Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

COMPLICATED PICTURE: After a week of protests and media hysteria, the Trayvon Martin case has taken yet another turn as information emerges that calls Trayvon's character into question.

Yesterday was the one month anniversary of when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. If it weren’t for the work of journalists, this story would never have made national news and the U.S. Department of Justice would not be investigating the case for civil rights violations. Neither would a grand jury have been convened in Florida to hear evidence about it, nor would the Sanford, Florida, police chief have “temporarily” left his post and been replaced with a black man. But, if it weren’t for the work of journalists, the rush to judgment about the case also would not have happened.

Conflicting Accounts

In the past week, we’ve learned that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend moments before the shooting. She has said that Martin told her someone was following him and that she heard Martin ask the man why before a scuffle broke out between them. But Sanford Police Department sources told the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman said Martin attacked him as he was walking back to his SUV and that Martin tried to take his gun and slammed his head into the ground.

Maligning and Defending Trayvon Martin’s Character

Conservative websites have begun to malign the character of Martin, who had been portrayed as a wholesome teen. They published pictures and status updates that they claimed were taken from Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show that he had tattoos and gold teeth and implied he sold drugs, as if these supposed facts were somehow relevant. But a website reportedly owned by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin issued an apology for publishing one widely circulated photo, saying it was not, in fact, the Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by Zimmerman. And journalist Geraldo Rivera was roundly criticized, even by his own son, for suggesting that Martins’s choice of attire was as responsible for his death as Zimmerman was.

In response, Martin’s parents held a press conference. His father, Tracy Martin, said, “Even in death, they are still disrespecting my son, and I feel that that’s a sin.” His mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” The family is asking for donations to keep their fight for justice going and Fulton has reportedly filed for trademarks to the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” She, of course, has been criticized for that. Martin’s friends, meanwhile, say they can’t imagine Trayvon picking a fight with anyone.

Catalyst for National Discussion

On Friday, President Obama spoke out on the killing, saying we all need to do “some soul searching” and if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Obama’s statement, suggesting the president’s comments were racially divisive. At the same time, Gingrich and fellow GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and Santorum suggested that Zimmerman’s actions were different from those protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.

On Sunday, Christians (mostly black ones) wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Martin. On Monday, New York State legislators wore them on the senate floor. Everyone seemed to be talking about having “the talk” with their black children, and people, including me, began asking why white evangelical leaders have been largely silent on the issue. Others, including one former NAACP leader, accused the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of exploiting the situation.

Some, like Evangelical Covenant Church pastor Efrem Smith, wondered where the outrage is about black-on-black crime. Smith posted a series of tweets noting the lack of attention these victims receive. “A couple of months ago in Oakland multiple young blacks were victims of violent crime by other blacks but Al Sharpton didn’t come to town,” he said. Why not?

‘Justice Doesn’t Alienate Anyone’

Although Zimmerman’s friends continue to defend him and the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law defend it, Regent University law professor David Velloney told CBN News that if Zimmerman “was following [Martin] in somewhat of a menacing manner and he violently, or aggressively approached the teenager, then he becomes the initial aggressor in this situation and really then he loses that right to self-defense.”

I’ll give Velloney the last word on the case for now, because amidst all the discussion, debate, and hype, his comment gets to the heart of why this story blew up in the first place. People reacted to a grave, familiar injustice that was aided by an unjust interpretation of what may be an unjust law. Now that the road to justice has finally been cleared for the Martin family, perhaps it’s time we all calm down and take the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes to heart. “Justice doesn’t alienate anyone. It is truth,” Jakes told CBN News. “It is consistent with Scriptures that we investigate, and that we support the defense for all human life.” Amen to that.

Yes We Cain

THE HERMINATOR: Herman Cain takes the stage to address the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) in Washington last February. (Photo: Jonathan Ernst/Newscom)

Herman Cain, an aspiring GOP presidential candidate, appeared out of nowhere. Or did he? Cain, an African-American Atlanta native, rose to prominence in the business world as an executive at the Pillsbury Company and then as CEO of the Godfather’s Pizza chain. He gained notoriety in the political arena by critiquing President Clinton’s healthcare plan in the mid ’90’s and pursuing the U.S. Senate in 2004. He went on to distinguish himself as a motivational speaker and conservative talk-radio host who sometimes calls himself “the Herminator.” But in terms of national name recognition—a critical commodity in politics—Cain essentially appeared out of nowhere.

