Memorials were held across the country last week to mark the 44th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, ironically set against a backdrop of grave racial tensions over the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.
The 17-year-old was killed on a rainy Sunday night in late February as he walked home from his local store in Sanford, Florida having bought a packet of Skittles and an iced tea. He was wearing a hooded jacket and “looked suspicious” according to George Zimmerman, the white 28-year-old neighbourhood watch volunteer who got out of his car in the gated community and shot him.
At the time of writing the situation is as follows: Zimmerman has not been charged; there’s alleged procedural irregularities in the handling of the case; a questionable (to say the least) self-defence claim has been advanced by Zimmerman; the killing is said to be racially motivated (in a controversial 911 recording Zimmerman may have used the racial slur “coon”); and the grand jury hearing set for Tuesday 10 April has just been stepped down. All eyes are on Angela Corey the special prosecutor, who must now decide whether Zimmerman is to be charged.
Why do I care as a Brit living in New York?
First, it is easy to forget what King went through half-a-century ago in a bid to end racial discrimination in a non-violent manner: countless marches, 30 arrests, the hawkish FBI surveillance (they were convinced he was a communist), the bombing of his own home and ultimately paying for his dream with his own life, at just 39-years-old. But, not before he and John F. Kennedy championed the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964, outlawing all major forms of racial discrimination. That same year King became the youngest person to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.
Second, what happened to Travyon Martin is by no means an isolated incident. On the 11 April, a New York grand jury will hear the case of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a retired African-American Marine shot dead last November in his New York home by police after inadvertently triggering his medical alert pendant. White Plains Police, responding to the medical company LifeAid’s request to check all was well, arrived on Chamberlain’s doorstep shortly after 5am, forcibly removed the front door from its hinges, used a Taser gun on the elderly gentleman, then shot him twice. Five months on and no-one has been charged, and the identities of the police involved not formally released.
Interestingly, LifeAid’s home audio-recording device was activated after the medical alert was raised.
In a recent interview on the public-sponsored Pacifica network—the case has been largely ignored by the mainstream media—Kenneth Chamberlain Jr., the deceased’s son, quoted an exchange his father had with the attending police officers that he (and his lawyers) heard on LifeAid’s audio tape.
“I’m a 68-year-old man with a heart condition. Why are you doing this to me?… I’m a sick old man.” To which one of the three police officers present apparently replied: “We don’t give a f—, nigger!” They then were said to have mocked Chamberlain Sr.’s military service, at which point in the live interview his son broke down in tears.
The “n” racial slur…used by a police officer? Can it really be true?
Like something belonging to the King era, thousands joined marches in Florida on Saturday 31 March calling for justice; this time for Trayvon Martin. Civil rights leaders Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Jesse Jackson delivered impassioned speeches against racial profiling and rising violence. “We are not going back to the days when we were killed and nobody did nothing about it. There will be justice for Trayvon Martin,” Rev. Al Sharpton told demonstrators.
The unrest has moved beyond the streets: images of black Congressman Bobby Rush of Illinois being hustled from the House floor before finishing a speech against racial profiling while wearing a hooded grey sweater, one he had initially hidden under his suit jacket, are hard to ignore. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum” he proclaimed.
A memorial to King was erected in Washington D.C. late last year. Standing in front of the 30-foot granite monument, President Barack Obama referenced King’s “I have a Dream” speech of 1963, saying because of his hopeful vision “barricades began to fall and bigotry began to fade”.
Did King ever imagine a black president? Not in the wildest of his dreams; yet a dream that is, according to Rev. Sharpton, an American paradox: “A black president in the White House, but we cannot walk a black child through a gated neighbourhood.”