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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Where are the moderate Tories condemning Zac Goldsmith’s campaign?

Conservative MPs are reluctant to criticise the London mayoral candidate’s dogwhistle rhetoric.

Very few Conservative politicians have criticised Zac Goldsmith’s campaign to be elected London mayor. And, amid repeated accusations of racial profiling, Islamophobic undertones, and patronising London’s Indian communities, there has been plenty to criticise.

Ever since describing his rival, Sadiq Khan, as having “radical politics” at the end of last year, Goldsmith’s campaign has come under fire for attempting to sound a dogwhistle to voters for whom racial politics – and divisions – are a priority.

You may feel it’s naïve of me to expect Tory MPs to join in the criticism. Presumably most Tory MPs want their party’s candidate to win the mayoralty. So it is unlikely that they would condemn his methods.

But I’d argue that, in this case, we can’t excuse dodged questions and studied silence as good clean tribalism. Granted, Conservatives only want to see their party make electoral gains. And that is understandable. But trickier to explain away is how willing all of the party’s MPs – many of whom are as moderate and “cotton-wool Tory” (in the words of one Labour adviser) as we once assumed Goldsmith was – are to ignore the campaign’s nastier side.

Why aren’t the Cameroons (or neo-Cameroons) who wish to further “detoxify” the party speaking out? There are plenty of them. There is more enthusiasm on the Tory benches for David Cameron than is generally assumed. Many of the 2015 intake are grateful to him; those in marginal seats in particular see him as the reason they won last year. And in spite of the grumbling nature of the 2010-ers, a number of them are keener than appears on Cameron. After all, plenty wouldn’t be in parliament without his A-list and open primaries (a time when the party was supposed to be opening up to candidates of different backgrounds, something Goldsmith’s rhetoric could threaten).

And we know it’s not just Labour whining about Goldsmith’s campaign. It makes Tories uncomfortable too. For example, the Conservative Group Leader at Watford Council Binita Mehta, former Conservative candidate Shazia Awan, and Tory peer and former minister Sayeeda Warsi have spoken out.

And it’s not just non-MPs who are riled by Goldsmith’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, Conservative MPs have been muttering for weeks about feeling uncomfortable about the campaign.

“There has been a sense that this is a bad dogwhistle, and it’s a bit of a smear,” one Tory MP tells me. “I don’t think Sadiq Khan’s a bad man at all – I think his problem is, which happens to all politicians, is some of the platforms in the past and the people he shared them with, and maybe he didn’t know – I mean, the number of times David Cameron or Gordon Brown or Tony Blair were shown at some fundraising thing, or just visiting somewhere, shaking hands with somebody who turns out to be a crook; that’s the nature of mass politics.”

There is also a mixed view among London’s Tory MPs about the tone of Goldsmith’s campaign generally. Some, who were frustrated in the beginning by his “laidback, slightly disengaged” style, are simply pleased that he finally decided to play dirty with the more energetic Khan. Others saw his initial lighter touch as an asset, and lament that he is trying to emulate Boris Johnson by being outrageous – but, unlike the current London mayor, doesn’t have the personality to get away with it.

One Tory MP describes it as a “cold, Lynton Crosby calculation of the dogwhistle variety”, and reveals that, a couple of weeks ago, there was a sense among some that it was “too much” and had “gone too far and is counterproductive”.

But this sense has apparently dissipated. Since Labour’s antisemitism crisis unfolded last week, moderate Conservative MPs feel more comfortable keeping their mouths shut about Goldsmith’s campaign. This is because racism in Labour has been exposed, even if Khan is not involved. Ironic really, considering they were (rightly) so quick to condemn Ken Livingstone’s comments and call on Jeremy Corbyn and Labour MPs to speak out against such sentiments. It’s worth noting that Labour’s moderates have been significantly less reluctant than their Tory counterparts to call out such problems in their own party.

There is also the EU referendum to consider. Tory MPs see division and infighting ahead, and don’t want to war more than is necessary. One source close to a Tory MP tells me: “[Goldsmith’s campaign] is uncomfortable for all of us – it’s not even considered a Conservative campaign, it’s considered a Zac Goldsmith campaign. But [we can’t complain because] we have to concentrate on Europe.”

So it makes sense politically, in the short term, for Tory moderates to keep quiet. But I expect they know that they have shirked a moral duty to call out such nasty campaign methods. Their calls for Labour’s response to antisemitism, and David Cameron’s outrage about Jeremy Corbyn’s “friends” in Hamas and Hezbollah, are simply hollow attack lines if they can’t hold their own party to higher standards.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.