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What the killings of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin taught America about the fight for justice

While the persistent fight for a reformed legal system dates back several decades, the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many more mirror a pattern of racial injustice that exposes a greater war against the politics of privilege.

Black Lives Matter protest Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images

“Black Power” is a bi-weekly editorial column that explores how the Black community can use their collective power to design a new America.

In America, when kids enter elementary school, one patriotic ritual is required. Students are expected to stand tall, place a right hand over their heart, face the flag, and then proudly recite the pledge of allegiance.

While gazing innocently at the stars and stripes that signify our national banner, kids of every color proceed to utter the words of a tagline deeply woven into the fabric of this country: “One nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”

Yet, the irony of such a command is that while it is mandatory for each student to make this declaration, it is not mandatory for the nation to honor this promise in return. Or, to quote the brilliant Black intellectual James Baldwin, “It comes as a great shock...to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance...has not pledged allegiance to you.”

While the fight for a reformed legal system dates back several decades, the notion of justice lost nearly every ounce of credibility amongst Black Americans within the past three years. Since the tragic shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed Black boy senselessly killed while walking through a suburban Florida neighborhood, a haunting nostalgia of racism and systematic injustice forcefully positioned itself at the forefront of people’s minds.

His image was made strikingly clear: Trayvon was as a Black teen of semi-athletic stature, wearing a dark hoodie, carrying a pack of skittles. Yet, if you take a second glance over that depiction, you quickly realize the description, which spread virally and stirred endless debate, was not very clear at all. Especially because his appearance was presented by both police and the public as criteria used to classify Trayvon as a threat to George Zimmerman, the shooter, who claimed to kill Martin in self-defense after feeling endangered by the “suspicious” looking teenager.

As the long-awaited verdict inched closer, hopes were high for the Martin family and their supporters, though the results remained uncertain. The evidence appeared unconvincing. The applied motive appeared desperate. The action showed signs of a cowardly defense to an untreated ignorance.

Despite the perceivable optics — following a formal trial, intense protests, nationwide marches, televised rallies and federal petitions to convict Zimmerman of murder — Martin’s killer was ultimately acquitted of all charges. Thus, adding fuel to an ever-burning fire that continues engulfing the belief in a fractured justice system.

Following the fatal shooting of Mike Brown, the city of Ferguson became a treacherous battleground for militarized police waging war against passionate protesters standing in defense of a declared injustice.

For months, tear gas and bullets flew, businesses were destroyed, and emotional screams flooded smoke-filled skies. Headlines recounted the arrests of everyone from scholars and journalists to kids and demonstrators. Some spent hours in jail, while others spent several weeks.

As tensions grew, the Missouri city issued a No-Fly Zone for the media to limit coverage of the happenings, likely resulting from real-time accounts of officers forcefully occupying and evacuating areas where hundreds relentlessly rallied for one arrest to be made.

Unsettling footage quickly surfaced of the deceased teenager lying in the street, face down, entrenched in his own blood with multiple gunshot wounds. His body became a public display for members of the community to witness another promising kid gone too soon.

Since the video went viral, a series of debates immediately ensued. On one side, there were questions as to the motive behind shooting Brown — why he was shot instead of apprehended, and analyzing the protocol of a trained officer in such a situation. On the other side, there were questions surrounding the personal character of Brown — if he was indeed a thief, marijuana abuser and troubled student.

Police accounts of the scuffle between Brown and Darren Wilson positioned the unarmed teen as the aggressor, attacking Wilson in his cruiser, giving the officer no option but to discharge his weapon in self-defense. While more statements were released and speculation persisted, the most important conversation remained locked in a vault protected by the principles of privilege and history. There was an evident, although unspoken, reason Brown was instantly labeled a threat, which is the same reason Wilson was not, and was ultimately acquitted for the killing.

For many, white privilege is merely a myth. Hearing it discussed amongst distinguished intellectuals and scholars is often interpreted as reactive speech to somewhat prehistoric realities of racism. Instead of enhancing the universal perspective of injustice and inequality, the attempts to elevate awareness land as misinformed lectures void of applicable lessons. Consequently, a substantial percentage of the population classifies dialogue about white privilege as imaginary and irrelevant, finding no merit in addressing an ideology that seemingly has no tangible traits.

Instead, we revel in the countless advancements in technology that seamlessly connect cultures and cause racial lines to appear less visible. Emerging generations are praised for identifying with shared interests and values instead of skin color. The appointment of Barack Obama perceivably showed that achievement is not an impossible aspiration for anyone, regardless of race. The global dominance of hip hop culture has led to people from all walks of life uttering the realities of Black America while mirroring the lifestyle, speaking the language and embodying the aspirational spirit.

The growing list of Black moguls paints a picture of wealth and access that young Black men and women feel is possible to acquire in their lifetime. All things considered, tremendous strides have been made. Yet, when examining the critical categories that still dictate the value of a Black life in this country, very few things have changed. For context, let’s examine two notable examples of exercised politics and privilege that produced similar outcomes.