Dr. Melissa Harris Perry, a noted commentator and professor of political science at Tulane University, approaches Cain’s candidacy as an opportunity to reflect on African-American political conservatism. I intend to do something similar, but I’d also like to highlight the religious inflections of the tradition and suggest one area where conservatives and liberals can collaborate.

Standard storylines of black religion and politics lean leftward, connoting images of the Reverends King, Sharpton, and Jackson. This impression is both false and misleading: false because it obscures the work of other faith-filled public servants like Leah Daughtry, Marian Wright Edelman, and Kay Coles James; misleading because it suggests that black politics and faith are inherently liberal—complete with an interventionist view of the State on economic policy.

Cain’s campaign, by contrast, can be seen as a reminder that black faith and politics often reach rightward. In a recent political speech he listed “Almighty God,” his grandchildren, and a love of country as the motivating factors for his race to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The God, grandchildren, and country motif, of course, is not inherently conservative, but is nonetheless a vision of America that black conservatives invoke more frequently than black liberals. From an academic perspective, Barbara Diane Savage reminds us in Their Spirits Walk Beside Us—and Eddie Glaude more popularly in his “Black Church is Dead” piece—the intersections of black faith and politics are varied. From Jupiter Hammon to the burgeoning black participation in right-to-life movements, any honest read of Christians within African-American religious studies reveals that the “God, grandchildren, and country” motif—or some variation thereof—has always been a part of the diverse tapestry of black faith in public life. For every Rev. Jesse Jackson, there is a Bishop Harry Jackson; for every Suzan Johnson Cook, there is an Alveda C. King.

Many bemoan the manifold manifestations of black faith and politics. We can, however, perceive the brute fact of this diversity as an opportunity for collaboration. For example, conservative pastors and politicians organize to help small businesses flourish, a critical concern that black liberals often overlook. The omission is significant: small businesses employ the majority of Americans, comprise a small but expanding percentage of industry in our urban areas, and thus are a pillar of any viable economic development strategy within America’s regions. Contrastively, liberal black pastors and politicians emphasize our system of social insurance (Medicare, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance, and Workers Compensation) as a promise that the government makes to American families, and—this is the point conservatives often overlook—the precondition for economic mobility in an exceedingly tight labor market.

Rarely, however, do we hear either liberals or conservatives argue explicitly about the importance of the civil sector. And yet, the civil sector, which harbors everything from universities and foundations to civil rights organizations and churches, is uniquely poised to advance an agenda of economic development and mobility.

I’ll conclude with a practical suggestion: Given the shared political emphasis on creating a vibrant and equitable economy, let’s seize the candidacy of Herman Cain as a moment to re-imagine how people of faith, across the political spectrum, might reinvigorate the performance and political presence of the civil sector.

Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Stranded on MLK Blvd.

Street signs in downtown Atlanta, GA: Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. and Capitol Ave

Our nation’s political divisions, economic struggles, and violent communities should remind us that symbolism without substance is a dead-end street.

We focus too much on symbolism. For example, the debate over whether a mosque should be built near Ground Zero is largely about what the 9/11 tragedy symbolizes. What about focusing on the substance that led up to it and where do we go from here? The dueling rallies (the Rev. Al Sharpton vs. Glenn Beck) in Washington, on the day commemorating the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, was mostly about what the civil rights movement symbolizes and who should proclaim the dream the Rev. Martin Luther King articulated. Meanwhile, unemployment is nearly 10 percent (double for blacks) and black incarceration rates are double and triple their percentage of the population in many states.

This past Sept. 11, I attended a dedication ceremony for yet another Martin Luther King Jr. memorial, this one in Newport News, Virginia. As I watched King’s daughter, the Rev. Bernice King, at the podium, I thought of how our emphasis on MLK symbolism often overshadows the substance of his message; a message of peace and justice that is as relevant today as it was on Sept. 11, 2001, and Aug. 28, 1963.

Oddly, I thought of comedian Chris Rock.

Rock, in his 1996 HBO special, Bring the Pain, said:

Martin Luther King stood for nonviolence. Now what’s Martin Luther King? A street. And I don’t give a (bleep) where you live in America, if you’re on Martin Luther King Boulevard, there’s some violence going down.

