Social Justice: Hoodies, Hijabis and the Hunger Games

I remember in the aftermath of President Obama’s election in November 2008, many proclaimed that America was post-racial. I disagreed then and now with this assessment: it suggests that the election of a black president amounted to full eradication of racial prejudices in America. In light of recent events, I don’t think one could reasonably make that argument. Three seemingly unrelated recent events, two murders and a blockbuster movie, in addition to my involvement in Project Open Voices, have brought in sharp relief the long road that lies before us in eradicating discrimination. As horrifying and tragic as the murders of Trayvon Martin and Shamia Alwadi are, they present an opportunity to refocus attention on issues of race, discrimination, and internal biases. In honor of Social Justice Week here at Kenyon, I’d like to raise a few comments and challenges to our community, in the aftermath of these events. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that occasionally, Twitter can feel like an echo chamber. But it can provide an insightful glimpse into popular opinion and perception. So when Twitter lit up with angry Hunger Games fans expressing their disappointment (so to speak) that casting agents had “made all the good characters black,” I was disturbed but not surprised.

The events surrounding Trayon Martin’s death and the subsequent investigation have been chronicled in detail by the media; an overview by TKO’s Megan Shaw can be found here. A lesser known murder occurred just last Wednesday in El Cajon, California, and is currently being investigated as a hate crime. Homemaker Shamia Alwadi was found by her seventeen year old daughter, at home, “in a pool of her own blood” after her head was beaten with a tire iron. Next to her mother’s unconscious body, the girl found a note which read, “go back to your own country. You’re a terrorist.” Alwadi and her family moved to the United States from Iraq in 1993. She was a mother of five, and was a muhajiba, a Muslim woman who chose to wear hijab, or a headscarf. Emily Hauser writes,

In a country in which entire police departments feel justified in spying on Muslim Americans across state lines; in a country in which entire communities, across the country, are whipped up into a froth over plans to build houses of worship; in a country in which elected officials feel free to call Muslim faith-based philanthropic events “pure, unadulterated evil” — should we, in fact, be surprised that many believe “Muslim” to be  synonymous with “terrorist?”

The next logical question, I would hope, is, how do we stop it?

I appreciate Jon Green’s recent post, which bravely acknowledges the striking biases that permeate our society. Advocating humanism and egalitarianism over socialized stereotypes is a crucial step in the creation of a better world and more just society. He writes, “as long as I am aware that my biases exist I can consciously override them, knowing how irrational they are.” It’s a simple but noble call to action, one that could have a radical impact on the lives of many if implemented. I look forward to the day when controversial acknowledgments, like those by Geraldo Rivera and Juan Williams, are no longer occur, because they are overridden, “knowing how irrational they are.” Perhaps these Twitter users would feel differently about the Hunger Games movie if they were able to disassociate damaging stereotypes and biases from the story unfolding on screen, and recognize the value of someone’s narrative, fictional or not, is not dependent on their ethnic, racial or religious identity.

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  1. Whoa, whoa, whoa. The media hasn’t chronicled the Trayvon Martin issue in detail. It has covered it in the details that they wished to present to the public. For instance, instead of detailing current photographs of the two people involved, they chose a picture of Trayvon when he was 12 years old, instead of a picture of him with his shorts half way down his posterior, shirtless, flipping the bird (X2) to the camera. And instead of showing an up to date picture of Zimmerman, clean cut, in a dress shirt and tie, they chose to show a picture of him looking like a dirtbag (a 7 year old picture mind you.) Surely there was no intentional bias there to sway the opinions of the populace? Nor were we ever informed that happy, smiling, carefree, obviously innocent Trayvon was suspended from school for marijuana possession. Nor did the initial reports talk about the fact that Zimmerman was pummeled, nor that there are independent witnesses that have confirmed Zimmerman’s account. We didn’t hear anything, until today’s reports, that Zimmerman was walking back to his SUV when Trayvon approached him, then proceeded to break his nose and smash his head into the sidewalk (all witnessed by independent observers.) Conveniently enough, after the initial few days of reporting, nobody knew that Zimmerman mentored African American children, or was the only member of his gated community to welcome new African American neighbors, or that he has African American family members. We found out about those items AFTER selective presentation of facts had been conducted by the mainstream press. Now that the initial presentation of facts, which got everyone in this country (including myself) upset, and up in arms about abuse of stand your ground rules, and WHOLE NEW SET OF FACTS has come out!

