Real Talk: Mothers Of Sons Respond To The George Zimmerman Verdict, Part 2

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In the wake of George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict this past weekend, I wanted to gather a group of parents to discuss the jury decision as well as the larger impact of Trayvon Martin’s murder. I especially wanted to hear from fellow mothers of boys, in hopes of fostering dialogue about how we as mothers can move forward given what happened. I gathered an incredible group of women and over the next couple of days, I welcome you to read our conversation. Part one of our conversation ran yesterday and the conclusion will run tomorrow.

The participants:

  • Jamila Bey hosts the radio program, “The Sex Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila.” The show can be heard in NYC, DC, Miami and Chicago and online. Find her on Twitter.
  • Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter.
  • Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer, writer and single mother of two who publishes the blog CarolynEdgar.com. Her work has been featured in a variety of outlets, including Huffington Post and CNN.com. Follow her on Twitter.
  • Denene Millner is a New York Times-bestselling author of 21 books and the founder and editor of MyBrownBaby.com, a blog that measures the intersection parenting and race.
  • Shay Stewart-Bouley is a non-profit administrator, freelance columnist who writes on issues relating to diversity for the Portland Phoenix, and blogger at BlackGirlInMaine.com where she muses on race, motherhood and middle age.

Read on, after the jump:
Avital: My social media feeds have blown up this weekend, with no signs of stopping for the moment. Some folks seem unable to look beyond the legalities of this case. Like you mentioned, Carolyn, this verdict wasn’t that big of a surprise for those with an understanding of the law and how it was pursued. But how can anyone stop there when there are clearly bigger, more ingrained issues at play here? In fact, I’ve seen people push the line of thought that this whole case doesn’t have anything to do with race (particularly because George Zimmerman is Hispanic). This is the one time where lived experience is truly preventing people from understanding how race has everything to do with this case and, man, your privilege is showing. What are your thoughts when you hear people say that race wasn’t an issue, and how do we move past the legal parts so we can have actual dialogue about it?

Carolyn: People are conflating “race was an issue in this case” with “George Zimmerman is a racist.” You don’t have to think that GZ was a racist to understand that this case is, at its core, about race. There is racism at work here, but it’s not individual, it’s systemic. Black men have been stereotyped as the prototypical criminal, and it’s ridiculous to think that portrait isn’t ingrained in the national conscious, regardless of one’s own race or ethnicity. Zimmerman looked at Trayvon and saw a criminal, not necessarily because he himself is a racist (and yes, a person of one ethnic minority can be racist against a person of a different ethnic minority). GZ saw Trayvon as a criminal because black men are the face of crime in America. This type of profiling is codified in policies like New York’s stop and frisk, which Mayor Bloomberg recently justified, arguing that minorities should be stopped even more than they are and whites even less. In order to have this conversation, we need to focus less on individual bigotry and more on policies and practices that have a negative, disproportionate impact on people and communities of color.

Denene: Avital, I find that particular piece of it infuriating, because I promise you this: the entire reason Trayvon’s shooting death became a story at all in those earliest days (I’m proud to say that MyBrownBaby was the first to write about it, and that post went viral when TheRoot.com picked it up and linked to it on its website) is because the Sanford police department initially refused to so much as investigate what happened when Zimmerman killed Trayvon, much less arrest him. That child’s body sat in the morgue for days, unidentified, because no one could be bothered to take his cell phone and inform his mama or his daddy that their son was dead, even though Tracy Martin had called police to report his son missing. They performed drug tests on the dead child, but couldn’t be bothered to do simple Policing 101 on George Zimmerman: drug and sobriety tests, checking into the history of arrests. George Zimmerman didn’t even get so much as handcuffed when he was taken to the police station, and all he had to say was “the black guy attacked me” — despite glaring inconsistencies in his post-shooting interview — to get the investigating officers to let him walk on out of the station, sans arrest, sans charges, so he could take his wife TO THE BEACH. What kind of sick, depraved person takes a life, then announces he’s headed for the beach? THIS HAPPENED BECAUSE GEORGE ZIMMERMAN IS WHITE. I don’t want to hear anything about him being Hispanic if he doesn’t identify as such and his skin color has afforded him the ability to spend his lifetime basking in white privilege. Zimmerman’s lawyers and prosecutors can say “it’s not about race” until cows fly to the moon and sprinkle unicorn fairy dust in the sky, BUT IT IS ABOUT RACE. Always has been. Always will be. Zimmerman made it so when he said “those fucking punks,” the 40 young black men he called the cops on while patrolling the neighborhood, “always get away with it.”