There are more than 800 streets, drives and boulevards, often with large monuments on them, across the country and world that honor King. Many of them are in neighborhoods that are plagued by high unemployment, disenfranchisement, poverty, and crime. It’s ills in neighborhoods like this section of Newport News’ East End that King died trying to eradicate.
As Newport News Mayor McKinley Price remarked that the memorial would be more than a plaza but “embody a man who was about a movement,” I doubted that King, a man of God, would want to be honored with a structure made of stone. Didn’t he say in his “Drum Major Instinct” sermon, two months before his assassination on April 4, 1968, not to idolize him?

“Yes, if you want to say that I was a drum major, say that I was a drum major for justice,” he said. “Say that I was a drum major for peace. I was a drum major for righteousness. And all of the other shallow things will not matter …”

The people who have the power to erect monuments could best honor King by focusing those resources on substance — eradicating the ills he died for. For example, empower poor people with good-paying jobs, set and enforce policies that close the education gap, eliminate out-in-the-open illegal drug sales that make streets unsafe, and fix the root causes of why blacks are incarcerated at rates that are double and triple their percentage of the population. Surely the people most likely to sit in a King memorial plaza in the ‘hood would have a better chance of fulfilling his dream in their lives.

Bernice King, who was only 5 in 1968 when her father was assassinated, honored his legacy in a way I believe he would’ve loved. She barely mentioned his name.

She began with a poem that mentioned him and her mother, Coretta Scott King.
“I was born a King,” she recited. “I might as well be a king…”

She assigned the family name to the crowd, and urged them to live as royalty.

“To be strong communities, we must have the mentality of kings,” she said. “Kings raise the standard and lead the way. Kings don’t follow the crowd. Kings don’t hang out with subjects — folks who are ‘subject to negativity.’ Kings don’t wait for others to do something; they take responsibility.”

She challenged them to focus on healing their families, which leads to healthy communities.

“Get back to the dining table … Sit around the table with your family and dialogue about how to make communities better.”

She used the symbolic occasion to deliver substance.

As she was escorted to a car to catch her return flight to Atlanta, I walked with Bernice King and asked whether she felt, as Chris Rock implied, that monuments to her father might actually detract from focusing on fixing the problems he died for.

“As you know, monuments are about status and can become idols,” she said. “But I don’t think it’s an either/or situation. We have to do both. Like the D.C. memorial [planned on the National Mall between the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials], people — especially those who were not alive then — will come from all over and be inspired. But we have to inspire people to action, to make a difference. That’s what Daddy wanted and died for.”

Symbolism has its value, but substance is more important.

We Are One(s)

In One But Not the Same, Pastor Chris Williamson challenges us on our divisive “churchanity” and renews the call for unity and diversity in the body of Christ. Plus, his surprising views on Glenn Beck, Al Sharpton, and political parties.
(more…)

Closure for the Jena 6

Lost in the din of the Michael Jackson coverage late last month was news that the racially charged Jena 6 saga had officially come to an end — at least from a legal standpoint. The six African American teens from Jena, Louisiana, made national headlines and inspired emotional protests when they were charged with attempted murder for beating a white classmate in 2006. Many considered the charges too severe, and a massive demonstration was staged in September 2007 to oppose the ruling. After nearly three years of dramatic twists and turns, the case quietly wrapped on June 26. Now the Jena 6, as well as Justin Barker (the white teen who was beaten in the infamous skirmish), are free to move on with their lives.

The terms of the plea agreement were revealed in the course of a two-hour court hearing at the LaSalle Parish courthouse. Mychal Bell, the defendant who was initially convicted as an adult for aggravated battery against Barker but later pled guilty to a reduced charge in juvenile court after the adult conviction was overturned, had been sentenced earlier to 18 months under state supervision. Each of the five remaining defendants in the case — Corwin Jones, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw — pleaded “no contest” to the misdemeanor charge of simple battery. Each was placed on non-supervised probation for one week and must pay a $500 fine and in most cases an additional $500 in court costs. In addition, a civil suit filed by the family of Justin Barker was settled when the Jena 6 defendants (including Bell) agreed to pay the Barker family an undisclosed settlement. Attorneys were not allowed to reveal the details of the settlement, but a reliable source has disclosed that the payment was approximately $24,000.

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The Jena High School courtyard.

What lessons do we take away from the Jena 6 story? Six young men won’t be dragging a felony conviction into adult life. That’s reason for rejoicing, but as this saga approaches its third birthday, it’s fair to ask if we have learned anything.

