The Continued Fight for Civil Rights
RIC students, from left, Andrea Sterling, Victor Valenzuela, Felix Ramirez and Servio Gomez.
Was the fatal shooting of African American teen Trayvon Martin an accident or a racially motivated murder?
Continuing public debate on Martin’s February 2012 death was the starting point for “Injustice in the Justice System,” a discussion on the effects of racial profiling and media on African American life and death in America held at Rhode Island College.
George Zimmerman said he acted in self-defense when he shot Martin and was acquitted of murder in a 2013 trial.
“Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when the news of Martin’s death broke?” Antoinette Gomes, director of RIC’s Unity Center, asked attendees. “What do you know about Trayvon Martin?”
Gomes' questions opened a facilitated exchange of thoughts, ideas and feelings on Martin’s death as well as the deaths of African Americans at the hands of white perpetrators or law enforcement. It also raised the issue of how media attention may influence opinion about such deaths and how racial profiling affects the daily lives of African Americans.
The majority of RIC students, faculty and staff present said they felt that Martin, who was unarmed during the shooting, was murdered and that justice was not served during Zimmerman’s trial.
Students recalled their shock at learning of Martin’s death almost two weeks after it happened, when national media first reported on it.
“I saw it on Reddit first,” said Servio Gomez. “Then I heard the (911) tape. I was like ‘Oh my God.’”
A handful of attendees who spoke had conflicting information about Martin and the sequence of events reported for the night of the shooting. Many had questions as to why the national media ultimately paid more attention to Martin’s death than countless others killed in a similar manner.
“This case came on the heels of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws in Florida,” said Anthony Galvez, RIC assistant professor of communication, referring to the law, passed in 2005, that permits deadly force in circumstances of reasonable fear for bodily harm during a confrontation. “Without that law, I don’t think the national media would ever have picked it up.”
Others pointed out that while they were disappointed that media attention did not help move justice along, it has served to remind the public that the country is not done fighting for civil rights.
Several attendees shared personal stories of times they felt profiled because of their race, including being asked how they could afford a nice house and being questioned about their relationship with a Caucasian significant other.
“This question of ‘What can we do to help’ often resonates after a candid discussion about social justice,” Gomes said. “The answer depends on who you are and where you sit in the social hierarchy.”
The discussion which was co-facilitated by Khalil Saucier, director of RIC’s Africana Studies Program, ended with suggestions such as encouraging continued dialogue, protesting peacefully and advocating for the dismantling of socio-political systems.
“I believe it helps to not ignore oppressive acts and actively listen to those who are or feel oppressed, so that their experiences are neither normalized nor minimized,” Gomes said.