As for those who are stuck in the muck of legal proceedings: seriously, get a grip and let some blood pump through your veins. I had to check a friend — a white man — about that today. I really don’t give a damn about Florida law or prosecution missteps or what the jury did and did not agree with right now, at this very moment. A child who looks like my child is drad, having done nothing but walk from the store in the rain. This is an epically emotional time for me and many more parents of color who are mourning the death of a child and a judicial system that is set up to let CITIZENS, not just police, but regular, ol’ anybodies, to profile our children and, if they fucking feel like it, confront them, demand ID, and, if not satisfied, pick a fight and shoot to kill. I need the people who are stuck in the minutiae of the law to give us a damn minute and be a bit more sensitive about what we are feeling right here in the now. Respect it. Because right now, it’s really raw and so not about you. This is about OUR CHILDREN. Empathy. Get you some.

Shay: I had a white man post on the Black Girl in Maine Facebook fan page that this case had nothing to do with race, I chuckled. I think that many well-meaning and good-intentioned people choose to not see the racial aspect because it is painful. To acknowledge the role that race played in this case is to acknowledge that we really haven’t made anywhere near the strides towards racial equality that we believe we have. A large part of that is that for many white people, they have little in the way of substantial and intimate contact with Blacks. We may know each other at work, but we aren’t really friends, we may read each other’s blogs, tweet together, whatever, but we are missing the lived experience. The understanding and the painful firsthand experience of having your child or loved ones very existence questioned for no other reason than their race. Most white people have never been stopped or detained simply for being white. Often we are too close to our own lens and human nature being what it is, we find it too hard to step out of our comfort zone.

To have a real dialogue will involve what I call a willingness to get raggedy and own our biases and to name them. To say I don’t have Black friends, I don’t understand, etc. It will involve being honest with the good and the bad, once we tear that door down, only then can we truly have a dialogue. We also have to be willing to look at the long term data, in the past decade alone, Black men and boys have been profiled in this country and many have lost their lives. While the Trayvon and Amadou Diallo cases eventually get press coverage, this type of profiling happens every day in the U.S., in every state.

Denene: Shay, One of these days, I’ll have to tell you all about the police officer that pulled my son over in our subdivision here in Georgia and, despite demanding to see his license, which clearly has his address on it, warned my kid that he “better not ever catch him in this neighborhood again.” As if my kid did not have the right to drive down the street and to the home his parents made for him. I swear that child got pulled over at least twice a week, simply for driving home. Between that and the homeowner’s association sending out emails claiming car and house break-ins by “strangers and thugs” in the neighborhood, it was just a matter of time before something like this popped off in our little community here in Georgia. So yeah, we moved. But even in our new neighborhood, in the heart of Atlanta, we stopped our 20-year-old son from going jogging at 11:30 p.m. last week out of fear that someone would see a 6 ft., 240 lb. black guy running through the neighborhood and either stop and confront him or just shoot his ass for moving too fast through these streets. He didn’t get why we were so fearful. But when that verdict came down on Saturday, shit got real for him. He actually said, “Now I understand why you wouldn’t let me go jogging the other night.”

Shay: Denene, reading this makes me sad and mad because there is not one woman I know with a Black son over the age of 15 who doesn’t have one of these stories to share. The inability of our sons to freely explore the world while minding their own business simply doesn’t exist. That is what makes this case so incredibly personal and why this is simply more than a news story because we all know that could be our kid.

This case simply reinforces for our boys that they are never truly free, that even being an upstanding citizen who does all the “right” things could still lead to harassment and even death. As mothers we are forced by society to strip them of their youth and innocence early in life so that when they are older, we can simply keep them alive. Ugh…

Carolyn: Wow. I felt every word of [Shay’s last sentence] down to my core. This is what I was alluding to in my post-verdict post about the case, when I described my son’s flippant, offhand response to a cop who asked him why he was carrying a hamper — “Dude, this is New York.” I laughed, because it was funny, but then I told him he might not want to be so flip in his response next time. And that saddens me, because he wasn’t being disrespectful, he was being his usual irreverent self. But one day, the irreverence accepted in a then-11 year old won’t be. He’ll be followed, or demanded to show ID, or subjected to stop and frisk — and if he doesn’t learn to control his quick wit and anger, I fear he could be another statistic. So I am in the process now of doing exactly that, Shay — stripping him of his innocence by telling him how a cop may take that comment the wrong way when he’s a little bit bigger and older. Sigh.

Avital: Denene, Shay and Carolyn, it guts me to hear stories like these and the fact that they’re so commonplace for teens of color. How can anyone, when faced with these stories, say that we’re in a post-racial society? That particular concept in general is a whole other issue …

Read more from Avital Norman Nathman on The Mamafesto

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