Activism / History / Identity & Culture

The lesson behind Trayvon: Power, not love, is the answer.

TrayvonIt’s Minority Mental Health month, and what better way to support our mental health than to remind us that our lives are worthless in the eyes of the American legal system?

Following the recent Zimmerman verdict (did you remember to set your clock back 50 years before you went to bed that night?), a friend of mine warned me to brace myself for the riots, massive protests, and angry workplace rants that were SURE to follow such a blatant Jim Crow-era injustice. But what actually happened, when I logged into Facebook and Twitter and checked in with friends and family around the country, was that I was bombarded with a steady refrain of: “How did this happen? This isn’t right. This is not fair.” A revered spiritual leader and activist from the Bay Area, when asked the proper response to the verdict, stated: “Love is the answer.”

But the truth is that while it can be tempting to turn the Trayvon Martin case into an ideological, philosophical, moral, or even metaphysical issue, the truth is that at its base it is a very concrete POWER issue.

Let’s be clear: Until Black people actively exercise power over our own communities, our own families, and (most importantly) our own minds, it will be difficult to convince the world that we have value. Human worth is inherent, but it is our ability to back it up (with material, financial, legal, and political consequences for its violation) that makes it socially recognized and respected. It is our ability to exercise power over our environment that dictates our likelihood for surviving and thriving.

At times like this, it feels as if there is little we can do to exact punishment for the violation of our rights, but the truth is that Blacks in this society are powerful beyond measure. Without our buy-in, this entire system (which in many ways still rests upon our backs) would fall apart. White America needs us to maintain our perception of powerlessness in order to maintain its perception of superiority. And Black lives will have less worth in this White supremacist system (and the U.S. is indeed a White supremacist system, no doubt) as long as Black people continue believing that justice will come from outside of our own creation of it, that it will somehow be handed to us from the very same system which oppresses. This phenomenon of learned helplessness leaves us blind to our own need to mobilize, and blind-sided by racism every time.

Power concedes nothing without a demand, as U.S. history shows quite well. The U.S. has attained its position as a superpower through military might, not diplomacy and not loving kindness. So, am I advocating a violent response to the Zimmerman verdict, or to the many less well-known cases of racial violence in recent years?  No, I am merely suggesting that we re-examine the faith we’ve put in the system, and remember why it was that the Civil Rights Movement coincided with an equally critical Black Power movement.

We live in a contemporary culture which lulls us to sleep with the promise of empowerment, the illusion of inclusion, and the myth of equality under the law. We are encouraged to see ourselves not as a collective but as a loose collection of individuals, defined solely by our market value and consumer profiles. This entire worldview ensures that we are robbed of our humanity. And when we buy into it, seduced into sleepiness by a few calm years between heinous hate crimes, we give our collective power away.

The most disheartening part of this case is that racial justice advocates have done everything right. For the past year, tons of activists across the nation have stayed on top of the case, ensuring that Zimmerman would be brought in for questioning and brought to trial (a monumental task in itself). Civil rights lawyers have volunteered their time for free to conduct research and assist in bringing this case to light and Zimmerman to justice. Trayvon’s family and friends cooperated and showed up fully, faithful that the system would finally work. It felt like as a nation, we all assumed that common sense would prevail. And then it didn’t. With a blink of the eye, justice experienced an epic fail and we were all transported back to 1955. How could this happen?

It happens because we forget that we are powerful beyond belief, but that our powerful talk must be backed up by an organized show of force. The Black Panthers understood this. It is not enough to feel equal, to feel human. When there are predators out there who doubt our worth and value as human beings, we must have the means to protect and pursue our own interests, including our very survival. Do we really lack, as a people, the various forms of power that might have prevented Trayvon Martin from losing his life, or from George Zimmerman from walking away a free man? Power to control the images of us in the media (which promote stereotypes of young Black men as threatening), power to educate our youth in self-defense, the power to shut down any police department unwilling to serve and protect us as citizens, the power to position ourselves within court and criminal justice systems so as to never let a Zimmerman slip through the cracks?

Well, yes and no. A large component of power is the ability to organize our resources. Black Americans, in many ways, already possess the power that we need. But perceived individualism leaves us isolated and demoralized, believing ourselves already defeated in the face of a highly organized Machine. The lesson of this case is that power must be mobilized in order to be effectively felt, and it must be collective in order to serve our interests, ensure our survival, and affirm our human worth. If love is somehow the answer to the problem of White supremacy, it is the love of ourselves as Black people. Because Love of Self, in a system that has always hated us, is awfully powerful.

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