College student Jajuan Kelley covers his mouth with a Skittles wrapper at a protest against the lack of justice for Trayvon Martin. Image: Getty
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When is it too soon to dress up for Halloween as iconic murdered black teenager Trayvon Martin?

The entire globe is affected by how the social fabric of the world’s only superpower is threaded through with the kind of structural violence that allows black boys to be gunned down on the way to the grocery and their killers walk free.

San Francisco

They forgot the Skittles. The young white American boys who dressed up as the corpse of Trayvon Martin and his killer doused the one playing the 17-year-old in Hallowe’en fake blood but omitted one detail. When Trayvon was gunned down by a Neighbourhood Watch officer, George Zimmerman, in February 2012, he was unarmed and holding a packet of brightly coloured sweets.

It was just a stupid Hallowe’en costume. In the scheme of things, perhaps it shouldn’t matter that in pictures that circulated online this past week the two lads appeared to be having an enormous giggle over their decision to dress up as Martin and Zimmerman. Perhaps it shouldn’t matter and in a different country, at a different time, perhaps it might be possible to partake in that morbid humour without feeling the bile rise in your throat.

The US is still, strictly speaking, a free country. Young people are free, if they wish, to make light of the death of a boy whose family is still in deep grief, a boy whose face was carried on placards across the US as a symbol of the structural violence perpetrated against black men by police and state and security personnel. And the rest of us are free to observe in that act of mockery the monstrous accommodation of racism in modern America.

When Zimmerman was acquitted of Martin’s manslaughter this summer, the angry protests that followed did not leave out the Skittles. Hundreds of people of all races wore hoods and carried packets of the sweets, chanting, “I am Trayvon Martin.” Zimmerman had not, after all, been alone in the dock. The entire US justice system, and its casual attitude to the life and liberty of people of colour, had been on trial.

When is it too soon to dress up as an iconic murdered teenager, grinning, in blackface and a bloodstained hoodie, while a friend points his fingers like a trigger to your head? It’s too soon when more than 312 people of colour were killed by the police or security services last year. That’s one every 28 hours. It’s too soon when, in 2011, 87 per cent of the people targeted under the stop-and-frisk laws in New York were black or Latino, in effect rendering it impossible for a young person of colour to walk the streets freely in a city that considers itself the cultural capital of the world. And it’s too soon when, in May 2012, exactly the same law used in Zimmerman’s defence – Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law – failed to prevent a battered woman of colour going to jail for 20 years.

Marissa Alexander’s husband, Rico Gray, beat her during and after her pregnancy. Nine days after her daughter was born in 2010, she fired a warning shot to stop Gray attacking her again – and was sentenced to three counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.

Unlike Zimmerman, Alexander was acting in pure self-defence and hurt nobody at all – but on 8 November she will appear in court again to find out if she can get bail, which might lead to the chance to be free before her three children are grown. “Marissa has been victimised twice, once by her abusive ex-husband and again by the state of Florida, which has stolen nearly three years from her life for an act of self-defence that injured no one,” said Aleta Alston-Toure of the Free Marissa Now campaign.

In practice, people of colour are subject to a different set of judgements in America. You don’t even need to have your hand on a weapon to be considered a criminal who can be disposed of by the state. All you need, like Trayvon Martin, or Kimani Gray, the 16-yearold who was killed this March, or 22-year-old Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Year’s Day in 2009, is to be walking down the wrong street when the wrong cop is on duty.

I do not pretend to any sort of visceral understanding of racial injustice in America. The personal, political nature of racism is such that the kids queuing for crisps at the corner shop have forgotten more than I will ever know about it. White people and foreigners have the option of looking away. We have the option of coming late to a chiefly academic understanding of racial violence in the US. But that does not mean we are unaffected. On the contrary: the entire globe is affected by how the social fabric of the world’s only superpower is threaded through with the kind of structural violence that allows black boys to be gunned down on the way to the grocery and their killers walk free. It matters that the country planning drone strikes and setting surveillance policy across the planet treats those lives so cheaply.

