How Barack Obama Killed Trayvon Martin
Tyrone R. Simpson II
By bowing to police power, President Obama guaranteed that official carnage against Black people would continue. If he had “commented on any of the unjust ritualized murders that took the lives of Sean Bell (New York), Oscar Grant (Oakland), Kenneth Chamberlain (New York) or Troy Davis (Georgia), he would have brought the open season on black and brown men and women to a long awaited close.”
How Barack Obama Killed Trayvon Martin
by Tyrone R. Simpson II
“Obama could use the bully-pulpit of the presidency to call for more officer restraint and save the lives of youth like Trayvon.”
When reflecting upon a situation in which I did not have a choice, I have learned that it is wise to try again to listen to Ralph Ellison and make meaning of the lengthy parable he left those of us who are black and male and who wish to be human, if not modern. He wrote his novel, The Invisible Man, in the period following World War II when the America we have today was still in the process of becoming the perverse mixture of hope and impossibility that presently defines it. Ellison was writing into the paradox that was and would be. The country had spilled blood to defeat the evil of Hitler and the racial fantasies that the Fuhrer sought to make real; it made this sacrifice while upholding its own social hierarchy wherein only white people would enjoy the privileges of full citizenship. Ellison hoped to write himself into a certain faithfulness in the nation and if not, to imagine for himself and other black men a way of being that would bring the country’s contradictions into relief, regardless of the reluctance or incapacity of others to do so. By necessity then, The Invisible Man is a coming of age story where an observant and thoughtful hero faces a lifetime of befuddling relationships and experiences that only become semi-interpretable to him at the tale’s end. He comes to recognize that no one really sees his humanity – thus rendering him invisible – and that if they do, are cognitively incapable of reckoning with it. This realization famously casts the hero into retreat, taking up in a basement of a sparsely tenanted building on the edge of Harlem. The novel ends with him there, self-sworn to remain underground until he can figure out how he can live a life in which he can be truly seen.
“Whether performing the pimp or the preacher, Rinehart succeeds in making himself believable to black people in whatever role he assumes.”
It is not this gesture of self-exile that I believe speaks to the political relationship that exists today between Barack Obama and African Americans as much as the vexing insights that occasioned it. Though the novel most certainly indicts whites for how tragically racism blinds them, their perverse perceptions are not what force the hero into hiding, but rather a series of surreal encounters he has in Harlem while interacting with other black people. At this point in the novel, the forces of a Caribbean black nationalist, Ras the Exhorter, hunt the Invisible Man in hope of convincing the hero to stop agitating on behalf of the Communist Party and facilitating the paternalism that threatens to encumber the ghetto’s growing social liberation movement. In order to hide from Ras’s men, men who now promise to do him physical harm, the hero takes on a disguise composed of a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. To the hero’s pleasant surprise, the disguise works perfectly. People all over Harlem – zoot-suiters, prostitutes, police, church women, and other political operatives – misrecognize him as an enigmatic hustler named “Rinehart.” As shocking as the effectiveness of the disguise is the chameleonic nature of Rinehart. Whether performing the pimp or the preacher, Rinehart succeeds in making himself believable to black people in whatever role he assumes. The realization that deception could be the organizing principle of black being whether one is engaged with blacks or whites or anyone both disturbs and excites the hero, for if Rinehartism was the method by which black Americans negotiated invisibility, the whole notion of what is real is thrown into undeniable chaos. The hero thus muses, “what is real anyway?” thinking of the man he just impersonated and continues:
“...He was a broad man, a man of parts who got around. Rinehart the rounder…His world was possibility and he knew it. He was years ahead of me and I was a fool. I must have been crazy and blind. The world in which we lived was without boundaries. A vast seething, hot world of fluidity, and Rine the rascal was at home. Perhaps only Rine the rascal was at home in it. It was unbelievable, but perhaps only the unbelievable could be believed. Perhaps the truth was a lie” (498).
“Barack Obama is a rascal and may in fact be the best one the world has ever known.”
It is striking how the hero’s talk of a world without boundaries, rife with fluidity, resonates with a uniquely American hopefulness that has always cast the nation, its land, and its culture in optimistic terms. In this case, however, it is the varied ways observers of the black body read and react to its behaviors that reveals to the hero the country’s promise of abundance. Rinehart’s example shows him that people – including other blacks – possess strong expectations about how black people behave. These prevailing stereotypes about black personality enable an array of performances behind which the true self (if there is such a thing) can hide. In the hero’s view, black skin allows the practice of what he may term, “rascality,” and this is the means, he discovers, by which he may not only outmaneuver the racism of whites, but also exploit the needs of other blacks with whom he interacts.
