Trayvon Martin, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki and America’s Hatred of Young Men of Color
One year ago today 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by self-proclaimed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman who pursued Trayvon because he was black and therefore suspicious. It’s nice to think that Zimmerman’s subsequent arrest, which came only after a wave of nationwide protests demanded it, will lead to justice for Trayvon but the reality is much darker.
Zimmerman is a product of this nation’s deep-seated, violent hatred toward young men of color, a truth Americans have, thus far, been loathe to address.
An investigation published by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) last year found that in the first half of 2012 at least 120 black men, women and children, the majority of whom were unarmed, were killed by police, security guards or self-appointed law enforcers like George Zimmerman. That’s one black person killed every 36 hours, a number that would be much higher had Latinos been included.
Perhaps more significant than the actual killings is the sheer lack of accountability for these executions. According to the report, less than 9 percent of those responsible for the deaths have faced charges (four police officers and six security guards and self-appointed law enforcers).
Given that Zimmerman was trying to emulate law enforcement in his position as neighborhood watchman, it’s sort of fitting that he racially profiled a black teenager, a tactic inherent in American policing. There’s no doubt in my mind that had Zimmerman been an officer of the law, Trayvon Martin would have been quickly forgotten just like Alan Blueford, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Ramarley Graham, Manuel Diaz, Noel Polanco, Ervin Jefferson, and countless other unarmed men of color shot dead by law enforcement for “posing a threat”.
Unfortunately for the rest of the world, this country’s violent racial hatred extends far beyond the realm of domestic policing. For proof, look no further than the Obama administration’s due-process free executions of brown men abroad. Most notable is President Obama’s redefinition of the term “militant”.
The New York Times revealed last year that the administration “counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants…unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent,” in other words “guilty until proven innocent after execution.”
The rationale is that “people in an area of known terrorist activity, or found with a top Qaeda operative, are probably up to no good,” a reasoning nearly identical to the most frequent justification given by police officers following the shooting of an unarmed man of color, except police exchange “militant” for “gang member” as was the case in the police killing of Manuel Diaz in Anaheim last summer. Back then, I wrote about the racialized nature of the term “gang member”:
The reality is that “gang” is a racialized word that triggers images of violent black and brown criminal stereotypes in the minds of the public. When the words “gang” or “drugs” are thrown around in connection to victims of color, sympathy for the injured and/or dead comes to a sudden halt. By repeatedly using “gang member” to describe the people at the other end of police violence, the APD is soliciting racialized indifference toward the victims.
The same is true of the word “militant” which elicits images of savage brown and bearded men conspiring to killing white westerners. This mentality makes it easier for Americans to ignore the state-sanctioned murder of 16-year-old Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an American citizen killed in Yemen by a US drone strike two weeks after his father, Anwar.
The “militant” designation is nothing new. During the military offensive against the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004, US troops prohibited military age men (between ages 15-55) from fleeing, allowing only women and children and the elderly to leave. According to the New York Times, one marine battalion had “orders to shoot any male of military age on the streets after dark, armed or not.” In 2006, the Associated Press reported that “Four U.S. soldiers accused of murdering suspected insurgents during a raid in Iraq said they were under orders to ‘kill all military age males’.” Similar tactics were employed in Vietnam and likely date back even earlier.
To those paying attention to mass incarceration, the school-to-prison pipeline, stop and frisk, the death penalty and the war on drugs, it should come as no surprise that men of color are seen as disposable by the US government. Whether at home or abroad, state-sanctioned killings are an extension of this sentiment and until we acknowledge it the George Zimmermans of the world will continue to follow in the footsteps of the state.