There are different ways to remember the dead. Two days after Hallowe’en, the Dia de los Muertos took place in San Francisco. This Mexican festival has become a cultural fixture in this city, where I’m visiting friends. People of all races and backgrounds paint elaborate bone make-up on their faces and march through the streets with candles to the beat of hollow drums, buzzing on sugar skulls and churros. There’s a fierce, sad joy to it.

Among the shrines to loved ones carried through the streets were portraits of Grant and Martin, with the legends: “I am Oscar Grant –my life matters.” “I am Trayvon Martin –my life matters.”

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Are cities getting too big?

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Richmond is a victory for hope - now let's bring change across the country

The regressives are building their armies. 

Last night a regressive alliance was toppled. Despite being backed by both Ukip and the Conservative Party, Zac Goldsmith was rejected by the voters of Richmond Park.

Make no mistake, this result will rock the Conservative party – and in particularly dent their plans for a hard and painful Brexit. They may shrug off this vote in public, but their majority is thin and their management of the post-referendum process is becoming more chaotic by the day. This is a real moment, and those of us opposing their post-truth plans must seize it.

I’m really proud of the role that the Green party played in this election. Our local parties decided to show leadership by not standing this time and urging supporters to vote instead for the candidate that stood the best chance of winning for those of us that oppose Brexit. Greens’ votes could very well be "what made the difference" in this election (we received just over 3,500 votes in 2015 and Sarah Olney’s majority is 1,872) - though we’ll never know exactly where they went. Just as importantly though, I believe that the brave decision by the local Green party fundamentally changed the tone of the election.

When I went to Richmond last weekend, I met scores of people motivated to campaign for a "progressive alliance" because they recognised that something bigger than just one by election is at stake. We made a decision to demonstrate you can do politics differently, and I think we can fairly say that was vindicated. 

There are some already attacking me for helping get one more Liberal Democrat into Parliament. Let me be very clear: the Lib Dems' role in the Coalition was appalling – propping up a Conservative government hell bent on attacking our public services and overseeing a hike in child poverty. But Labour’s record of their last time in office isn't immune from criticism either – not just because of the illegal war in Iraq but also their introduction of tuition fees, privatisation of our health service and slavish worship of the City of London. They, like the Liberal Democrats, stood at the last election on an austerity manifesto. There is a reason that we remain different parties, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn't also seize opportunities like this to unite behind what we have in common. Olney is no perfect candidate but she has pledged to fight a hard Brexit, campaign against airport expansion and push for a fair voting system – surely progressives can agree that her win takes us forward rather than backwards?

Ultimately, last night was not just defeat of a regressive alliance but a victory for hope - a victory that's sorely needed on the back of of the division, loss and insecurity that seems to have marked much of the rest of this year. The truth is that getting to this point hasn’t been an easy process – and some people, including local Green party members have had criticisms which, as a democrat, I certainly take seriously. The old politics dies hard, and a new politics is not easy to forge in the short time we have. But standing still is not an option, nor is repeating the same mistakes of the past. The regressives are building their armies and we either make our alternative work or risk the left being out of power for a generation. 

With our NHS under sustained attack, our climate change laws threatened and the increasing risk of us becoming a tax haven floating on the edge of the Atlantic, the urgent need to think differently about how we win has never been greater. 

An anti-establishment wave is washing over Britain. History teaches us that can go one of two ways. For the many people who are utterly sick of politics as usual, perhaps the idea of politicians occasionally putting aside their differences for the good of the country is likely to appeal, and might help us rebuild trust among those who feel abandoned. So it's vital that we use this moment not just to talk among ourselves about how to work together but also as another spark to start doing things differently, in every community in Britain. That means listening to people, especially those who voted for Britain to leave the EU, hearing what they’re saying and working with them to affect change. Giving people real power, not just the illusion of it.

It means looking at ways to redistribute power and money in this country like never before, and knowing that a by-election in a leafy London suburb changes nothing for the vast majority of our country.

Today let us celebrate that the government's majority is smaller, and that people have voted for a candidate who used her victory speech to say that she would "stand up for an open, tolerant, united Britain".  But tomorrow let’s get started on something far bigger - because the new politics is not just about moments it's about movements, and it will only work if nobody is left behind.

 

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.