“Jena 6” was briefly transformed into a popular movement that brought at least 30,000 people to the central Louisiana town of 3,000 in September of 2007.

Mass awareness of the Jena story was spread by the black blogosphere, radio personalities like Michael Baisden, internet-savvy organizations like Color of Change, and the brief but highly publicized involvement of civil rights celebrities like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson.

Unfortunately, the movement that culminated with the September 20th march lacked an end game. Nobody knew what came next, so not much did.

Or so it seemed.

The huge turnout on September 20th placed enormous pressure on Jena officials, but the key to success was community organizing, savvy media outreach, and strategic legal work.

My organization, Friends of Justice, helped lead the way. We started with the goal of recreating the coalition of reform organizations and legal firms that overturned a corrupt drug sting in Tulia, Texas. Long before anyone from the outside had taken an interest in the Jena story, we were sifting through legal documents, reading local newspaper accounts, and conducting dozens of personal interviews. When the facts were clear, we circulated a six-page narrative account describing what happened, why it happened, and what justice would look like.

Our narrative called for Judge J.P. Mauffray and District Attorney Reed Walters to recuse themselves from the Jena 6 cases. We supported a change of venue, a Department of Justice investigation, and a program of diversity training in the public schools. We knew none of this could be accomplished without a huge groundswell of indignation, but our first step was to unite and organize the affected community. The families and friends of the defendants gradually learned to withstand the pressure of an outraged white community and to tell their personal stories with verve and enthusiasm.

The families and friends of the Jena 6 had been gathering at a local black church and holding demonstrations on the steps of the LaSalle Parish courthouse long before CNN, NPR, and the Chicago Tribune were on the scene.

Just as the mainstream media was picking up on Jena, independent journalists and bloggers were warming to the story. Color of Change started collecting signatures for a petition and soliciting donations to a legal defense fund. Across America young black men and women were asking how they could help the Jena 6. The student body of Howard University got into the action and the civil rights community eventually swung its weight behind the Jena justice movement.

When I talked to the folks who came to the massive rally on September 20th it was quickly apparent that the folks who rode the buses were a bit fuzzy about the most basic facts. The general impression was that some white kids had hung nooses in a tree at the high school and black kids had retaliated by beating up one of the noose hangers. There was little understanding that Justin Barker, the victim of the December 4th beat-down, hadn’t been directly involved in the noose hanging incident or that the two episodes were separated by three months.

A scene from September 20th

Jena, Louisiana, on September 20, 2007.

The facts in Jena were of secondary importance to the bus riders. They were drawn to Jena by personal experience. People told me they were there for a son, a boyfriend, or a nephew who had received grossly disproportionate treatment at the hands of the criminal justice system. These people had no trouble relating to the plight of the Jena 6.

When the crowds left Jena, the movement quickly ran out of gas. It didn’t matter. By that time the five Jena defendants still awaiting adjudication were represented by some of the best legal talent in America. D.A. Terry McEachern had been no match for the legal “dream team” that rose to the defense of the Tulia 46, and I knew Reed Walters would fare no better against the legal firepower he was facing. The facts were all on the side of the defendants. Another trial would have established the link between the hanging of the nooses in September and the tragic events of December. Reed Walters and his supporters in Jena’s white community simply couldn’t allow that to happen.

Theo Shaw, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Corwin Jones and Robert Bailey

Five of Six: (from left) Theo Shaw, Jesse Ray Beard, Bryant Purvis, Corwin Jones, and Robert Bailey on the LaSalle courthouse steps following the settlement on June 26.

The Jena phenomenon demonstrates the power and the limitations of public narrative. Jena happened because public officials like Reed Walters and school Superintendent Roy Breithaupt didn’t want to revert to the apartheid world they were raised in, but they deeply resented the civil rights movement that had swept it all away.

Therefore, when Kenneth Purvis asked the high school principal if it was okay for black kids to sit under the tree in the school courtyard, these men froze. When white students sent a “hell no” message by hanging nooses in the school colors from that very tree, school officials insisted that the act was devoid of racial significance. When black students voiced their incredulity by gathering around the tree, Superintendent Breithhaupt called an emergency assembly in the school auditorium where D.A. Walters laid down the law. Turning to the black students who had been causing all the trouble, Walters reminded them that “with a stroke of my pen” he could make their lives disappear.

