The Trayvon Martin Case is Nothing New

Among all the news reports concerning the killing of Trayvon Martin, the testimony of a man named Murray Jess, as reported in the Los Angeles Times, presents us with yet another example of thousands where the police stop and question a black man who appears to be “out of place.”  As Jess tells it:  Two years ago, as he was driving his 1996 home from an art show with his fiancé and his 14-year-old nephew, he was stopped by a police cruiser and forced into a parking lot. One officer pointed a video camera at Jess and the other approached the car with his hand on his gun.  The officer said 'We've had a lot of reports of these kinds of cars being stolen lately." This is a common excuse and I doubt very seriously if there was any evidence of such an increase in specific crimes. 

Several identical stories are related by black men in this article.  As one victim stated, "If you're out after 12 o'clock and you're black, you're gonna get either shot or beat up" either by the police or someone like the man who killed Trayvon.

It’s an old story, one that millions of black men and women have told over the past 100 plus years.  Seemingly routine traffic stops have often become the focal point of police abuse of force against blacks.  On more than one occasion such a stop triggered a massive riot, such as what occurred in South Central Los Angeles in the 1960s.

One writer relates his own personal story as follows: “You’d be hard pressed to find many young men of color, of approximate college age, who haven’t at some point in their lives been told that they “fit the description of a suspect” police are looking for. The experience is far less typical for those whom police reports would classify as Caucasian males.”  In my 30 plus years as a college professor I have yet to encounter a single black student who has not had a similar experience.  When I routinely ask my class who has had such an experience, few white hands go up but virtually every hand of Latinos or blacks are raised.

In a segregated society like we have today (documented by several recent studies) one consequence has been the existence (and rapid growth) of gated communities, as documented by many studies (such as one by Seth Low).  In such communities people have escaped what they perceive as a dangerous world and surround themselves with walls.  But it has created a false sense of security and they often have to be aware of outsiders who enter on a daily basis - gardeners, domestic help, deliverymen and even the private guards who are supposed to make them feel safe.  What they have created is what two researchers have called Fortress America. And they are often patrolled by security guards who too often are “cop wannabees” like the man who killed Trayvon. 

The key point in this case, and others like this, is the fact that someone in authority believes that “these people” are in the “wrong place.”  A close friend and colleague (Professor William B. Brown) was once riding along with two members of the Detroit Police Department (both white men).  They stopped a black man driving in front of them in a heavy rainstorm.  They asked him to get out of the car, made him given them his ID and told him not to move.  As he stood in the rain the officers checked their computer for outstanding warrants.  Brown noted that:

The suspect had no warrants.  His driver’s license was current, and the vehicle registration reflected the driver was the registered owner.  Both officers remained in the car for more than 30 minutes after the information about the driver and the vehicle arrived.  They were engaged in a discussion about their favorite basketball team.  Finally, one officer got out of the car, walked toward the Caprice [the driver’s car], and “flipped” the driver’s license, registration, and insurance card toward the driver, and said, “Have a nice evening.”  All three documents landed in the pool of water the driver had been standing in. Completely soaked, the driver of the Caprice looked pathetic in the glare of the patrol car’s headlights as he reached into the water to retrieve his documents.  Later in the shift, I asked the officers why they had stopped the Caprice.  One officer stated, in a quite matter-of-fact manner, “He knew he wasn’t supposed to be here this time of night.”  The answer was spontaneous and offered in such a way that no further explanation occurred to either officer.  The driver was a black male, it was late at night, and he was in an all-white suburb of Detroit.”



This is the reality that few whites in this country are aware of and when blacks complain about this, they are often accused of exaggerating or playing the proverbial “race card,” which, as Tim Wise argues, is a very bad card to play and it is played very reluctantly.