Black Rage and Productive Responses to the Legal Innocence of George Zimmerman

Originally published at Ebony.com on July 15, 2013


“Well, the first difficulty is really so simple that it's usually overlooked: to be Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won't destroy you.” - James Baldwin, The Negro in American Culture (WBAI-FM New York, 1961)

For many of us, Saturday’s late announcement of the legal innocence of George Zimmerman was a deadly blow to what little faith was left in our justice system. Our outrage, however expressed in conversations with close friends, family, and on social media is evident. We are hurt, disappointed, and angry that yet again the system espoused to protect us and deliver blindly a verdict consistent with simple facts of Trayvon Martin’s murder has failed. But what do we do with this rage? As Baldwin questions, how do we manage the emotional heartache and pain so that it doesn’t destroy us? While many possible solutions exist, here are several worth our consideration in the immediate future.

1.  Realistic self-appraisal.

We need to take a truthful, personal inventory of how we feel and why. In doing so we should deeply consider from where these emotions emerge. Drawing again from Baldwin, these emotions are not merely what is happening now, but what is happening all around us all the time, “in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference,” the indifference and ignorance of many Zimmerman empathizers in this country. Given the long and tragic legacy of gun violence toward and with our communities, urban and suburban, working class and affluent, we are not new to the realities and impacts of firearms. What is more, we are all but unaware of the ways in which the law and criminal justice system disproportionately arrest, prosecute, and convict African Americans in gun-related offenses while vindicating white counterparts who have used lethal force against us as perceived criminals. This is to say, how we are feeling is the result of an unjust system continuously creating our mental and emotional unrest. Within this broader context, our hurt, disappointment, and anger are as much our right as they are our reality.

2. Define justice.

Secondly, we must answer the very poignant question, which has been posed previously, “what does justice for Trayvon Martin look like?” For each of us that answer may be very different. For some, it means legislative measures regulating the ownership of firearms. For others, it may mean vigilante justice as Zimmerman spends the remainder of his life concerned with citizens “taking the law into their own hands” much the way he did when he profiled, approached, and ultimately killed the son of Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. While I am not advocating for the latter, it is a very real concern. To dissuade from further violence as the only option, we should consider that while justice for Trayvon may not be attainable criminally, our efforts for the legacies of others affected by gun violence such as Jordan Davis may be possible. We can also continue to support Trayvon’s parents as they continue to wrestle with civil as well as possible federal cases in the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal.

3. Organize.

Next, we must collaboratively determine our agenda, detailing short term and long term goals at various levels of our involvement locally, regionally, and nationally. Again, different beliefs regarding justice will shape the conversations and action items among different groups. However, we at least agree on the need to eradicate the contributors to how we perceive and treat Black boys and men while concurrently penalizing, criminally, those who break the law. Coalitions of individuals and organizations already doing this work and those recently heeding the call to serve should develop, finding common ground to identify measurable objectives and strategies toward specific ends (e.g., repealing gun laws similar to Stand Your Ground).

4. Mobilize.

Finally, take it to the streets! In many areas we have already planned for and begun this process as evident by the Trayvon Martin Organizing Committee, which released a listing of non-violent, direct action opportunities in cities across the country. At the very least, these gatherings provide some deliberative space for those deeply affected by the court’s verdict. Within them we find a place to express intense emotions amongst a community of empathizers who understand and share our sentiments. We also find a place to heal, through solidarity, with others looking for a way to cope. Lastly we are able to share ideas, strategies, and tactics toward achieving our collective goal – justice – however defined. If your city was not listed, or has yet to announce a communal response, create your own course of action in your local barbershops, community centers, religious meeting place, or your own home. Localized, grassroots mobilization is often the first step in affecting local-level policies and practices often contributing to scenarios similar to that which ended tragically for Trayvon Martin.

Certainly, these basic considerations are not the only ways to channel the visceral, justifiably rational feelings demanding a response. Hopefully, however, they provide some help toward coping productively with our overexposed vulnerability as African Americans, men and boys in particular. It is critically important to remember how we manage the deep-rooted discontent of the legal exoneration (and factual guilt) of George Zimmerman is about more than ourselves as individuals. While the politics of race and respectability do much to shape “appropriate” responses, we also have power to determine responses absent of these social pressures on our own terms. Therefore, we should think not of curbing the desire to retaliate through violence as dishonest to our feelings, but as a choice to remain a part of very necessary conversations and actions to change. Essentially, we do this for Tracy Martin and Sabrina Fulton, the parents of Trayvon Martin who need our continued support. We also do this for the many others whose lives were affected or taken by gun violence, especially Black men and boys (i.e., Oscar Grant and Jordan Davis), everyday by law enforcement, self-deputized citizens, and one another in cities like Chicago. We do this so we can find a way to preserve what little sanity we have left in reconciling our own humanity within a world, which, at every ebb and flow, treats us as less than human. We do this because, unfortunately, this scenario will arise again. When it does, we must be ready and able to respond, heads “bloodied, but unbowed.”