The Bloods and Crips, referred to as two of today’s most notorious gangs, are largely credited for the demise of America’s inner cities. They’ve been commonly pinned as criminalized cliques that rob, steal and murder senselessly. However, while exiled as dangerous and misguided kids from abandoned communities, these once powerful alliances were initially birthed out of the need to protect and preserve the human rights of Black Americans.

In a time when predominantly Black neighborhoods were subject to frequent ambushing from ill-intended whites, gangs formed as proactive solutions to defend against unlawful attacks because the police refused to patrol their blocks. It wasn’t until countless factories closed down and drugs took centerstage in conjunction with the White Flight Movement, referring to the mass relocation of whites from inner cities to suburban areas, that the perception and function of street gangs shifted.

The same state government that honored these groups for their service to the community suddenly stripped their distinction. There was no longer a direct adversary to fight. Rather, in the face of rapid unemployment and socioeconomic disparity, Black people began seeing each other as the enemy. Lacking resources and access to equal opportunity, poverty prevailed. As a result, the privileged escaped the grasp of turmoil while further avoiding accountability for their part in causing a socioeconomic plague.

In the prime of the 1960s, during an era of heightened solidarity amongst civil rights groups such as The Black Panther Party, issues of inequality surrounding education, employment, and the judicial treatment of Black Americans were approached with diligent action. These organizations developed independent programs for kids to receive proper schooling, healthcare, food, shelter and other essentials inaccessible to underprivileged Blacks. Exercising their constitutional rights, they spoke out against evident injustice, while rightfully bearing arms.

Yet, instead of state officials working in unison to develop necessary reform or negotiate proposed plans to provide equal rights, these groups were declared domestic terrorists. The active police chief of the Los Angeles Police Department enforced an official mandate to arrest, imprison and subsequently inflict violent force to exterminate all incompliant Black Americans who refused to follow the principles of privilege.

More notably, the standing police chief intentionally recruited members of the Ku Klux Klan from southern states, along with active military serviceman and trained veterans. Their armor and weapons were upgraded with military tactics implemented to govern designated cities.

Though decades ago, the same framework exists today in a climate that has seen a multitude of innocent Black people killed.

Since the Civil Rights Movement, it has indeed been a long walk to freedom. For African Americans, achieving justice is a gruelingly tiresome and treacherous uphill conquest that continues testing the seemingly unbreakable endurance of a people frequently denied equal rights at the expense of further suffering from the residual effects of a hate-driven history.

As more races and cultures blend, the perception of privilege gets lost in translation, becoming associated strictly with wealth and opportunity, steering away from its role in perpetuating racism. As rap reaches even greater heights, its images of inner city struggle, crime and violence serve as just reasoning for racial profiling and the disparities in mass incarceration.

Justice blesses the rich, honors the privileged, and unflinchingly punishes the poor. It’s built on age-old principles that stem from slavery, very slightly deviating from such separatist ideals. We’ve watched as George Floyd, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Mike Brown, Jordan Davis, Breonna Taylor, and many other innocent victims lose their lives at the hands of inexcusable negligence and violent force. Once again — families torn, races divided and our nation’s justice system fails to uphold its pledge of allegiance.

As a result, despair and disappointment have plagued the Black community so much that Black pain has become commonplace in the press. Seeing endless tears fall from the face of a terrified mother now stands as a signature shot circulating on daily news headlines.

Let’s check the track record. When turmoil strikes subjugated communities in traditionally segregated cities across America, we point to disparities in access and resources. When young Black people find their identity in a lifestyle of criminal activity out of the inherent desire to feed their family, we point to messages in music and the outcomes of gang life. But, we classify this as a fault of misguidance and stupidity, not privilege. Or, when unarmed Black people are killed by trained police officers, we point to prejudices of threat and Black rage. But, we consider this the fault of Black America, not the mechanics of racism in America. Yet, what the vast majority fails or refuses to realize is that privilege is not a physical battle of Black against white, it’s a socioeconomic and ideological war of politics and power.

What the deaths of Mike Brown and Trayvon Martin taught America about justice is that it doesn’t exist. Not for all. Not the justice that rightfully protects Black people who were killed by law enforcement on video. Not the justice that acknowledges the atrocities that accompanies a police officer killing an unarmed 12-year-old boy. Not the justice that takes into account the influence of classism and privilege, as it relates to prejudice and discrimination.

As a people, we have to define what justice is for ourselves and stand firmly on that understanding. We must keep working to establish a system that takes into account moral principles, not conservative religious principles. We must activate our power and influence to put people in political positions that can reshape the current infrastructure with a vision for evolving America into a country where every perspective counts. We must humbly invest in educating people about the multifaceted Black experience, staying authentic and showing the progressive images that are often intentionally overlooked.

Until we refresh our outlook, the illusion of justice will continue casting a looming dark cloud over the promise and potential of Black America.

As long as the scales of justice are imbalanced, the next Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin can make millions in the NBA or start a billion-dollar tech company, but can just as easily end up dead or in jail, while the next Darren Wilson will be empowered to determine the ending to his story — more importantly being alive to tell it.

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