    And now the argument seems to have essentially boiled down to – the voracity of the racial bias claims supercedes the validity of all the other extenuating facts.

    • Here are the facts that matter (not really a media conspiracy, judicially speaking):

      1. A mall-cop with a history of violence gnored the direct order of a 911 dispatcher. Zimmerman was not a police officer. He had no authority whatsoever.
      2. A 17 year old boy was killed with impunity (so far)

      I really hope that you are not implying that “a picture of [Trayvon] with his shorts half way down his posterior, shirtless, flipping the bird (X2)” is justification for his murder.

      by and by:

      http://gawker.com/5896490/your-guide-to-the-idiotic-racist-backlash-against-trayvon-martin

  2. Thanks for your comment Chris. I understand your concerns about media bias and representation, however, I am puzzled by the intention behind your presentation of a “WHOLE NEW SET OF FACTS.” The revelations you describe are still being widely disputed (http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2012/03/27/george-zimmerman-s-account-of-fight-with-trayvon-martin-questioned.html). Further, they do not change the reality of the alleged crime: I find it indisputable that a young man was followed without warrant and approached by an armed neighborhood watchman. The question of self-defense (by whom? legitimate in either case?) is an important one, but I fail to see the relevance of an alleged history of marijuana possession or tardiness to class. Posthumous character assassinations which feed into racial stereotypes and biases, regardless of their accuracy regarding Trayvon in particular, do not justify his murder in any way.

  3. @ Habibi – a 911 dispatcher has absolutely no legal authority to tell you what to do. I’m not saying Zimmerman should have gone after Trayvon, merely that pointing out that he ignored a dispatcher is a non-argument. You shouldn’t pursue suspicious people because it puts you in danger and can escalate the situation (as we see happened.) From the official police reports, that are now corroborated by independent witnesses, he wasn’t killed with impunity. He went back AFTER Zimmerman after Zimmerman had halted his pursuit and was returning to his car. If Trayvon’s recent history – like getting suspended a few days before is irrelevant, why does Zimmerman’s history of years gone by matter? Doesn’t it appear from Mr. Zimmerman’s recent history that he’s tried to reform his life. I am absolutely not justifying his death by what he wore, merely pointing out that the image provided to us from the media of Trayvon when this originally came out was one of a doughy eyed 12 year old, and it appears that he was not that young innocent boy anymore. Meanwhile the caricature of Zimmerman was from when he was at his worst, and appears to have reformed his life.

    @ Tess – you don’t need a warrant to follow people around. EVERYTHING CHALLENGES THE ALLEGED CRIME! The original accusation was that Zimmerman walked up and simply gunned down an innocent kid on the basis that he was black! It’s pretty disputed at this point isn’t it?

    I’ll ask you the same thing I ask Habibi – if Trayvon’s history doesn’t matter, why does Zimmermans? Trayvon’s history, to me, does matter (and Z’s does too). It’s worth considering that he wasn’t a model student. It’s worth considering that he had been suspended for truancy. It’s worth considering that he was caught with women’s jewelery that he admitted wasn’t his, and also in possession of a screw driver. It’s worth considering that he had an empty bag of pot in school. It’s worth considering that it looks like he was in a scuffle with a bus driver on his way down to Sanford. Why? It helps explain why, according to police reports, confirmed by an independent witness (or more than one), that Zimmerman was walking back to his car, not pursuing Trayvon, when Trayvon approached him from the opposite direction, struck him, and was shoving his head into the sidewalk! It’s also reported that Trayvon tried to use the gun on Zimmerman himself as well.

    At any rate, this isn’t murder. At worst it is manslaughter. If Zimmerman wanted to murder Trayvon he wouldn’t have called 911, and he wouldn’t have stopped at one shot. It also appears that Trayvon was shot while he was still atop Zimmerman.

    The initial narrative painted by the media in the first two or three days has been fractured. I will reserve judgment – but it is looking more and more like the Duke Lacrosse scandal all over again.

    • You don’t need a warrant to follow people around, but it can be legally and validly presented in a court of law as intimidation, cowing, harassment, or stalking. (I should note, as a point of clarification, that I was not applying the terms “warrant” or “murder” according to their legal definitions.)

      As I remarked in my initial response to you, Chris, the crucial question of intent and self-defense remains nebulous. It will be decided by a court which will have access to evidence rather than media presentations. Regardless, life was lost needlessly. I hope for a just, speedy and fair trial; but in my view, final judgement (if it exists) belongs to God alone.