The present circumstances suggest, when put in the light of what Ellison’s novel imagines, that Barack Obama is a rascal and may in fact be the best one the world has ever known. I say this as a tribute to, not a criticism of, his ability as man of color to make a wide spectrum of Americans, many of them white, feel affirmed as national citizens and willing to honor his leadership. When black people celebrate the professional ascent of Obama, it is not merely because of his achievements as a student, a lawyer, a family man or a politician, but also because he is such an effective rascal in dealing with white people. He has negotiated the practice of white power well enough to become one of the preeminent arbiters of that power. Less commendable, in my view, are the moments in which he seems to exercise Rinehartism, the alternate form of rascality, wherein he behaves in ways prone to be read by other blacks as signs of similarity and solidarity, even though he is hesitant to graduate these signs into policy decisions that will improve the quality of black life. When taking America’s future into account, it is important to consider both forms of Obama’s rascally behavior and the electorate’s reaction to them, because I believe they have already enabled the spectacular death of one black boy and may facilitate the demise of many more if the president continues to deploy them as tactics by which to manage his popularity with the American public.
It was not until the Trayvon Martin case that I gained confidence in my suspicion that Obama was Rineharting the black electorate. Certainly there were signs of him doing so before he commented on the terrible murder of the black Florida teenager at the hands of George Zimmerman, an overzealous neighborhood watch patrolmen. For example, there is a noticeable change in Obama’s speaking style when he seeks to address a black audience specifically. Within seconds of taking the podium, the president is inclined to sound more like a southern black preacher than an Ivy-League trained lawyer. One could hardly forget him “brushing his shoulders off’ a la the rapper, Jay Z, when the 2008 campaign swung south and the then candidate Obama was trying to beat back Hilary Clinton’s drive for black votes. Obama has not been shy in making his affinities to hip hop and R&B known, inviting Common and Jill Scott to the White House and pledging to recite Young Jeezy lyrics publically in his second term. There was also Obama singing Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together” at the Apollo theatre in Harlem in January 2012, a striking, if not melodious way to begin an election year (A friend, when discussing this moment with me specifically, noted with a certain playful bewilderment in his voice, “black people ate that up, even the ones that know better”). Michelle Obama, in explaining that she is often the recipient of his serenades, punctuated this spectacle of the president’s insider status by assuring Jay Leno’s Tonight Show audience that “he likes the classics,” by which she meant the R&B classics, which include Green, Marvin Gaye, and as she said, “a Little Stevie” (Wonder).
Yet there was something about his reaction to the Trayvon Martin incident – his biggest Rinehart gesture yet, if my thesis is true – that I found additionally vexing, beyond the fact that he would not have commented on the issue had black leaders not lobbied him desperately to do so. After lamenting the tragic nature of the event and the heartbreak of the parents, and encouraging federal, state, and local justice officials to perform due diligence in their criminal investigations of the incident, and noting that he should say little to bias the case, Obama seemed to use Martin’s complexion to assure Americans, blacks in particular, of his heartfelt identification with the victim. “If I had a son,” he said, “he’d look like Trayvon.” (In the aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict, as a revision to this earlier comment, the president said that 35 years earlier, he himself could have been Trayvon). The statement seemed to work according to its design. Observers from Newt Gingrich on down understood it to be an intimation of Obama’s alliance with black victims of police aggression, who day to day live life vulnerable to search and seizure as the nation’s eternal suspects of criminal behavior. It is worth calling attention, as others have, to how strikingly treasonous this remark is to the ideology of post-racialism – an ideology from which the president has benefited, and until the shocking exoneration of Zimmerman, tacitly endorsed. In stark contrast to many of the other things Obama has said in regards to race, the statement seemed to draw a one to one to one correlation between biology and experience and thought. He seemed to be saying, “ I commiserate with this black victim and his family, because he looks like me and in some really crucial way, is like me.”
“The statement seemed to draw a one to one to one correlation between biology and experience and thought.”
It is important to note that this was the second time during his presidency that a black boy had racially authenticated Obama. People within the administration and without, continue to celebrate the moment in May 2009 when in the White House Obama stooped to have his head meet the hand of a boy who wanted to verify that they shared the same hair texture (the racial symbolism of black hair is too potent to ignore, I suspect). In the case of the Martin statement, however, the gesture was much more dramatic and aggressive, since Obama’s success as a post-racial politician remains predicated on the ideas that not all black people are alike, and more importantly, that not all black people think alike. The remark threw a certain caution to the wind, in that it sated the indignation of African Americans exasperated with racist policing and raised the hackles of Obama’s opposition who believe him to be a race man regardless of what his policies tell them and are quick to bring whites to alarm over any sign that Obama might politically ally himself with black causes. I have not gotten over how daringly racial and impolitic Obama’s comment was. Like many others, I hoped the moment’s audacity would evolve into a more active stewardship over the nation’s policing practices. If this were to happen, it would quickly end my suspicion that Obama is our modern day Rinehart. It still remains a hope, regardless of what the sources of my logic predict.
