Trayvon: A View From The UK

Trayvon Martin Demonstrators Wearing Hoodies
A Killed Boy Or A Broken Country?

A tweeter questioned today whether I (being British and watching from afar) perhaps don’t understand the anger driving people over the Trayvon Martin shooting. I’d suggested that all sides needed to “chill-the-fuck-out”, following a bounty put on Zimmerman (the shooter) by the New Black Panthers, and the retweet of Zimmerman’s address by film-maker Spike Lee (which turned out to actually be the address of an old couple).

It’s true that, from afar, it’s hard to really take the pulse and understand people’s feelings in a foreign land – although Twitter does help convey the emotion of the event far better than the “old media”, where events are cleansed through the minds of journalists. It’s been possible to watch the reaction emerge hour-by-hour: incredulity that Sanford police didn’t arrest a killer; the obvious racial stereotyping that was going on; the shouts of racism; the counter-accusations from morons determined to find fault in a 17-year-old unarmed boy who had been killed; the bizarre, peculiarly American polarisation, splitting the country in half over a case where the basic facts seem so simple.

It’s true, I’m undoubtedly missing local, cultural nuances, watching  from London, but I have some advantages; it’s easier to see bigger pictures from afar; and I have the advantage of comparison. How would this same story unroll in the UK, mainland Europe or elsewhere?

There was a time, before mine, when America was viewed here with little but admiration. The US presents itself so effectively; Hollywood had packaged and presented a place that was exciting and free (if somewhat violent). But coming of age in the early-80s, that time had already passed. The civil rights era and Vietnam had tarnished America’s claim to being the land-of-the-free. By the time I could follow politics, America, under Reagan, was the world’s foremost sponsor of terrorism, and a threat to the independence of small states. I had Chilean friends who had fled Pinochet’s regime of terror, backed to the hilt by Reagan. South African apartheid was holding together, largely because of quiet backing from the US, and nearby states such as Angola were being torn apart by US-backed insurgencies. The small Caribbean island of Grenada was directly invaded to prevent a left-wing government taking over. US-backed terrorists were killing thousands in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala and more. The Afghan Mujahideen, precursor of Al Qaida and the Taliban, was skinning Russian soldiers alive, backed with US funds and arms.

We also learned that life in the US was different from the Hollywood view. British reggae band UB40, a favourite of mine at the time, wrote a song in 1981 called Tyler, about Gary Tyler, a young black man from Louisiana who had been obviously framed on a murder charge; yet not one person, police, judge or jury, stopped him from going to jail. Similar stories were to be heard frequently. The freedom mask was slipping.

I first went to the US in 1989, and have been perhaps 15-20 times since. I fell in love with San Francisco and other cities, and began to see a 3D picture behind the 2D portrayals. As I visited more, I went more off the beaten track. The segregation was the first thing to surprise me. It seemed the civil rights movement hadn’t settled racial issues as I’d thought, but merely ended in a ceasefire. White flight left black populations inside cities, while the suburbs were white. And notably, the sight of a mixed-race couple, which was becoming commonplace in London, was extremely rare, even in “liberal” bastions like New York or San Francisco. I began to see that police brutality was so common, it could happen right in front of even me, a tourist. The police acted with such arrogance and authority, I began to wonder how such a police state could exist in a country that believed itself to be, not just a democracy, but THE democracy.

I saw homelessness on a scale I’d never seen in Europe or elsewhere. I visited black ghettos in New York, Boston, San Francisco and Las Vegas, and saw a desperate, poor, lawless country, unlike anything I’d seen before. I saw that thuggish police drove around the ghetto outskirts, the message clear: you do whatever you want inside, but don’t you dare step outside. US ghettos aren’t just poor neighbourhoods; they are drug-infested, crime-infested prison camps.

I saw the reality of a country without universal healthcare. People everywhere living in fear of the simplest thing: falling ill. I’d been born two decades after the establishment of Britain’s NHS, and the idea that people in the richest country could have to cope without medical care was shocking. Today, universal healthcare is even appearing in Africa: Ghana was the first to implement it there, a few years ago. And yet America is currently tearing itself in half over Obama’s simple proposals to ensure that people are covered by insurance.

