Soul-Searching: The President Made Me Do It

In a country that has always denied its actual origins, it is not surprising that conversations – including soul-searching – about race in this country, generally rely on a black-white binary. The Trayvon Martin–George Zimmerman case perfectly illustrates the nation’s inability to see beyond black and white… despite the fact that we live on Indian land.

It’s akin to how some describe history: It’s what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget.

By acknowledging that we live on Turtle Island or Pacha Mama, the automatic impulse is to avoid that inconvenient fact; to acknowledge that reality would lead to questions of genocide and land theft, and worse, we might actually have to speak to live indigenous peoples, but we don’t want to go there, right?

We might even have to acknowledge that the nation’s draconian immigration policies are, in effect, modern day Indian removal. But again, we don’t really want to talk about that either, right?

While Zimmerman’s racial or cultural identity muddies the discussion of race, it should not muddy the issue of justice. While Zimmerman’s identity may be in question, Martin’s is not. From all that we know, Martin, a black teenager, should be alive. He is not. The question is, why? Once we understand the reason, then the next question is, what does justice look like?

Let’s look at what justice should look like, which is related to “why” this happened.

Regarding justice, the simple answer would be that Zimmerman should be behind bars and Martin’s family should walk away with a multi-million dollar lawsuit settlement or judgment. But would that be enough?

It’s too late to contain the issues to this particular case. Justice necessarily demands looking at all the circumstances by which an armed individual can stalk and pursue a defenseless teenager, kill him or her, and then claim self-defense.

Most people might think that this means examining and then eliminating the NRA and ALEC-inspired “stand your ground” laws, that in effect, make it easy to kill – and to kill with impunity. That would be a good start, but it would not even begin to scratch at the root of this problem.

The root of the problem is the entire criminal justice system. The root of the problem is dehumanization, and now, privatization. It is big business to keep expanding the prison industrial complex… especially when they essentially function as warehouses for black, brown and red youths.

From the cradle to the grave, the entire criminal justice system reeks of dehumanization. And that is not a new phenomenon. This society places little value on the lives of people of color. That’s why people of color are stopped, harassed, arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison at much higher rates than whites. Neither is the solution to imprison more Whites. The solution is the exact opposite: our society has to imprison less people. Currently, 2.3 million are incarcerated, the most of any nation in the world. We have to stop the incessant and spiraling criminalization of youth. “Stop and frisk,” I argue, has actually been a policy in place for hundreds of years on this continent.

The president has asked us to do some soul-searching on these topics. Like others, I’ve done plenty, but most of it has been generic. I would like to take the opportunity here to comment on two topics. One, is the issue of Zimmerman’s race or cultural ethnicity, and two, my own observation/experience related to the topic of racial profiling and related issues.

For those that are able to see beyond a black-white prism, many think Zimmerman is either white, or that he is a Mexican or a “white Hispanic.” He is racially mixed and while his mother is Peruvian, culturally, he does appear to hold views normally associated with White bigots. From his repeated calls to police, it appears he is anti-black and from his MySpace page, we know he holds anti-Mexican views. Despite this, in the black-white paradigm discussion, he continues to be cast into a white box.

There has been an odd corollary discussion in which some have settled on the idea that he is Mexican. And the tendency of many Mexicans or Mexican-Americans has been to distance themselves from him because “he is not one of us.” That is true, but is that the issue? If indeed he had been Mexican, why would that have mattered? I’m sure most people know that he did not kill on behalf of all Peruvians, and certainly, not on behalf of Mexicans, whom he appears to despise. (This is akin to the topic of police brutality: oftentimes people get thrown off if the officer is black or brown. The color of the perpetrator is not the primary issue, but rather the color of the victim. The vast majority of all victims of police brutality are people of color).

This bizarre line of argument has devolved into a black-brown conflict, or at least, some appear to want it that way.

If one looks at the recent Pew and Washington Post polls, most news reports center on the black-white binary with obvious conclusions. There is a wide chasm with whites generally agreeing with the verdict, and African-Americans virtually unanimously disagreeing. The Washington Post poll has Latinos identifying with Martin by a two to one margin. This has to be for obvious reasons; brown people are subjected to the same criminal justice system with the same results.

When the president spoke about the indignities of being followed around while shopping etc., he actually downplayed reality. Well known is how African-Americans have historically been treated in this country. But that’s not just history. It is today’s reality. At the same time, racial profiling affects brown peoples in this country on a daily basis also. In some places, such as Arizona, it is extreme, but it is a fact of life all along the border, yet that profiling is no longer restricted to the border. In many communities, there is a new term: “polimigra.”This term exists because brown peoples are no longer subjected to racial profiling from immigration agents only, but also, by police nationwide. They cooperate and act as one. And nowadays, every time a brown person comes into contact with law enforcement, one’s legal status is in question. That’s the definition of racial profiling on super-steroids.

Racial profiling of people of color goes beyond being followed in stores and involves harassment, extreme violence, false arrests, false imprisonment, and as alluded to above, for those of those who are brown includes the indignity of immigration checks. The crime: “appearing to be Mexican.” Since 9/11/2001, by default, virtually every brown person that comes into contact with law enforcement (including TSA at airports) is suspect. Also, the killing of Mexican peoples along the border by immigration agents is not unheard of. In fact, it is prevalent. But again, it is not just immigration agents that kill brown peoples. Every year, as with African Americans, Mexicans or “Latinos/Hispanics” are killed by law enforcement officers with impunity. In an egregious case last year, two people of Mexican origin on consecutive days were killed by Anaheim, California police officers – which appeared to be in cold-blood – sparking an uprising there that continues to this day.

For many of us, this is not news. It is just that when the conversations on race do take place, the national media revert to that black-white binary.

On a personal level, I don’t really have to do much soul-searching. It is difficult to forget almost getting killed in 1979 (skull cracked) by L.A. Sheriff’s deputies, getting detained or arrested some 60 times, having to go to court for some 7 1/2 years. There is nothing unusual about what I lived through, except for the fact that I won (twice). That’s why the prisons are full of people of color. So that’s my reflection.

I know that nothing happens unless people step forward and this time, it appears that people are no longer accepting the silence. On July 21, a most powerful event took place amid all the rallies denouncing the Zimmerman verdict. A statewide rally against police brutality was held in Anaheim. Virtually all the speakers were families of those killed by law enforcement over the past severalyears. The list was long. People from all colors and all races participated and spoke, but not surprisingly for California, most of the families speaking were Mexican and African-American.

The march and rally was a scene right out of Central America. When the parents spoke, tears streamed forth. But it was not all tears. There was also strength. Much strength. The sentiment that permeated both the rally and march was: “Enough! Ya Basta!” And “All power to the people!” People are no longer afraid. It is not like a generation ago when people were afraid to step forward, when people lived in fear. Something different now is in the air.