimes.

Brown points out the nation’s overall blind eye to Trayvon and how devaluing of African American lives is well beyond a Black issue.  “Just a couple of weeks ago, there were millions of people  trying to get Joseph Kony… White, Black, whatever. Retweeting stuff, posting stuff, and now that it’s an American kid that gets killed… it’s real lopsided that we have mostly people of color protesting. You don’t really see other races galvanizing in the same way, but Joseph Kony, it’s like, ‘Oh he’s a war criminal.’  So are African kids more valuable than African America kids?  It shouldn’t be the case the either way, but there should be the same amount of uproar for this case.”

“It angers me that America still is hell-bent on painting blackness with this wide, uninformed, mono-chromatic brush,” says Dean. “Blackness is not a stereotype; blackness is not a mystery. Blackness is a narrative of complexity and triumph. Professor Henry Louis Gates said, ‘If there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black.’ We are indeed a nuanced people. We are equal participants in this brilliant enterprise called America. The suspicions and misconceptions do harm and tarry from participating in celebration which is Black culture. And so I say to all of America, do not label your brown skinned brother and sister. For the label that you attempt to place on them can easily be placed on yourself.”

I cannot say that Trayvon Martin was a “typical kid”.  Black males in America do not have the luxury of such a general, fair and balanced terminology.  Personally, I don’t know a Black male who has not been profiled in some way or another.  “To be honest, I feel like I’m profiled very often,” says saxophonist Jaleel Shaw.  “There have been many times that I’ve been pulled over by the police, double checked at an airport, or watched in stores. Although I can say there are many times that I haven’t, the times that I have definitely stick out. Today, when a cop car is behind me, or before I even walk into some places, I sometimes feel uncomfortable.”

Cards as stacked against us as they are, I cannot help but look at Trayvon Martin as a regular kid; a kid who loved the outdoors, had aspirations of a career in aviation, and had a girlfriend he was crazy about.  He doesn’t just look like President Obama’s potential son, but my own actual one.  Which leaves me breathless.  I have come to grips with the fact that my son’s life lessons, and those of his non-Black friends will be very different.  Teaching my son how to deal with overwhelming racism within law enforcement, and raising him to be a kid who stays out of trouble in the first place, is something I am ready for.  To explain how something like this can happen to a kid who did all of the right things is what I’m not.

**A special thank you to all of the musicians who took time out of their busy schedules to let their voices be heard on this matter.

18 responses to “Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

  1. All of this is good info, however, in reality as a white male, I once walked down the street at night in a majority black neighborhood. I saw 5 black male 20 somethings in hoodies approach me, and I told myself “don’t get scared, just walk, they are totally fine” then what happened? i got jumped, and they beat me up, and stole everything i had in my pockets. Now, whenever I see black males packed together in hoodies I get right over to the other side of the road. I believe a lot of people do the same because there is a real danger. This is just survival instinct. There is an alarming amount of black-caused violence in the USA and to deny this is ludicrous. (not to say there isn’t a lot of non-black violence).

    • Thanks for your comment and for sharing your story. I’m confused however, by what your comment has to do with the murder of Trayvon Martin. He was not walking with a group of hooded males. He did not approach George Zimmerman. And he did not beat up George Zimmerman. Zimmerman stalked him (listen to the 911 calls) and murdered him. I will not debate with you about Black caused violence versus White caused violence as I feel this would be an unproductive path. I will say that this story should make America do some real “soul searching” as the President has said, and get real honest about race in America.

    • Toby, thanks for sharing your story and my sentiments for you toward that unfortunate event. However, I must ask if you proceeded to go around your neighborhood stalking and shooting hooded black teenagers w skittles & ice tea in their hands based on your unfortunate experience? That’s what Zimmerman did, and if your answer to the question is hopefully a resounding ‘no’ it proves that all of us here share common ground. Right?

      • Yes I agree, w/ both of you. I guess I was trying to rationalize why some folks are afraid of people in hoodies. I’m also afraid of white 20 somethings walking in packs of hoodies! all points taken and were very well put. Thank you.

  2. Thank you for the post Angelika. Just to let you know, people here in Ireland have been horrified by this incident, and most are frankly disbelieving of the ‘law’ that is used to justify what happened. It seems to me that the ‘stand your ground’ law is crazy in itself, and the fact that a human being can shoot another human being – whatever the circumstances – and not be arrested for at least investigation is mind-boggling. When you add the circumstances in this case – a poor kid just coming home and minding his own business and being murdered (there is no other word for it), and then the shooter is NOT arrested – then ‘mind-boggling’ is too weak a phrase to describe this. If this had been a white 17 year old kid, shot by a black neighborhood watch guy in these circumstances (or in ANY circumstances!), would the nieghborhood watch guy have been arrested…..? I think the answer to that is clear. Of course there are racists all over the world, in all societies, but I think America’s institutionalized racism – in the richest country in the world – is particularly shameful.

    • You’re welcome, Ronan, and thank you for such an insightful comment. It’s so great to know that this story is getting international attention. The world is watching how America responds, and I hope we as a nation do the right and lawful thing. I was actually unaware of this “law” until now, and it’s scary to think about it, although I cannot say it was surprising that such a “law” exists in America. We’ve got to look this issue square in the eye, and deal with it. We’ve got to stand by what’s right no matter what. Thanks again for writing, your vantage is much appreciated!

