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.”