      You will note that I have not invoked media projections of the personal histories of either Martin or Zimmerman ( I have only responded to your depictions). The irrelevance of the descriptions you have provided of Trayvon’s history stems from my I have no connection to either person, but I see this tragedy as reflective of larger societal issues which transcend the specifics of this case.

      Yet, if you choose to continue to scrutinize the specifics of this incident, I ask you to reconsider the final argument of my piece: it is only when we “disassociate [ourselves and our mechanisms of judgement from] damaging stereotypes and biases…and recognize [that] the value of someone’s narrative… is not dependent on their ethnic, racial or religious identity” that we can progress toward of a vision of a “post-racial” society. This includes understanding the narratives of both parties involved, obviously, as well as the reality of our participation in judging it, complete with the socialized biases and teological frameworks within which they and we [may fight but regrettably] operate. With all due respect, and solely from my perspective based on the nature and content of your response to this article, your comments remind us that this struggle is ongoing.

  4. If this goes to court it should be pretty easy to prove or disprove Zimmerman’s story. If he shot Trayvon while Trayvon was atop him, then there will be evidence of a close range gun shot. I’m not so sure how self defense becomes nebulous considering Zimmerman had a broken nose and “bloody abrasions” on the back of his head that required care at a hospital, though.

    Life was lost needlessly? How do you define that with such certainty? At what point in the timeline do you need to rewind to in order to validate this statement? Do you rewind all the way back to the point where Trayvon was simply walking home? Back to the point where he isn’t suspended so he stays in school down in Miami? It would seem to me that in order to say that this life was needlessly lost you must rewind back to a point before he punched Zimmerman in the face, broke his nose, and proceeded to bash Zimmerman’s head into the sidewalk – and pretend that this action never happened, or presume that Zimmerman did this to himself. To me, if I’m in that position and carrying, I’m going to do what I can to get Trayvon off of me because I don’t know when he’s going to stop bashing my head into the sidewalk and needlessly claim MY life. If someone is bashing my head in the sidewalk, I shoot him, and he dies as a consequence of that, it’s not exactly a needless loss of life to me is it?

    Nothing that I have said has anything to do with Zimmerman’s race, or Trayvon’s race, and that fact that you immediately jump to the conclusion that I have viewed this through racial bias is telling. What I have said is predicated purely on their reported actions which are totally independent of race.

    • Chris, I’m sorry but your description of the events does not match the overwhelming body of evidence I have encountered. For all the violence you claim was inflicted on Zimmerman, it sure doesn’t look like it in this police surveillance video: http://abcnews.go.com/WN/trayvon-martin-case-exclusive-surveillance-video-george-zimmerman/story?id=16022897 No blood or abrasions. Further, every news report I have seen states that Zimmerman did not go to an emergency room after being questioned, contrary to your suggestion.

      To answer your question: “Life was lost needlessly? How do you define that with such certainty? At what point in the timeline do you need to rewind to in order to validate this statement?”

      I consider myself a pacifist. I do not believe that violence is an appropriate response to aggression, oppression, or intimidation. I believe in the inherent value of every human life, regardless of age, background, creed, spiritual or sexual orientation, race, nationality, educational level, physical or mental health, etc. I believe in forgiveness, redemption, and the importance of affirming and advocating non-violent responses to oppression and violence in any form. I recognize that my position is a minority one, but that does not change my process of reasoning.

      So if you’re asking where I “rewind to” to argue that Trayvon’s death was needless, I tell you that, for me, there is no timeline.

      • Tess Waggoner, you speak to me.

      • Love. You. Tess.

      • Tess. It’s an overwhelming body of evidence – ipso facto – because you said so. Got it. Your hyperbole aside, is there not a contradictory video that would indicate he did have some form of abrasion on his head now? Perhaps you were not privy to that information when you made your latest response, and perhaps you were jumping to conclusions. Anyhow, a grainy, jumpy, unclear, five frame video proves exceptionally little for either side. Do you know what happens before you go to a police station after an event like that – they treat you at the seen. They don’t send you into your cell bleeding from the nose and from the back of the head as it is inherently unsafe. You won’t even make it into a police car without having open wounds treated. You’re looking for proof in all the wrong places.

        I never once suggested that he went to the hospital directly after the incident. I simply said that it required care at a hospital. He did go to the hospital the following day. Of which, again, the medical records should prove or disprove all of this should they be released. They would also corroborate the police reports.

