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Jazz Community Responds to Trayvon Martin Tragedy

Angelika Beener
Staff Writer
angelikabeener[at]gmail.com / @alternate_takes

Sean Bell. Amadou Diallo. Danroy Henry. Ramarley Graham. Orlando Barlow. Aaron Campbell. Timothy Stansbury. Oscar Grant. In the land of freedom and opportunity, the possibilities for these names to become household ones should be endless, and are what fundamentally define for what America stands at its core. Instead, these names represent a reality which has been carved out specifically for black males of this country. Sadly, we add 17-year-old Trayvon Martin to this list of people who will never reach the potential on which America thrives in theory, but fails in practice.

The story of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed, black teenage boy who was stalked and subsequently murdered last month by a crime watch volunteer who deemed him "suspicious" as he walked home from a convenience store, has been elevated to an international one, largely in part by social and black media outlets. President Obama has called for Americans to do some “soul searching”, personalizing the tragedy in a statement last week. Nationwide rallies and public statements from influential figures in politics, entertainment and elsewhere have taken over mainstream media, which initially all but bypassed this story. As a mother of a young son, as a journalist, and as a part of the jazz community, it remains a priority for me to do my part in keeping this story in the forefront of the American conscious. It was also important that sentiments within the jazz community be well represented alongside those of the rest of the world.

Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, (who was not part of a registered watch group, and who has a record for previously assaulting a police officer), has yet to be arrested, protected by one of the scariest laws in the nation. “It's this backward, unjust, NRA- driven law that has let Zimmerman go free,” says pianist Vijay Iyer of the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense law which is currently in place in 24 states. “[President Obama’s] choice to step into this firestorm was courageous, and also strategic. All the focus has been on the 3-second-long ‘If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon’ quote, but he said some other very important things, too.” Iyer points out that as president, Barack Obama cannot override the law, which was passed in Florida in 2005, but says his statement that ‘we examine the laws and context for what happened’ is a ‘clear reference’ to "Stand Your Ground".

The following is courtesy of Al Jezeera:

Here is a full explanation of the "Stand Your Ground" bill, as explained by Josh Horwitz, Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence ("Arming Zimmerman"). The first prong of the law explicitly removes an individual's duty to retreat from a conflict when he/she can safely do so . The second prong explicitly protects killers acting under the first prong:

"A person who uses force as permitted in s. 776.012, s. 776.013, or s. 776.031 is justified in using such force and is immune from criminal prosecution and civil action for the use of such force ... A law enforcement agency ... may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful." [emphasis added.]

Despite the racial divide which this story has illuminated, President Obama's imploring of the nation and its parents to have basic empathy in this case is something drummer Otis Brown III is relating to and coping with. “I explained the whole case [to my children] and we talked about it,” says Brown who has two sons under ten years old. “It’s like, do I really have to have a talk with them now about how some people are not going to like them or immediately treat them a certain way because of the way they look? We did, and they understood it, but as a parent, it’s kind of disheartening when you see a look come over their face... you see their mind[s] working and I saw it when I was talking to them. It was definitely a teaching moment. It’s the reality of how we live that you have to talk to your kids, especially Black males and for me, it was a crazy juxtaposition because we were just featured in [Esperanza Spalding’s] “Black Gold” video, and I’m explaining that concept to them... understanding and knowing your worth, and no more than a year later I have to, on the other hand, explain that some people think you’re worthless.”

Like so many others, Brown used his social media platform to denounce the notion that Trayvon’s hoodie sweatshirt somehow led him to a death sentence. “The stats of how violent Black youth may be or how they dress is an ad hominem argument to the Trayvon Martin case,” says trumpeter Nicholas Payton. “Zimmerman killed that boy in cold blood. He pursued a young man who was clearly more scared than he. You mean to tell me I need to modify my behavior or style of dress to thwart the danger of being shot by a pathological killer?”

Saxophonist and educator Wade Fulton Dean adds, “Let me be clear, a hoodie or any article of clothing for that matter, is not a catalyst for suspicion or a prediction of criminal activity. Let's be real, brothers Malcolm and Martin were struck down in suits.”

Saxophonist Marcus Strickland recounts “one of many” reminders that no matter how black males may try to appear less "threatening", (which is a poisonous ideology to begin with) they are not exempt from racial profiling. “At 19 years old I had the great honor to play with Wynton Marsalis at a very exclusive event. People of all races were very generous to us with their kind words after the performance. I felt great! Then as I walked home from the train that night, still dressed in a tuxedo, with an instrument that was appraised to be $5,000 at that time, strapped to my back, an elderly white lady looked back at me and proceeded to walk much faster and get her keys out so she could quickly enter the safety of her apartment building (she also yanked at the door to close it faster). I thought to myself, ‘No matter what I do, where I go, or how I dress my skin color will always conjure up the same image in the mind of people like this woman.’ Trayvon could have easily been me or anybody else of color, and as you see, a hoodie has nothing at all to do with it.”