I began to be sure of one thing in America’s future. There’s a revolution coming. Or perhaps more accurately, there’s a permanently rolling, rumbling revolution ready to burst to the surface when it can. Why else would military-style policing be needed on a daily basis? How else do you explain an incarceration rate higher than China or the Soviet Union at their worst? I began to wait for the trigger.

In 2000, the election was blatantly, publicly rigged to bring George W Bush to power. Voter lists had been casually cleansed of black-sounding names. Florida police had been physically stopping black people from voting. In the 21st century, the old South was still there, plain as day. The US journalist Greg Palast quickly exposed the scam in a short film. But not one media network in the US would show it. The US media was censored to the hilt. The film was instead shown on BBC TV’s Newsnight – I’m not sure if it’s ever reached American TV, and YouTube didn’t exist back then. Then Katrina hit, and the world saw a third-world population living in the middle of the world’s wealthiest country.

In late-2001, four black friends of mine came to visit London from Houston. At the time, London tourism had been badly hit as Americans had cancelled flights, post-9/11, so I asked my friends whether they’d been afraid to travel. One of the girls looked at me and said “We’re black. We live in Texas. Pretty much anywhere is safer than home.”

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street, a remarkable grassroots movement, exploded into life from apparently nothing. Putting aside arguments over its approach or lack of policies, what has been most obvious is its violent suppression. The scenes coming from New York or Oakland aren’t scenes from a free country. The first amendment seems to no longer apply on America’s streets.

Violence, daily police harassment, police killings with impunity are the day-to-day experience of many Americans. Meanwhile, in TV-land, perfectly coiffured blondes report on a version of reality that doesn’t seem to exist if you walk the streets of an American city. The shooting of Trayvon Martin inevitably crystallised the rage.  The screaming over racism-or-not, justified-or-not doesn’t capture what I see: a place that’s so afraid of itself that it’s possible to debate whether killing of an unarmed man may have been justified. Whether Zimmerman was racist or not, he was conditioned enough to see a threat in a lone, unarmed black teenage male. He was scared. From here, all of America seems scared. Of what? Of “black crime”. And Muslims. And Latinos. And immigration. And drugs. And people-muscling-in-on-my-hard-earned cash. And getting sick. And terrorism. And Iran getting nukes. And Iraq getting WMDs. And Communism. And Somali pirates. And Hugo Chavez. And Fidel Castro. And people peacefully protesting against injustice in the streets. What sane wealthy country would need to build gated communities?

The people who are least afraid are the ones who most deserve to be. America’s minorities seem to be weary, fed up, and angry. The rage around one boy’s shooting is a small taster of what is to come. America: You can’t lock up everybody, although you seem to be trying to. Egypt and other countries showed that the most brutal policing won’t keep people in their place forever.

The US is a country that feels it should “police” the globe. In practise, US wars bundle up the racism, fear and hatred prevalent in US society, and inflict them, unwanted, on the rest of the planet. If the US ever did have a moral right to intervene in other countries, it long since surrendered that right. All this can be fixed: get corporate money out of politics, put the police in their place as servants, not masters, reduce prison populations, introduce modern healthcare, stop letting the ultra-rich set the media agenda. Alternatively, perhaps you should revisit your national anthem: land of the free and home of the brave? That’s not how it looks from here.

19 thoughts on “Trayvon: A View From The UK”

  1. In the South one lot of descendants of slaves kill another lot of descendants of slaves, and the masters sit there, sipping their mint juleps, lapping it up and laughing all the way to the bank.

  2. Excellent piece MW. I still am amazed by the fact that the USA holds nearly 25% of the entire world prison population. Staggering!