With some reflection, however, I have come to realize that I remain unsettled by his response to the Martin controversy because its audacity, whether it be Rinehartian or not, was perverse in its untimeliness. By this, I mean, that well before last year, Obama already had a chance to chasten the racial zealotry of the police, and do so in a way that may have saved Trayvon’s life. He elected not to, it seems, because it risked making him unpopular with some sectors of the electorate. Many would recall the confrontation between the Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and the Cambridge Police department in July 2009. Gates had returned from a trip to Africa with a friend only to be a greeted by his home’s jammed front door. In attempting to enter his home from the rear, he and the friend were spotted by a woman who reported their activities to the cops. The officers arrived by the time Gates had gained entry. When they asked the professor for identification, Gates’s frustration at being locked out, cast as suspect, and accosted by the police boiled over, and he gave them several loud, and likely impolite, pieces of his mind. The cops handcuffed Gates because of this behavior and escorted him to the police station. At a press conference to discuss the president’s early efforts toward reforming the country’s healthcare system, Obama was asked to comment on the incident. His response was both reasonable and historic:
“I think it is fair to say, number one, any of us would be pretty angry; number two that the Cambridge police acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home; and number three, what I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there’s a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. This is just a fact.”
The Harvard lawyer within Obama was clearly at work in these remarks. Moreover, this was the first occasion, possibly since the Civil Rights movement, that a US president seemed to side publicly with an arrested lawbreaker. For many, this was why he was elected. Sobriety. Eloquence. Fairness. His mediation of racially fraught issues that divided the country – like criminal justice – would be jurisprudential and, as opposed to his predecessor, would exorcise all notions that the United States was too beholden to white supremacy to unhand it. The US might finally become the casteless, multiracial democracy that the world believes it to be. With remarks like this he would earn the right he prematurely received to compare himself to Martin Luther King, Jr. He would earn the Nobel Peace Prize, another accolade granted him years too early. He would earn the celebrations that consumed inner city streets across the country on the night of his first election. He would earn the right to see himself as the very embodiment of racial progress in the United States. This was no Rinehart speaking here. This was hope indeed. This was the messiah for whom so many had been waiting…
But the audacity did not linger. And Trayvon would die.
“Within a week’s time, a white police officer had stared down the leader of the free world and won.”
The Cambridge police took umbrage with Obama’s comments and rallied the police unions in Massachusetts to protest his stance. Whether a crisis of courage or the urgent need for realpolitik consumed the president, or both, we cannot be sure. Nonetheless, his passion toward the matter wavered. His rhetoric changed. “I could have calibrated those words differently,” he said, partially retracting his assertion that the police acted stupidly. “I want to make clear,” he said in another exchange with the press, “that in my choice of words, I think, I unfortunately gave the impression that I was maligning the Cambridge police department or Sergeant Crowley, specifically.” Though he did not offer an explicit apology for challenging the judgment of the arresting officers, he certainly made clear that he had somehow misspoken and that Gates had misbehaved. He consummated his retreat by orchestrating a made for television “beer summit” between the principles in the conflict, having his Vice President attend ostensibly to balance the racial demographics of the gathering. Within a week’s time, a white police officer had stared down the leader of the free world and won. The Gates incident made clear two terribly painful political truths: one, the most powerful black man in the world still had to defer to the cops, even when they were wrong; two, that when the heat got turned up high, the man who we elected as our messiah would turn black men’s claims to citizenship and freedom into frat party banter.
Those who think it in poor taste to juxtapose the Gates arrest with Martin’s murder or to in any way associate both incidents with Obama’s style of governance must consider more carefully the high existential stakes that these matters involve. Nothing factors, or has factored, more crucially in black well-being than the issue of policing. It became the defining issue of personhood when Africans grabbed other Africans in the sixteenth century and handed them over to European commercial men for oversight. As a result, US racial history has been shaped by the battle for blacks to exercise their own prerogative over what they can do and where they can go and when. It is a history that includes being bound in the belly of slave ships, needing passes to travel to the neighboring plantation, being rented out as prison labor to a large scale farmer, having to leave certain neighborhoods before the sun goes down, drinking from a particular water fountain, attending a school, shopping at a department store, marrying a blonde, or even walking home after buying a fruity package of skittles. Policing is so fundamental to the condition of blackness that it compelled Ralph Ellison to culminate his classic novel with a race riot in Harlem, begun, for all intents and purposes, with the unarmed shooting of a black man (a character named Tod Clifton) at the hands of the police.
