The tragic shooting of 17-year old Trayvon Martin presents some very raw political and public policy dimensions that are certain to rear their ugly head in the coming weeks. While some might argue that it’s a bit unseemly and cynical to raise politics as Martin’s family and others are still grieving, the reality is that it’s a necessary analysis.
It won’t go unnoticed that the killing occurred in Florida, which will serve as a key battleground state during the 2012 elections. The state itself will be hotly contested, and some observers point to the caustic 2000 election decision as an unfortunate model. Given the state’s very diverse racial demographics, including its large Black and Latino populations, Martin’s shooting may end up becoming an emotional flashpoint that will eventually translate into mobilization on a massive scale. Brace for that in a big way, particularly if Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, continues to roam free despite his, to date, unapologetic confession to the killing.
The Florida State Conference NAACP is already setting the tone for what will eventually turn into a tense showdown if Sanford, FL police continue to act casually about it. “Given America’s history of racial prejudice and an ongoing pervasive pattern of racial profiling of its minority population, Florida NAACP President Adora Obi Nweze requested the Department of Justice detail personnel to ‘immediately review the facts, ensure that the Sanford Police Department conducts an impartial, thorough and prompt investigation of the circumstances,” was the official statement from the state conference.
While at it, the DOJ may want to evaluate Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, an out Zimmerman is using to its fullest at the moment. “The police have said Mr. [George] Zimmerman, when he was questioned, indicated that he was acting in self-defense, that [Martin] had attacked him and that he had the right to protect himself with a weapon,” noted CNN legal contributor Paul Callan. “Florida is one of about 15 states in the United States that have something called a ‘Stand Your Ground’ law…. And it’s very easy to assert self-defense in Florida.”
Beyond Zimmerman’s point-blank-range and senseless shooting of Martin, the case will serve as a grassroots staging ground for activists ready to show the world what’s wrong with Florida – and American society. Organizations such as the NAACP were already targeting Florida for its passage of Voter ID laws and other suppression tactics that appear focused on diminishing Black, Latino, senior and youth support for Democrats in the upcoming elections. Maybe this case will push impacted voters to understand what’s at stake.
The Martin case adds another unsettling layer to that. A White man senselessly killing a Black boy who was “’armed’ only with a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea” as Nweze puts it in her pointed letter to Attorney General Eric Holder symbolizes what National Urban League President Marc Morial described as an “attack” on Black America when presenting NUL’s 2012 State of Black America report. Thus, the Martin case is the personification of some very troubling trends, from the implementation of voter suppression laws to crumbling public schools and a disproportionate number of Black youth – especially Black males – who are being targeted for excessive suspensions and punishment or incarceration.
Could Martin’s death become a tipping point for African Americans in the 2012 elections? It’s possible. But, it depends on the amount of spotlight and whether activists can link the tragedy to an increasingly urgent situation for Black America at-large. The growing national attention to the incident puts both sides of the political aisle on notice. Republicans will be blamed for the hostile climate that led to Martin’s death, particularly as details about “Stand Your Ground” start emerging. Democrats, particularly the Obama Administration, will be pressed to offer both public response and recourse; some may urge the President to express something on the subject (compared to his quick to-the-rescue beer summit for Ivy League Black studies professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr.). But, watch for Obama’s very cautious pause and silence triggered by fear of reprisal from critical White votes at the polls. He’ll let his Attorney General, the Congressional Black Caucus and others handle it.
What we do know is that the Trayvon Martin case says a lot about the state of our politics at the moment. It’s not very post-racial and, yes, it is very tense and polarized. Certain elements in the political process, including decision makers from state legislatures to Capitol Hill, are holding the gun. People of color are in the cross-hairs. And the only thing we seem to be armed with these days is a high unemployment rate and a sense that the future is not looking as bright.