  3. Great piece.
    I first “discovered America” when I was in nursery & the boy next to me painted a picture of a red car with a stripe up the side. He said it was the Starsky & Hutch car. I had no idea what he was on about so I asked my mom to show me what Starsky & Hutch was. It was then that I saw the hot, huge streets & steaming vents & fell in love with the place.
    When I was growing up, I appreciated the USA more & more through TV & film, but my mom for some reason was vehemently anti-USA. She had marched through London protesting the Vietnam War & despised the Americans for entering it & using Agent Orange & fucking up the genes of the next generation of children both of the Vietnamese & American combatants. I appreciated the music & film of America & didn’t understand the politics. Ronald Reagan was a character in Spitting Image that cuddled up to Thatchers puppet. At the age of 9, I offered to go to Greenham Common & “cut the fence” knowing that as I was under 10 years of age, I could not be arrested & prosecuted. It was the first thing I was against. Nukes. And I still am. But maybe it introduced the idea of these armed Americans who had already used nuclear weapons not once, but twice were maybe not the people I thought they were.
    It was 1993 when the illusion of the “Land of the Free..” literally turned to smoke when I saw what the FBI & other authorities did at Waco. The burning of the children. It was then I got a niggling feeling that I had actually been fooled by these TV programmes. I liked the new president Bill Clinton as he seemed like a pretty cool fella. He was at least better than Bush I. But after Waco, the impression I had was one of confusion. They were right to intervene in Bosnia (so I thought), but then they bombed a civilian area in Sudan. There seemed to be a hidden hand at work. It wasn’t until (as you rightly said) Bush II stole the election in 2000 that I became what I would call anti American. When the planes hit the 2 buildings on that date (11/9) I felt for all the people that I could see trapped in the buildings, but something in me felt it had been coming. I’m in no way saying that those people deserved what happened to them, but the American Government should well have expected something like this to happen (which they did). When Bush II started peddling his warmongering bullshit against Afghanistan, I wrote a song called America (You’re Killing Everyone). This was before the war(s) & I could see what has now happened approaching then. The reaction I got when my band performed the song surprised me. There were more anti American people around. A lot more.
    Thanks to fate, my mother & I had come full circle. I was vehemently anti American, but she (after splitting from my father) could be found catching rays in North Carolina, living in the cotton fields of the south! We would have great debates about America, her extolling the virtues of a beautiful country & me pointing out it wasn’t theirs to live in.
    Now, I am still anti America. For their imperialistic actions, for the lack of freedom in the “Land of the Free” & especially for the double standards it imposes upon it’s citizens. It does not really battle racism. My mother told me that the black people of N.C would not enter the house she was living in as “blacks & whites don’t mix M’aam”. Whites still referred to black people as niggers. Not to be racist, but just referring to people of more intense skin pigmentation. It amazes me that this is still the case over 150 years after the abolition of slavery. It was not just the backs of the slaves that had been left scarred.
    So I agree with every point you have made in your blog as I too have experienced the shattering of an illusion when learning about America.
    It kills me most that while all these crises come & go & all of these rich politicians “posturize” & buy missiles off themselves to shoot at weaker, poorer countries, the fact that the real “owners” of America, the Native Americans, are corralled into reservations that they can drink themselves to death in makes every word that comes out of an Americans mouth, slightly uncomfortable to swallow.
    I am not dumb enough to think that ALL Americans are like this, but I have only written about my perception & reaction to it. I am a hopeful person & I just hope logic, integrity & fairness is injected back into America because I really do think America could be as great as it currently is fooled into thinking it is.

  4. You’re right, in that from afar you’re missing the local picture. The picture of that innocent little boy in your blog is Trayvon Martin when he was 12, not as the 17 year old thug who died while trying to beat up a Latino man. Mr. Zimmerman was not arrested because an eyewitness saw Martin top of Zimmerman, slamming his head onto the concrete sidewalk. Zimmerman had a broken nose and an injury to the back of his head. And even Martin’s father told police the voice screaming for mercy on the 911 call was not Trayvon. Lesson from this; if you’re going to give the smackdown to someone, you better make sure he’s not armed.

    1. Vince, you miss the point beautifully. Now explain why 1/8 of the world’s prisoners are black Americans. Explain every single one of those million cases, and why black Americans are more likely to be jailed than any other group on Earth. This is what Stalin also did to Russian minorities, but his rule of terror didn’t last 400 years.

  5. Vince – the claims you make in an attempt to pin the blame on the murder victim may possibly be true. But until Zimmerman is arrested, charged and tried in court nobody will know.

    If your son was shot dead and the police said he had it coming and they weren’t going to bother investigating then I’m sure you would be very angry.

  6. WOW. Let me skip over the TM case, & point out that AS one of those who have been at the shit end of the police brutality, lived & worked inside the “Ghettos where the message is clear… don’t you dare step outside…” What a crock of SHIT! Dude, you’ve obviously wore blinders while (supposedly) ‘visiting’ ghettos… (In Vegas?). Whatever. You’re just an American Hater, who so totally misses reality it sickens EVEN MYSELF! I, who absolutely, clearly see our constitutional rights being stomped on, fully understand the inherent wrongs being done to the people, but your hyperbole is just stunningly ignorant.

