People wore their hoodies Tuesday to remember Trayvon Martin on the first anniversary of his appalling shooting death at the hands of a neighborhood watchman, who pursued the black youth on the suspicion that he didn’t look like he belonged in his gated townhouse community.
Rallies were held in New York and Georgia, and at the University of Miami, students organized a poetry reading in memory of the 17-year-old Miami high school student — a dedication of wise, powerful words as the antidote to violence.
“A positive and productive way to fill hearts and minds,” says visiting Chicago poet Quraysh Ali Lansana, who has spent the past 30 years working with young people and teaching them, through the marriage of poetry and social justice, about history, love of self, and respect for others.
He knows what he’s talking about.
This is a man who is rearing four black sons in one of the nation’s toughest cities — “challenging work while dodging the bullets,” as he called it in our conversation Tuesday about the Trayvon case and the violence ripping through the urban core of cities like Miami and Chicago, where the mounting death toll of black children doesn’t evoke the national outrage of other tragedies.
The raw poetry Lansana read in Miami, an event organized by UM’s United Black Students and the creative writing department, describes scenes that could have easily been set here.
From the poem dead, dead heat on the southside:
“last night, police barricaded the four blocks
surrounding my house in pursuit of a thug
who unloaded on the shell of a gangsta
in the funeral parlor filled with formaldehyde
and lead. black folks scattered, staining
complicated streets. i settle in for summer:
the maze to the front door, running teens smelling of weed and tragedy from my stoop
reminding my sons they are not sources
of admiration, praying that might change. not yet
june heat rises like the murder rate, gleam
and pop already midnight’s bitter tune.…”
His are remarkably familiar descriptions given our own reality: Three teenagers were shot in two days in Miami-Dade this week, including a 16-year-old waiting for the school bus. Two of them dead in drive-by shootings — acts of violence repeated so often that people have become immune to the news.
Public outcry and pressure — and the relentless pursuit of justice by Trayvon’s parents and their lawyers — brought the scrutiny necessary to the issues of racial profiling and use of deadly force that brought Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, to face a second-degree murder charge.
But, I ask Lansana, who rallies for these other dead children?
Who rallies for the families held hostage by violence in their shuttered up homes every day?
Lansana tells me that he poses these same questions to his students at Chicago State University, who are predominantly African-Americans and Latinos.
“They tell me that as long as it doesn’t touch me, as long as it’s theirs and not mine, it’s not happening,” Lansana says.
Not even the death of a 2-year-old killed on her front porch by a stray bullet has roused enough outrage to bring about change.
He adds: “It’s not [an attitude] exclusive to the African-American community. It transcends race and class. It’s a national sickness.”
The anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death reminds us that race can be a matter of life and death. May the powerful symbol of his hoodie bring other young people to the change and justice they deserve.