  3. Thank you Angelika for writing this … This is truly tragic and I almost feel weary from witnessing unfairness – true injustice for so long.

    In 2003 my neighbor – 19 – African American male on a Thursday night at 9:30 pm – was shot in my driveway – I was the only person who came out of my house to help him – in spite of my screams for help – no one came out of their house … while two young men in hoodies ran away hoping my fence…

    In Oakland there is a shooting nearly every day – at least 3 or 4 a week…. the murder I came upon was never solved… further it took Oakland PD 1 hour, 47 minutes to show up on sight from when they were called – while my body laid over his to keep the blood inside him, however, he was already dead…

    If we were in a more affluent neighborhood – and in a neighborhood that was not consider in all black neighborhood – I do think the police would have arrived quicker – what happens in poor neighborhoods is neglectful and regretful – I don’t know how to deal with unfairness – what is happening in the Trayvon Martin case is simply outrageously unjust … I also think the local police should be federally investigated for the mishandling of this situation – just as in the case of City of Oakland – the Feds are now auditing them as a result of years of abuse and mismanagement… There is no justice until there is full accountability for all actions.

    Lastly, please let me know if you want to speak to some west coast artists – Marcus Shelby and John Santos I am sure have much to contribute to this discussion….

    • Wow…

      Thank you so much for sharing your first hand understanding of the severity of this issue. Sadly these stories often become one, sad theme, but these people have names, loved ones, families and the same rights we all should have. It’s just a terrible, terrifying reality that no one seems to want to touch collectively. But we have to. It has to hit home at some point, and I’m prayer is that it finally has.

      I’m planning on doing a Part Two, mainly comprised of quotes, so I will definitely reach out to you about Marcus and John when that time comes. Thanks so much for offering. I’d be happy to have their perspectives.

      All best,

      Angelika

  4. love this post. your take on this ‘issue’ mirrors my own. i’ve 2 sons and every time i think of what they’re up against simply by virtue of the fact they they we’re born of my womb, it makes my heart ache–but i am hopeful. you’re a class act in the face of some of these comments Mademoiselle Beener 🙂 rock on.

  5. Pingback: Around The Jazz Internet: March 30, 2012 | 2unes Music News

  6. As a native Floridian, I find this entire incident tragically embarrassing. It is obvious that the facts and Zimmerman’s alibis and claims do not match up. That the state’s laws might protect his murderous behavior rather than put him in prison is a travesty in itself, but I can hardly fault the man, even with his obviously racist worldview, for deploying every legal option available to try to beat a murder and/or hate crime rap. It is the Sanford Police Department that has the most to answer for here: how did their report on the killing come to vary so far from the facts, and be altered after the incident, and contradict their own videotape of Zimmerman’s arrival at their HQ? If this whole affair blows the lid of off any trashcans, so be it, it desperately needs to happen. r.i.p., Trayvon Martin.

    • I could not agree with you more. Thanks so much for this post. This part of the perspective is grossly under-explored. We’ve got to move past the hoodies and get down to business and the law, which in this case, could not be more corrupt.

  7. Hi Angelika,
    What does it take to make people realize the need for gun control? One idiot like Zimmerman with a gun can have the power to end someone else’s life one a whim. It doesn’t happen in the UK and Japan, where they have gun control.
    And about that self-defense law? How stupid to make such a law, and not to clearly define what is self defense?? (As I understand it, the law does not spell this out.) There is something to be learned from old Jewish Talmud law on this: In Jewish law, if you had ANY alternative other than murder, it was NOT self defense. And surely, Zimmerman had plenty of alternatives–for one, he could have stayed away, as the police advised him to do!
    All the best,
    Lewis

    • Hi Lewis,

      Great to hear from you. I could not agree with you more. And you’re right, self-defense is not spelled out in terms of this crazy law. I really hope the issue of gun control is something President Obama can put center stage during his second term. I wish we had the Jewish law you mention in place today, and I particularly wish it would be something that the NYPD had to abide by. To many lives lost undeservedly. It’s painful.

  8. Thanks Ms Beener for your insight and this post in regards to Trayvon Martin, my prayers, love and blessings goes out to his family, friends and community at this time.

    You know it’s very sad day in this country, in fact it’s been that way longer then most care to talk about. I say this, in reference to walking or driving while black is a problem particularly for black males. Hoodies aside, being stereotyped is painful to be judged for what God created us to be regardless of skin color. It shouldn’t be a problem but unfortunately it is when people like George Zimmerman has another plan in mind and decides to take the law into their own hands in turn murders someone for no just reason. The police asked Zimmerman to stand down but he obviously had another agenda besides protecting himself.

    True we have more then our fair share of inner communal problems in the Black community crime, unemployment, awful living conditions, and poor education to name a few issues but this doesn’t give people of any culture (race) the right to take the law in their own hands and murder someone because they aren’t mature enough to handle owning a weapon for self-defense purposes.

    Until America faces it’s race dilemma, the Zimmerman’s of the world and the laws that are being passed by various states gives them even greater power to continue in fear or at will to attack unjustly the Trayvon Martin’s in America and dare anyone to call them out about it. It’s darn right shameful and disrespectful how the Sanford, FL police department neglected to do their job, they should be ashamed for their lack of professionalism and for recklessly handling this case.

    Peace be with you all on “Resurrection Day Eve,” Rob

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