    1. To be precise, North Las Vegas, about 10 years ago. It’s a long story, but I was shown around a project by a friendly drug dealer, met some locals, abnd generally hung out. In the couple of hours I was there, I was offered sex by crack addicts, offered plenty of drugs, tailed by a police car, and learned about the regular raids by immigration… it was an interesting evening.

  7. This is a great piece!!!! It sums up America’s ill history over many decades.

    I read simply, facts, throughout this article…nothing fabricated!

    Vince! What amazes me is that you took 1-piece of info from the events surrounding Trayvon’s death…the 911 call w/a voice other than his, to summarize that Zimmerman’s screaming was simply out of self-defense.

    A screaming voice, especially, w/o complete clarity of words being exchanged is inconclusive… Screams can be interpreted as either “fear”, or “a sense of being overwhelmed” during the entire struggle for survival…and at the moment of contact, for both parties.

    Zimmerman’s over-zealousness…in his mind of contempt and delusion for wearing a GUN, was to become a hero for snuffing-out what he ASSUMED was a “criminal on the prow”, although NOTHING CRIMINAL HAD TAKEN EVEN TAKEN PLACE, on Trayvon’s part. The crime was “racial profiling”… ill-fated judgment and evil perpetuated by media and racism in a segregated society that has never cared about equality on a large scale.

    Vince! If Trayvon was your son would it be OK for him to be racially-profiled and subsequently murdered! Would be so quick to conclude that Zimmerman was ONLY defending himself!!

    Do you get it that Zimmerman’s determination, despite police warning to ‘stop following Trayvon’, amounts to PREMEDITATED MURDER???!!!

    BEING ARMED SIMPLY GAVE ZIMMERMAN A SENSE OF FALSE CONFIDENCE! “I will be the neighborhood hero today… I can do this by myself…me and my gun!”

    What a delusional mindset and threat to all of America and the entire world that only proves our ‘long history and struggle for equality, as this article does point out, clearly!

    I am still in utter disbelief that Zimmerman was able to walk free and WITH THE WEAPON HE KILLED T.M with!

    My personal feeling about Zimmerman:

    He had to be of the mindset that he was willing to go through “any means necessary” to hunt down “this black man wearing a hoodie” that appeared unfit to live in the same community in which he lived… He has to be up to no good, therefore! “I’ll be “the neighborhood hero”! “Hmmm! Here is my chance to stop a crime!”

    Now Vince! Please explain if it would be acceptable for any of your loved-one’s to be profiled in this fashion and subsequently murdered for “wearing a hoodie”?????!!!!

  8. Good lord…our health care here in America blows Britain’s absurd system away. I have a professor friend who summered there with his wife for a decade. England’s NHS is a laughing stock.

    Any woman in the U.K. reading this should cringe in fear. An American woman’s chances of surviving breast cancer are HUGELY higher.

    1. Edward Richardson, this site is supposed to be watching you, not the other way around.
      95.8% survival rate in the UK, it is 97% survival rate in the US, but the US statistics only count those who had been allowed treatment – not to mention medical boards in the US are FAR keener to claim “inoperable”.

      I feel sorry for anyone suffering the us health system, it’s the world’s laughing stock compared to the NHS which is a noble and earnest effort to give to people what is in a lot of the world now considered to be a basic human right, health and a chance of life.

  9. @ Edward Richardson – WTF has Britains Healthcare system got to do with the shooting of Trayvon Martin? Even so, I’ll answer your moronic post by saying that at least every single person that lives here is entitled to free (at the point of use) healthcare – something that 40 million of your fellow Americans would be more than grateful for. Also, the average cost to us is half of what the average American pays.
    I’ve noticed that whenever one of you guys spout off about your healthcare system you always quote the cancer figures, as if that’s the only cause of illness & death – well it isn’t! No-one is questioning the quality of American hospitals – of course we all know they’re excellent – it’s the ability of everyone to gain access to them that’s the problem. Over here it’s everyone – in your country it’s only for those who pay up. Sickening.

