Race and tragedy collide
On the steps of the Student Union yesterday afternoon, over 200 students and community members wore hoodies to mourn the death of Trayvon Martin and demand justice.
Jessicah Pierre, a junior at the University of Massachusetts, took to the steps to tell her family’s story.
“The case of Trayvon Martin really hits home for me because on March 9, 2001, my mother was shot and killed,” said Pierre, her voice shaking slightly as she told the crowd. “And no one ever, ever found out who did it.”
Wiping a tear away, Pierre said, “no one should have to feel the pain of Trayvon Martin’s family, and no one should have to feel my pain, and no one should have to feel the pain of every other person who was shot and killed. So I’m very glad that everybody’s here because we need to fight. We all have a right to justice. No one deserves this.”
At 5 p.m. yesterday, students marched from the different residential areas on campus to the Student Union, chanting “We are Trayvon,” in solidarity with the 17-year-old African-American teenager who was shot and killed on Feb. 26. In addition to wearing hoodies, what Martin was wearing at the time of his death, protesters carried Skittles and iced tea, which Martin was said to be carrying on his walk home from a convenience store near his family’s home in Sanford, Fla.
The group called for the arrest of George Zimmerman, the 28-year-old neighborhood watch coordinator who claimed self-defense when questioned by police.
In an account given to the Florida police, Zimmerman said the teen approached him from behind and, after speaking momentarily, Martin punched him to the ground, according to the New York Times.
Yesterday’s rally was organized by the UMass’ Black Student Union (BSU).
“We thought it really needed to be done,” said Caylee Clarke, the new secretary of BSU. “The campus really needed to see that we are here, that we needed to make a statement and that these injustices really needed to be taken care of.”
While protesters gathered around the Student Union steps, organizers of the event began reading a timeline of Martin’s case, beginning from the day he was shot, to how the case has been handled in the media.
“We knew it wasn’t Zimmerman crying out for help. We knew it was Trayvon,” Lucius Couloute, the current vice president of the BSU, told the crowd. “We know that we no longer stand for s**t like this, and we would not stand for the unequal treatment of our brothers and sisters.”
Couloute emphasized that the protest aims to show how racism still exists.
“When talking to certain individuals, they say that we’re promoting some type of reverse racism, [and] that we’re out to get white people. That’s not right,” said Couloute. “We hate injustice and we hate racist institutions.”
Rosa Clemente-Delrow, a Ph.D. candidate in the Afro-American Studies department who ran for vice president in 2008 on the Green Party ballot, discussed actions involving the police that she said were racially-motivated, and affect her and her husband.
“Everyday, whether we were living in Brooklyn or the Bronx, when I was running for vice president, [or] whether he’s working here on campus, I worry that some vigilante, some system, some police officer will see him as a threat and murder my husband,” said Clemente-Delrow.
“The Trayvon Martin case reminds us that there is a pattern of murderous assaults in black and Latino communities,” she added. “The Trayvon Martin murder is a system of the system of white supremacy, capitalism [and] patriarchy.”
Clemente-Delrow called Zimmerman a “vigilante who is still free,” and that the police and the state, instead of seeking justice for Martin, “are complicit in trying to cover it up, and in leaking information that now has sullied Trayvon’s name,” referring to photos that were of a Martin shirtless, wearing baggy pants and holding up his middle finger. These photos were soon discovered to be of a Martin from Georgia, not Florida.
Clemente-Delrow said the mainstream media has been “sensationalizing” Martin’s murder for commercial purposes and “criminalizing” the image of young black men. Still, she urged the audience to unite for their voices to be heard.
“The only way this stops is when we build a movement – when we feel the pain, and we decide to do something,” said Clemente.
Current BSU President Widlynn Louis said that even at liberal university, such as UMass, skin color continues to greatly influence how minority students are looked upon.
“Racism is something that you will see every single day on this campus,” Louis said.
“All you have to do is look around and see who’s represented,” she added, referring to diversity statistics of the flagship campus.
In a speech at the protest, newly elected Student Government Association President Akshay Kapoor spoke of discrimination beyond the Amherst campus.
“These problems are not always present, but they’re always there,” he said.
Kapoor said he was amazed by the event’s turnout for an event he described as “really important not only for UMass students, but also for our generation.”
“We are here saying we won’t let injustices stand,” he said, adding, “we don’t ask for much. We are just asking the world to treat us fairly and give us fundamental rights.”
Former SGA President Yevin Roh drew the attention of the crowd as he opened a bottle of iced tea, and poured a splash to the ground, in memory of Martin.
“No one is immune to patriarchy [and] racism,” Roh said. “Of course some of us may benefit disproportionately, but at the end of the day, cancer is cancer, and we can’t just treat the symptoms.”
Additionally, Roh accused Zimmerman of shooting Martin out of paranoia that was brought about by his race.
“What if Trayvon wasn’t a young black man?” he asked the crowd. “It’s victim blaming. A skirt is not an invitation to rape. A hoodie is not an invitation to kill,” a remark which received cheers and applause from the crowd.
“Many people in this country feel like they can justifiably kill a black person or a person of color because society demonizes [them],” said Kate Losey, a graduate student in the environmental conservation department and member of the International Socialist Organization.
Losey added that she believes racism continues to exist in every aspect of people’s daily lives. At UMass, she said there is “a lack of black and brown faces.”
Ann Ferguson, a professor of philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University, added that she believes Martin’s case is “a clear example of racial profiling.”
“The fact that people of color are more likely to be abused and accused of crime and put in jail is a clear example of how institutionalized racism still exists in this country,” she said.
Ferguson hopes that more rallies that focus on institutionalized racism would be organized by activist organizations, especially in western Massachusetts.
On Saturday, an estimated 1,200 attendees marched through the streets of Springfield during the “1,000 Hoodies: A Walk for Trayvon.”
The march was organized by the Springfield-based Alliance of Black Professionals and included speeches by Mayor of Springfield Domenic J. Sarno, State Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera and State Rep. Ben Swan.
At the conclusion of yesterday’s rally, signs made by protesters were scattered across the campus, showing solidarity with Martin hours after the event ended.
Ardee Napolitano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Michelle Williams can be reached at email@example.com.