U.S. Politics

Trayvon Martin, Troy Davis and the 2012 Election

By Bruce A. Dixon

The world of U.S. politics and media is a twisted place where lofty words often cloak base intentions. It’s a world where Trayvon Martin’s parents, for instance, feel obliged to trademark phrases containing their son’s name to prevent economic exploitation of his case by canny entrepreneurs. But in a presidential election year, rampant political abuse, misuse, hand in hand with media disinformation and trivialization of Trayvon Martin and the meaning of his death are practically inevitable.

Corporate media news did cover the “million hoodie march,” a hastily organized outpouring of popular rage and frustration, not just at the individual murder of Trayvon martin, but at the universal American policy of hyper-policing young Black males in New York, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and other cities. What the coverage left out, however, is that at least in New York, those thousands of hooded protesters ended their march by joining with Occupy Wall Street, where for the first time in six months the occupation was mostly African American, a fact that would have served the agendas of neither of the two corporate parties.

On the other hand, in the interest of making some whites feel better about themselves, the hacks at CNN sought out the tiny and deceptively named “New Black Panther Party” which seems to exist purely to be called upon by the likes of Sean Hannity and Anderson Cooper when they need a comic Black racist bogeyman. The NBPP dutifully rendered its standard performance, complete with scowling and on-camera chest-thumping about bounties and “citizens arrests.”

African Americans are the Democratic Party’s base constituency. Black politicians are long accustomed to making good sounding but often-empty statements against police brutality, stop and frisk, and similar practices. In keeping with the rising level of public anger, Black state legislators in New York showed up for a Monday morning press conference in hoodies, and Democrat-supporting figures in the corporate media like Keith Oberman did at least one segment of his show wearing a gray hoodie.

The problem of course, is that the culture of over-policing African Americans is deeply rooted in thousands of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies, prosecutors’ offices, and courts. Aside from repealing a single odious Florida law, few of the public figures and politicians suddenly concerned have any proposals to offer that might begin to roll back the omnipresent culture of racist policing, like rolling back the ability of law enforcement agencies to keep confiscated assets, or ceasing to funnel federal money to police departments based on the number of low level drug arrests. After all, that governing in the interest of the people stuff is hard. Showing up for work in a hoodie is easy.

The 21st century civil rights establishment, unlike their predecessors a half-century ago, are so tightly bound to the fortunes and careers of elected Democrats that they dare not raise any demands which will embarrass their colleagues. So extending the dramatic demonstrations to, say, wearing a black ribbon until the nation’s prison population is cut in half, are utterly unthinkable. Despite their demands for Justice Department interventions here and there, the last thing the civil rights establishment wants in a presidential year, when their candidate is courting “moderate” voters, is a deep and honest national discussion about hyper-policing and the prison state.

For our cynical Black political class, which we sometimes call the Black misleadership class, Troy Davis was last year’s fundraising slogan, and this year’s get-out-the-vote watchword will be remembering Trayvon Martin. Sound far-fetched? It’s not. In the 2000 presidential campaign, the NAACP’s national voter action arm commissioned a mailer to millions of Black households across the country. It featured whites waving confederate flags and the tag line “If they win, we lose, and a drawing of a pickup truck dragging a chain, an obvious reference to the 1998 Texas murder of James Byrd by white supremacists. In fairness, the murder did happen when Republican presidential candidate Bush was governor in Texas, and Texas had failed to pass hate crimes legislation.

But the Black political class never bothered Al Gore about the fact that his home state of Tennessee, like Florida and other key states, banned from the voting lists for life anybody convicted of a felony, disenfranchising hundreds-of-thousands of voters in each of those two states alone. They never demanded he use his political capital to stand up for their actual constituents. Did it matter? Of course it did. 2000 Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore lost both Florida and his home state of Tennessee by margins far greater than the number of Black voters disqualified by the felony restriction alone. In their defense however, using confederate flags and pickup trucks on campaign mailers is a lot easier than demanding your candidate stand up for you, and easy is what our Black political class is about.

As for the president, many Democrats, wise and learned members of our Black political class have offered, on other subjects the excuse that the president can’t say what he wants to say about this or that, or is saying what he thinks he must to please some unknown powerful interests. But if the president is prevaricating on these other fronts, how do we know he’s not telling Black people as much as he can of what he thinks we want to hear without actually doing much of anything? Obama isn’t Trayvon’s father, and he isn’t ours either, so his imagined emotional connection is beside the point. He’s not a pastor, he’s a president. For a president, saying there ought to be a national debate without being willing to lead it is a weasely cop-out.

If the president was seriously concerned with trying to prevent police and vigilante murders, he could have opened his mouth on the November 2006 murder of Sean Bell by NYPD. As a member of the powerful U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee and presidential aspirant, Obama was in an ideal spot to put both light and heat on that and many similar cases. He didn’t. If the Obama White House was the least bit interested in leading the way, it could have told the Justice Department to find a legal reason to take an interest in the case of Troy Davis. That’s all it would have taken to preserve Troy Davis’s life for months or years longer, as investigations, debates and political maneuvers continued. Talk is cheap. Expressions of concern are cheap. Even a federal investigation confined to the specific case of Trayvon Martin is a tiny thing, as there are a million mostly young Black men in prison, and hundreds will be killed by sworn police officers, not pretenders like Zimmerman this and every year of the near future.

For Obama and the Black political class, interested only in their own careers, Trayvon Martin will be an empty slogan, a symbol. Their own careers are proof enough that rolling back the prison state won’t be accomplished at the voting booth.

The few lonely voices hollering about Trayvon being the start of some new movement, while bemoaning the fact that the million hoodie march ended up at Occupy are aspiring members of the Black political class afraid they won’t get their share of campaign dollars if the hoodie folks go with Occupy instead of the Democrats. But that’s the way it is. The movement for real change will have to begin somewhere else, and flow to and from some entirely different directions.

Black Agenda Report, March 28, 2012