  10. MoronWatch: Let’ me ratchet it down a notch. I think we see things from the same side of the fence. If we’re to promote a cause, (reduction of police brutality, less privatization of prisons, more violent criminals incarcerated, less non-violent, drug offenders imprisoned, racial equaliaty across the board, and certainly in our justice system, whatever), it might be problematic to overstate the issue, or focus too narrowly on one piece of the pie. (I don’t believe you meant to blatantly misrepresent the situation). That’s what our politicians do in order to pass some of the legislation that make “crimes” of things like ingesting a substance they deem dangerous, or of no benefit to society. IE, making criminals out of otherwise non-violent, law abiding citizens… these, I believe are actually criminal acts in and of themselves, perpetrated by our ‘leaders’ & those far right wingnuts who support this kind of outrageous attack on our personal sovereignty as well as our constitutional rights. Forgive my caustic rebuke. After thinking about your points, I agree with much, just thought that your piece was a bit too narrow. Peace.

  11. Quo Vadis. You’ve got it wrong. In every ED waiting room there’s a sign on the wall stating that one “can not be turned away because of an inability to pay” or something to that affect. This sign quotes a federal law, I believe.
    Yes, we’ve got some serious health care issues, but even indigent, non-citizens can access the excellent health care this country has available, just as readily as the wealthy. Again, this doesn’t suggest there’s no problems, (after-care, or continuity of care and cost certainly figure among them), but if you need medical care in this country, you’ll get it, no matter the cost TO the country. I speak from experience, not second hand information. On a side note, I’m wondering how did this get from trayvon to our health care system? In fact, I’ll try to tie the two together: Let’s assume trayvon had no insurance. Had he made it to the hospital, and the technology available to save his life, he’d be alive today, rich or poor, black or white. THAT, my friend is an indisputable fact.

    1. Really Tony? If someone with no medical insurance has, say, a brain tumour, they’ll get the treatment they need?

  12. I understand why this seems implausible, but yes. I have to use our local situation to illustrate, and the scenario might be more optimistic than if I was, say… in Texas? There are also going to be exceptions, of course. Forgive the lengthy reply.

    In Oregon if I was indigent, unemployed, whatever, & diagnosed with a brain tumor, I’d be put on a state funded insurance plan, (OHP+) Oregon Health Plan. The plus covers benefits that don’t come with standard coverage. ANYONE with a life threatening condition will get the + plan, (this will probably surprise you), which even pays for the transport to medical appointments. If the prognosis was terrible, one would probably get pretty good hospice care too, but that’s just a guess.

    The facility I, personally, would choose is one of the best hospitals on the West Coast, (The University of Oregon), which, while it’s obviously an educational facility, the care is absolutely top notch. Check it out online if you have any doubts or are curious.

    When I made that comment about TM, I was thinking of emergency situations, but I assure you this is valid info. The cost is passed on to taxpayers… clearly a negative. But these policies do enhance quality of life, save lives, and (at least in some cases), mitigate expenditures we’d still incur when the affliction worsens and gets more expensive.

    On the flip side, if I smoke & drink my organs into failure, will OHP pay for a transplant? My hunch is no, but I’m not sure. Other exceptions surely cost some people their life. What kind? I don’t know. But I DO know this much; While our system is absolutely flawed, it’s not as bad as some are led to believe. Also, I should qualify this whole commentary with the fact that these issues are specific to each state. I’m not an expert, nor qualified to say much beyond what I know to be the case here in Oregon. I believe one has a better chance in Oregon, as opposed to some less progressive (poorer?) states, so I don’t want to make it sound like there’s no problems with our HC system. There IS! I’m certain tragedies happen every day, but that’s the inevitable reality of being human. When tragedy stops, we will be living some utopian dream (nightmare?).

  13. Sorry but this is far from a great article. Fisrtly it shows how lacking in familiarity you are with the
    nuances of American society. Secondly while your foreign policy track is on the correct path just like a Michael Moore documentary it is nought but the tip of the iceberg. For the record the Americans
    had no more right to occupy The Philippines and slaughter 600,000 1898 to 1906 thsn they did to invade Iraq in 2003. Incidently “peace” was declared by TR in 1901 by which time about 200,000 had been killed. Just like Baby Bush on the aircraft carrier with his premature declaration of a new dawn for the victims twice the number of people were slaughtered AFTER “peace” was declared.

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