Trayvon Martin and the Fear of a Black Man

by Lee Pinkerton

“ ‘Not Guilty?’ the filthy devils tried to kill me/
When the news gets to the hood the niggas will be/
Hotter than cayenne pepper/ Cuss, buss, kicking up dust is a must.”
Ice Cube – We Had to Tear This MF Up

george_zimmermanThe “Not Guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman, the killer of  Black teenager Trayvon Martin, confirms a fact that all Black men knew, but hoped had changed: the fact that many white people view us as a threat. It doesn’t matter if the Black man in question is well educated and softly spoken. It doesn’t matter if he has not even finished puberty. We are seen as a threat that must be contained. Trayvon was an unarmed teenager, and George Zimmerman was an heavily set 29 year old with an obvious weight advantage, who also happened to be packing a gun.  But still Zimmerman felt that he was the one whose life was in danger, which could only be preserved by use of lethal force with a deadly weapon.  Even though casual observers can see the nonsense of this, the police could see Zimmerman’s viewpoint, as they released him without charge on the night of the murder.  A year later in the calm light of day, the six women of the jury could also see the logic of his viewpoint, as they acquitted him of all charges. They too could see how being faced with a young Black male wearing a hoody could put one in fear of their life.

Let’s drop the façade that these trials by jury are about legal argument or points of law.  Let’s be honest, they hinge on the prejudices of the members of the jury. That is why such a big deal is made of jury selection – because the defense know that the most significant factor that influences a jury’s decision is not the evidence put before them during the trial, but rather the prejudices they walk into the courtroom with.  The reason that Black celebrity OJ Simpson was found not guilty of murdering his ex-wife Nicole was not the clever legal arguments of his defence team. It was because the Black women of the jury were well aware of the history of violence and lynchings visited on Black men in America, and were not going to send a Black man to jail for killing a white woman where there was any sliver of doubt.

I am not for one minute suggesting that the members of that jury in Florida are all racists that think that all Black men should be put to death.  I’m not even arguing that George Zimmerman thinks that.  But what Zimmerman and those jury members, and so many white people, share is the “Fear of the Black Man”.  We are viewed like Dr Bruce Banner – the mild-mannered character from Marvel comics who, when put under stress, will metamorphosis into an uncontrollable beast with super-human strength.

the-incredible-hulk-590x400It was a similar thought process held by the Los Angeles police officers who were caught on camera viciously beating Black motorist Rodney King back in 1991. It took four grown men with nightsticks to keep him at bay, and if they were to ease up their beating for just a moment, no doubt King would have risen to his feet, and Lord only knows what kind of violent revenge he would have visited upon them. The members of the jury at the trial in Simi Valley saw it that way too, when they found the four officers not guilty of using unreasonable force – a verdict which sparked the LA Riots.

rodney-kingEven though the cops who beat Rodney King were caught on camera, they were still found not guilty. But this “Fear of the Black Man” is not just something felt in America.  Many white people in Britain feel it too. Maybe the Metropolitan police officers who shot to death Azelle Rodney in 2005 and Mark Duggan in 2011 felt that same fear. Maybe they thought that to alert these Black men of the presence of police officers would be putting their own lives in danger. Maybe they thought that attempting an arrest of the suspects would be too risky, and it would be simpler and safer to simply shoot them dead in the street, and worry about issues of due process later.

sean riggMaybe it was fear for their lives that the four police officers who forcibly restrained the mentally unwell Sean Rigg were feeling, until he fell unconscious and died in 2008.

Maybe that’s what the three G4S officers who were restraining Jimmy Mubenga on board a British Airways flight bound for Angola in 2010 were thinking. No doubt those security guards felt that his pleas for help and cries that he couldn’t breathe were just a ruse, so that they would loosen their grip and he could break free of his shackles and attack them. Until he stopped breathing, that is.

And God only knows what was in the minds of the police officers who visited Smiley Culture in his home in 2011, only for the visit to end with a knife in his chest!

This “Fear of the Black Man” can also carry over to “Fear of Black Women”. Maybe that’s what the police who went to Joy Gardener’s house 20 years ago felt. In 1993 an immigration officer and police officers arrived at her home to serve a deportation notice, and when Gardner refused them entry, the police entered by force and struggled and fought with her. The officers gagged and restrained Gardner using a body belt and wrapped 13 ft of tape around her head, which they later claimed was to prevent her biting them. Gardner suffocated and subsequently fell into a coma, later dying in hospital. The three police officers involved were found not guilty of manslaughter in 1995. Clearly all concerned thought that 13ft of gaffer tape was a reasonable precaution to take when dealing with an “angry Black woman”.

