Fear and loathing behind the gates

I was reluctant to write about the Trayvon Martin shooting in the US because regular readers of this blog know that I have often focussed on racism in America and Australia, and I didn’t want to be accused of having an obsession.

But the reaction to the decision to charge George Zimmerman (pictured left this morning), the neighbourhood watch co-ordinator at a gated community in Florida, with second degree murder has meant I had to say something.

The case is about racial profiling – 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was black and wearing a hood, and therefore suspected of being up to no good. Zimmerman claims he was just doing his job as a neighbourhood watcher. The problem was that he had a gun and used it, and Florida’s self-defence law was on his side. The all-powerful National Rifle Association had lobbied to get the law passed, which gives the benefit of the doubt to people who claim self-defence, no matter where they were.

The rest of the country recognised racial profiling was to blame. Not surprising since it was a gated community which meant that anybody who looked different was suspicious – especially a black teenager wearing a hood. Everybody around the country started wearing hoods in solidarity, including America’s most famous basketball star, LeBron James, and a Congressman, Bobby Rush, who wore one in the House of Representatives.

Robert Frost wrote about the problem of borders decades ago in his poem Mending Wall: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall” on one side of the property and “Good fences make good neighbours” on the other. Gated communities (and we have quite a few in Australia) are often based on fear and loathing – mostly fear, which makes people do things they wouldn’t normally do.

So you have a white community, comforted by fences and high security, and an Hispanic gate-watcher who saw a black man in a place where he shouldn’t be (except he was a guest in the community in Sanford, Florida). What’s wrong with this scenario? Well, yes, you guessed it: racism. It could, of course, be a black community, like Harlem, but they’re used to seeing whites – mostly police and teachers. I was a teacher in Harlem, and once chased a black student who had spit in my face in the classroom down those mean streets, until I realised the folly of my pursuit, and managed to do a quick pirouette and start whistling a happy tune as I walked slowly back to school. No one tried to shoot me, but if they had, it would have been my fault.

Of course, George Zimmerman should have been charged six weeks ago when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin, but Florida law and racism got in the way. There are many frightened George Zimmermans in gated communities across America, and since it is so easy to buy a gun, it’s only a matter of time before it happens again. Deteriorating neighbourhoods should be torn down or rehabilitated, and residents given places to stay. That would cost money, though, and the conservative politicians in the US, who are gaining strength, would fight to the last dollar against that.

Zimmerman has been shown in his first court appearance, wearing a prison jumpsuit: an anxious 28-year-old charged with a crime that could result in life in a jail jumpsuit. His new lawyer said he would plead not guilty. There are plenty of guilty people in this case: the legislators who came up with such a strange law; the NRA which keeps using the second amendment as a justification for the gun culture in America (the one that declares “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”); the education system that allows poor disadvantaged schools to stay poor and disadvantaged; the white residents who flee neighbourhoods when one poor black or Hispanic or mixed race family moves into their street; the police and neighbourhood watchers who shoot first and ask questions later (and yes, they are in a minority, but it only takes the death of one innocent person to inflame a neighbourhood, or a nation); and parents who teach their children to distrust different ethnic groups, either directly or by example.

The special prosecutor for the Trayvon Martin case, Angela Corey, promised to pursue justice for the family, regardless of race, gender or background: “We only know one category as prosecutors, and that’s a ‘V.’ It’s not a ‘B,’ it’s not a ‘W,’ it’s not an ‘H.’ It’s ‘V,’ for victim. That’s who we work tirelessly for. And that’s all we know, is justice for our victims.” http://nyti.ms/InyfeB

Yes, but there are too many victims, too many black men in prisons, and not enough is being done about that.

President Obama made a bold move in an election year by taking on the racial profiling issue, saying: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Let’s hope he makes an even bolder move and takes on the NRA and America’s crazy gun laws after the election (if he is re-elected). There are so many things that need to be done to end inequality in American society, and if anybody knows what needs to be done, it’s Barack Obama.

Whatever happens in the Trayvon Martin case will provide a good lesson to teach Americans and Australians what’s right and what’s wrong about justice in “the greatest country in the world,” as one of the prosecutors described the US this morning.

Monetise, monetise in a rich man’s world  

And on a lighter note, here’s another footnote in my war against clichés and ugly words. Monetise is my latest target. And chief offender this week is the editor of the Melbourne Herald Sun, Simon Pristel, who talked to Jonathan Holmes on Media Watch on Monday about his paper’s plan to create a paywall for their website: “The issue has never been about the audience, we’ve gained millions more customers over the last couple of years in reading our content on line. The issue is monetising those customers.” http://www.abc.net.au/mediawatch/ Wouldn’t it have been clearer for him to say the issue is “making customers pay” for reading the Herald Sun’s on-line content?

Joining the ugly word usage on Media Watch was Matthew Pinkney, head of content for AFL Media, who had been poached from the Herald Sun, to make football fans pay for reading afl.com and playing fantasy football games: “There’s an enormous audience that plays both Dream Team and Super Coach and that audience can be monetised to an extent and both the AFL and the Herald Sun would be mad if they didn’t attempt to monetise it, but there is room for both games.”

That forced the articulate reporter and presenter, Jonathan Holmes, to use the word in a question, though at least he clarified what it meant: “But do they want to be monetised? There’s a lot of resistance online to the idea of paying for news about footy, or anything else – and especially, perhaps, to the idea of paying News Ltd.”

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