"There is nothing we as black people need to do to stop people from committing hate crimes against us," says Payton. "What needs to stop is the idea that the killing of another person based on prejudice is ever justifiable, no matter the race. The notion that we as blacks have somehow brought this on ourselves is the same red herring they've been trying to sell us for centuries. I ain't buying."

"A hoodie is worn by people of all colors, not exclusively by dangerous black males," adds Strickland. “Furthermore, not all black males are dangerous. The hoodie is not the issue, bigotry is the issue. Although I deeply appreciate the many pros of the post-Civil Rights era it is not an era of post-racism, it is merely the spawn of more excuses and more subtle ways to carry out racism. The Sanford Police Department is full of it, Geraldo is full of it, and Zimmerman should have been arrested by now. Given George Zimmerman's history of violence, his racial slur in the 911 call, Zimmerman's aggressive pursuit of Trayvon, and the eye-witnesses' accounts of no reason for the shooting, there is already enough reason to make an arrest. The tragedy has garnered a response from the President of the United States and the FBI - shouldn't that, in addition to the evidence, be enough warning that it's time for an arrest and trial? Furthermore, if Trayvon were not black with a hoodie on, would he be shot by Zimmerman? If Trayvon were were not black, would it take this long for the Sanford Police to realize there is not enough evidence to prove Zimmerman's innocence? Has Trayvon's skin color influenced the Sanford Police department's benefit of the doubt for Zimmerman? Should the benefit of doubt rule over due process and evidence against Zimmerman?"

The questions posed are deserving of answers, especially to Trayvon's parents. Iyer is optimistic, but also calls out the silence and ignorance of right-wing media. "The nationwide grassroots protest movement formed around [this case] has been inspiring. The national conversation about this incident has been characterized by typical racism and hot-headed ignorance that has become commonplace in the FOX News era, as television commentators continually weigh in without any factual knowledge or expertise. This has created an ongoing atmosphere of hostility that validates prejudice over justice, righteous indignation over compassion, and divisiveness over community."

Community has been a big part of this story, and it seems the black community’s reaction is being put to the test, with a sort of call to action for how blacks should respond to black on black crime. Spiritual advisor and life coach Iyanla Vanzant spoke this past Sunday on Washington Watch With Roland Martin about the pathology of black on black crime, and that by devaluing life, it leaves the community vulnerable to these types of horrific crimes.

Brown points out the nation’s overall blind eye to Trayvon and how devaluing of African-American lives is well beyond a black issue. “Just a couple of weeks ago, there were millions of people trying to get Joseph Kony... white, black, whatever. Retweeting stuff, posting stuff, and now that it’s an American kid that gets killed... it’s real lopsided that we have mostly people of color protesting. You don’t really see other races galvanizing in the same way, but Joseph Kony, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s a war criminal.’ So are African kids more valuable than African-American kids? It shouldn’t be the case the either way, but there should be the same amount of uproar for this case.”

“It angers me that America still is hell-bent on painting blackness with this wide, uninformed, monochromatic brush,” says Dean. “Blackness is not a stereotype; blackness is not a mystery. Blackness is a narrative of complexity and triumph. Professor Henry Louis Gates said, ‘If there are forty million black Americans, then there are forty million ways to be black.’ We are indeed a nuanced people. We are equal participants in this brilliant enterprise called America. The suspicions and misconceptions do harm and tarry from participating in celebration which is black culture. And so I say to all of America, do not label your brown skinned brother and sister. For the label that you attempt to place on them can easily be placed on yourself.”

I cannot say that Trayvon Martin was a “typical kid”. Black males in America do not have the luxury of such a general, fair and balanced terminology. Personally, I don’t know a black male who has not been profiled in some way or another. “To be honest, I feel like I'm profiled very often,” says saxophonist Jaleel Shaw. “There have been many times that I've been pulled over by the police, double checked at an airport, or watched in stores. Although I can say there are many times that I haven't, the times that I have definitely stick out. Today, when a cop car is behind me, or before I even walk into some places, I sometimes feel uncomfortable.”

Cards as stacked against us as they are, I cannot help but look at Trayvon Martin as a regular kid-- a kid who loved the outdoors, had aspirations of a career in aviation, and had a girlfriend he was crazy about. He doesn’t just look like President Obama’s potential son, but my own actual one, which leaves me breathless. I have come to grips with the fact that my son’s life lessons, and those of his non-black friends will be very different. Teaching my son how to deal with overwhelming racism within law enforcement, and raising him to be a kid who stays out of trouble in the first place, is something I am ready for. To explain how something like this can happen to a kid who did all of the right things is something for which I’m not.

**A special thank you to all of the musicians who took time out of their busy schedules to let their voices be heard on this matter.

Angelika Beener is the creator of and writer for Alternate Takes, a progressive music blog which takes on jazz within a variety of social contexts. She is an award-winning producer and host with awards from The New York Association of Black Journalists and The Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Follow her on Twitter.