Joy GardnerAll of these examples are of confrontations between law enforcement officers and Black people suspected of a crime.  This naturally heightens the tensions and raises the stakes for all concerned. But this “Fear of the Black Man” is also something that ordinary brothers face on a daily basis.  This was brought home to me when a friend related an experience he had in his work place.  During a meeting with his white colleagues, this professional Black man was involved in a full and frank exchange of views.  After the meeting had ended, one of his female colleagues pulled him aside and asked if he had calmed down. When he confirmed that he had, she expressed her relief, confiding that back in the meeting she feared that “he might stab somebody”. This white woman who had worked with my friend for years feared that if he lost his temper he might erupt into murderous violence against his work-mates! If she can fear this from one of her work colleagues who she knows well, then how much more does she fear from a Black man whom she has never met? How much more from a Black youth she encounters on the street who is wearing a hoody?

The great irony is, as I hope I have shown, that it is us who has more to fear from them than they do from us. But Black men, since this is what we are facing, how can we protect ourselves and stay safe?  Here’s some tips to remember in your interactions with white people.

1)    Best not to wear a hoody.

2)    Never ever raise your voice or gesticulate wildly.  Although this is the way people of colour naturally communicate, it makes white people nervous, and could escalate any conflict to dangerous proportions.

3)    If you are unfortunate enough to have prolonged contact with the police or other authority figures, then surreptitious audio and video recording devices, and/or eyewitnesses are recommended. (They come in very handy at the trial.)

4)    In interactions with the police, never argue, resist arrest or make any quick movements, or you could end up dead.

5)    If you’re an immigrant, never overstay your visa, because if they come to deport you, you could end up dead.

6)    If you’re mentally ill, make sure you always take your medication, because if you relapse, and have a psychotic episode that results in the police being called, you could end up dead.

In summary, just tread very carefully, or you could turn up missing, and judging from past evidence, no one will be convicted of your murder.

RIP: Smiley Culture, Mark Duggan, Sean Rigg, Jimmy Mubenga, Azelle Rodney, Stephen Lawrence,  Joy Gardener, Rodney King and Trayvon Martin.

million-hoody-march-trayvon-martin3

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Lee Pinkerton was born in London, the child of Jamaican and Guyanese immigrants. After studying Sociology and Psychology at University he spent the 90s as a music journalist, first as a freelancer for magazines such as Mix Mag, Echoes, and Hip-Hop Connection and then as the Arts Editor for “Britain’s Best Black newspaper”, The Voice.
In addition to this he also wrote a book the Many Faces of Michael Jackson published in 1997.
His latest book The Problem With Black Men examines the causes of the social problems facing Black men in Britain and America today. Buy books
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4 replies

  1. Zee. I’m hearing this comment a lot in the debate around the Zimmerman verdict. Your/their argument seems to be that the Black on Black crime issue is much worse as more Black kids die that way, than at the hands of whites. But this is not a numbers game. Those Black on Black murders in the hood, have a different dynamic. They, like the white on white murders that take place in poor white neighbourhoods all over the world, are a result of social deprivation, poverty, hopelessness, self hatred, crabs in a bucket syndrome and a host of other reasons. What I am discussing in this post, and what people all over America are protesting about today is STATE SANCTIONED MURDER. The fact that Zimmerman killed Martin is terrible, as is any murder. What has people up in arms is that the state sanctioned it. The Police let him go. The court system let him off. What the system is saying is that ‘you killed an innocent Black Boy, but that’s ok, we understand’ This is how INSTITUTIONAL RACISM works. We had a similar case here in the UK with the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence. Five white boys killed a Black boy. Everybody knows who did it, but they got off through ‘lack of evidence’. Evidence that the Police fumbled. The issue at hand is not really the murder. (As you correctly point out, murders happen every day in the hood, and nobody marches on Washington). The real issue here is that a white man murdered a Black boy, and the Justice System backed him up. The Justice System that is supposed to provide JUSTICE FOR ALL is really only offering protection to whites. We’re told that we live under the rule of law, but if a white man breaks the law by murdering a Black man, his rights trump ours. When a Black boy kills another Black boy, the state won’t offer him any protection. They may not make much effort to find his killer, but if they do find him, they won’t give him the support and protection that Zimmerman got. That Zee is what were complaining and campaigning about – lack of service from the State, not the cause of death. Its too completely different problems that you are conflating

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  2. Why don’t we see the same outrage from the Black community when black men kill each other and black women/children on a daily basis here in America and i’m sure in the inner cities of the UK? Where’s the outrage on the “stop snitching” ‘rule’ that has KNOWN killers walking on the streets? Please!

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