If Breithaupt and Walters had called a hate crime by its proper name, they would have validated the civil rights narrative they resented so deeply. So they resorted to threats. Nothing was going to change at Jena High School, and the black students would just have to suck it up.

Asked to explain his “stroke of my pen” remark at a pre-trial hearing, Walters admitted that he was angry with the students causing the unrest. The kids, he explained to the court, needed to “work out their problems on their own.”

Tragically, that’s precisely what happened.

Ultimately, Jena was a “Lord of the Flies” story about adolescent males functioning without adult guidance. If any of the remaining Jena cases had gone to trial, this version of the Jena story would have taken center stage. Unfortunately (and perhaps inevitably), this was not the way the Jena narrative unfolded in popular culture.

In Jena two powerful narratives competed for dominance. A “thug narrative” was concocted for folks who resented the civil rights revolution. Jena was about six black thugs doing what comes naturally and a Bible-believing prosecutor gutsy enough to hold them accountable. The hero of the thug narrative is Reed Walters, the victim is Justin Barker, and the villains are six black misanthropes. In the thug narrative, the noose incident in September was utterly disconnected from the the “attempted murder” of Justin Barker in December.

The people behind the massive September 20th protest embraced a “noose narrative,” which contrasted the lenient discipline meted out to the noose hangers in September with the grotesque prosecutorial over-reaction following the “schoolyard fight” in December. Reed Walters was a racist, this narrative argued, because he was way too soft on white kids and way too hard on black kids. In the noose narrative, the noose hangers are the villains, the Jena 6 are the victims, and the folks rushing to their assistance are the heroes.

While the noose narrative reigned in the blogoshpere, the thug narrative showed up in publications like the Jena Times, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Weekly Standard.

The “objective” mainstream media fell back on a “town divided” storyline in which angry proponents of the two competing narratives were given 15 seconds of fame.

This kind of noncommittal reporting left both sides vulnerable to criticism. Thug narrative people sounded racially insensitive and parochial; noose narrative folk appeared callous when they minimized the seriousness of Justin Barker’s wounds.

Lost in all of this back and forth was a simple irony: Reed Walters’ “stroke of my pen” oratory unleashed a chain of violence that reached a violent crescendo in the December 4th altercation he was now trying to prosecute as attempted murder.

What are the implications of all of this for criminal justice reformers? Are we doomed to hawk simplistic morality tales to a tiny demographic of like-minded activists, or is honesty still the best policy?

Perhaps the truth lies somewhere between these two extremes. The goal isn’t just to get the facts straight or to rev up the faithful; we are trying to change public perception. Cases must be carefully selected. If we want to gain and hold an audience, even the most compelling stories must be pared to their essentials.

But even stripped-down narratives must comport with reality. Both sides in the Jena imbroglio wowed the faithful at the cost of losing credibility with the general public. If we are trying to change public perception, an ear for nuance is essential. America has changed dramatically from the day when a reformer like Fannie Lou Hamer could be beaten half to death in Winona, Mississippi, for advocating racial equality. “Nothing has changed” rhetoric appeals to impatient reformers, but it won’t get a hearing in middle America. Similarly, crude references to the depradations of “black thugs” may play well in the small-town southland, but this kind of talk doesn’t work in the wider world.

The public officials at the heart of the Jena story personify the southern dilemma. They were raised with one set of rules, then forced to adopt a new rule book. No one helped them negotiate these troubled waters; they simply had to make the best of a bewildering circumstance. No wonder they are confused-who wouldn’t be?

When Jena’s infamous tree gained iconic significance, the town fathers and mothers cut it down and built a new addition over the spot where the tree once stood. This was the most creative response they could muster.

This southern shadowland is most apparent in the criminal justice system. How can men and women who grew up attending Klan rallies be expected to dispense equal justice in the dawning days of the 21st century? How can people reared in segregated schools and workshops be expected to fight for cultural diversity? America is a work in progress. We ain’t where we need to be-not even close. But thank God Almighty, we ain’t where we used to be.

Ultimately, simplistic narratives change nothing. The Jena 6 aren’t heroes and they aren’t villains; they’re just ordinary small-town kids trying to make their way in a confusing world. Their attorneys won a smashing victory last month because they knew what they were up against and honed their message accordingly. There’s a lesson in that for all of us.