        Pacifism and believing in the inherent value of every human being are two mutually exclusive things. You are not in the minority in believing that every human being has value, and trying to attach that as something unique to pacifism is errant. What you don’t believe in is a right to self-preservation. Something that is innate to all human beings as well. What you are looking to do is deny this either to Trayvon or Zimmerman in the scenario we’re talking about, and ignoring the fact that it’s quite plausible that both of them shared your view about all people having inherent value – and that in a moment of necessity they acted violently as a means to preserve their own life and safety. The problem becomes when one human being aggresses another innocent human being. At that point, the person being aggressed against has every right to attempt to preserve the inherent value of their life whether they are a pacifist or not. And defending yourself against an aggressor does not implicitly mean that you don’t believe that human beings are without inherent value. I was in the Marine Corps, and I similarly believe that all humans have inherent value, and despise war (for reasons that you can probably imagine.)

        Lastly – pacifism is really easy to live on an ideological level, much more difficult in application once someone begins aggressing against you. Say – if someone were to break your nose and bash your head against a hard object like a sidewalk. It takes a full on override of our habitual reflexes to simply sit there and take that kind of punishment without responding in violence to your aggressor.

        Careful of your absolutes and superlatives.

  5. Holy Crap. Chris – dude – you need to sit down and breathe. and then you need to read more about this incident. It sounds like from your comments that you have not listened to the 911 tapes. And maybe didn’t hear the “fucking coons” excerpt. I think there was way more going on here than Zimmerman walking around and suddenly being attacked by a 17 year old who was on his phone with his girlfriend. Simple logic makes it hard to understand how a man as large as Zimmerman would be even slightly damaged when a kid who is probably half Zimmerman’s size “attacked” him, presumably with iced tea and skittles. This story is heinous, almost as heinous as walking into your kitchen to find your mom dead on the floor with a sweet note next to her head. there is no timeline for senseless tragedy.

  6. Yeah, I’ve read and seen just about everything pertaining to this case. And there still isn’t enough evidence to confirm one thing or the other. The only confirmation that is clear is that the narrative the media is STILL trying to portray doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

    The 911 tape is garbled and hardly clear. Again, if he’s saying “fucking coons,” what does it suggest over the fact that he has African American family members, mentored African American children, and was welcoming and neighborly to his African American neighbors?

    I clearly didn’t indicate that Zimmerman was walking about and was randomly attacked. I think it’s quite clear that he was pursing Trayvon at one point. My contention is that Trayvon evaded his pursuit, and then attacked Zimmerman for pursuing him. What circumstances led to the actual confrontation are unclear.

    Simple logic makes it hard for me to believe that you have ever been in a physical altercation in your life. Have you ever heard the saying, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog?” Yeah, that holds significant water. Particularly if you hold the element of surprise – which would be the case if the police reports are accurate. The whole iced tea and skittles thing is a strawman argument. As a Marine Corps veteran I have extensive training in how to kill people without Skittles or an Arizona Iced Tea. You can do by snapping necks, pushing the nose into the brain, using a collared shirt to blood choke, performing a figure 4 blood choke, or say, punching you in the nose and then smashing your head into a sidewalk.

    There is no timeline for senseless tragedy ipso facto eh? It is because it is. Got it.

  7. concerned for humanity 31 March 2012 — 12:54 AM

    Are you serious? Why are you describing how to kill someone!? You are sick, and a horrible excuse of a human being. Don’t force your awful racist assumptions on the rest of the sane community replying to this post. I hope the rest of the people in our country are not as awful as you.

  8. Yes, I am serious. What you, and others, are trying to do is erect strawman arguments predicated on emotion in an effort to demonize Zimmerman and shield Trayvon. Such as – he was innocent purely on the basis that he only had an Arizona and a pack of Skittles. But it’s patently ridiculous to presume that if a person only has an Arizona and a pack of Skittles renders one as: innocent, harmless, incapable of assaulting someone, or even being able to kill them. It’s an empty argument. It is plenty possible for someone of smaller stature to kill someone much larger than them with their own bare hands. The arguments in this thread suggest that its impossible. I’m merely pointing out that this argument is ridiculous.

    I am not the one presuming things here. The people that are presumptuous would be the people presuming that Trayvon is innocent simply because he didn’t have a gun or a knife and there are doughy eyed pictures of him all over the news.

    Nothing I have said is even remotely racist. What on earth are they teaching over there at Kenyon that makes so many of you think that if a person doesn’t side with Trayvon and convict Zimmerman that they’re being racist?

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