The end of de-facto segregation in the US has made the practice of racism much more difficult to discern, with the exception of the ease and pace with which black men and now black women become intimate with the extending embrace of the nation’s criminal justice system. In fact, an argument can be made that intensified policing and state surveillance has enabled the desegregation of US society (without the first, the second may not have been allowed or because the second was legally mandated, the first had to quickly follow behind it). In light of this, how the nation disciplines and punishes black people is the preeminent civil rights issue of the moment; it is the most profound symbolic shackle that restrains black freedom and citizenship. It is the unfeeling mechanism that can transform the casual aspects of someone’s every day life into a protracted ritual of slow death. There is no adequate way to qualify or quantify the angst, apprehension, surprise and terror of being unnecessarily watched, wrongly hailed, unduly detained, or incorrectly handled by the police. There is no way to calculate its affect on the heartbeat, the way it activates the sweat glands, or stiffens the neck muscles, or arrests the breathing. Too often, mistakes from the cops bring the black body stress and ushers it closer to its doom. (Indeed, we need good healthcare to treat the effects of this harassment. But black mental and physical health would improve markedly without these experiences). This is why progressive activists and theorists, Michelle Alexander notably among them, call policing and imprisonment the “New Jim Crow.” It is also why Michael Bloomberg, and mayors across the country continue to be dogged by demonstrators calling for an immediate end to the “stop and frisk” procedures that officers put into play much more often than they dare to admit. It is also the one issue that brings détente to the political disharmony that exists between black people of different class backgrounds. The distance and difference between the Harvard Square section of Cambridge and, for instance, the working class core of Black Roxbury, at least on the day of July 16, 2009, swiftly dematerialized for Professor Gates, making all other aspects of his identity but his blackness meaningless and inessential.
“How the nation disciplines and punishes black people is the preeminent civil rights issue of the moment.”
Obama’s spectacular back-peddling before the indignation of the Cambridge police department missed how preserving the dignity of Gates would be pivotal in engendering more hope or more death. He failed to see that defending a black person’s right to correct and discipline the police when they are wrong was a crucial part of the contract forged on the night of his election. Had Obama spoken and acted more audaciously when the cops dared to correct his sound ideas on police protocol, or if he commented on any of the unjust ritualized murders that took the lives of Sean Bell (New York), Oscar Grant (Oakland), Kenneth Chamberlain (New York) or Troy Davis (Georgia), in the last six years (the instance of the latter most notable because of the global movement that rose up to keep this falsely accused death row inmate alive), he would have brought the open season on black and brown men and women to a long awaited close. He would have put policing agents of all kinds on notice: “You cannot stalk them without a reckoning,” the message could have been, “If you hunt them without good cause, you will have to answer to me!” This would have been enough to make even the most eager cop more tentative in pursuing his tasks. Alas, other people would carry the protest if the president would not. It is reported that one of the few sentences that the unsuspecting Trayvon Martin was able to spit at George Zimmerman before the gunshots was, “What’s your problem?” It was almost as if the Florida teenager was channeling the ire of the good professor up north. The boy did not recognize that he did not have the backing of the White House, even though its chief occupant looked like him, and that he would not be able to stand his ground.
Perhaps my insistence that Obama should and could dial down the intensity of American policing and punition for the sake of people of color commits the mistake that political scientist Mark Sawyer warns against, of criticizing a US president “for not being a social movement leader.” Indeed, it is generally infeasible for a head of state to champion political movements that swell from the ground level. National leaders are instead expected to respond and negotiate with such forces. The demand that Obama be a more active opponent of police oppression comes, at least in my case, from the notion that a precedent has been set for presidents to provide leadership on this issue. Rather than requesting that Obama follow in the footsteps of Dr. King, I am suggesting that he adopt the gumption of someone like Richard Nixon, a president that historians and critics hold responsible for making the US government staunchly activist in the area of crime and punishment. Indeed it was a Republican colleague of Nixon’s, Barry Goldwater, who during the presidential campaign of 1964 instigated the present voraciousness of the criminal justice system by pledging to enforce law and order more rigidly. An increase in policing and incarceration was necessary, Goldwater believed, to quell the “lawlessness” that seemingly beset the culture in the forms of protesting, draft dodging, and flag-burning. Nixon, who in his own campaign bid four years later claimed to speak for “the forgotten Americans – the non shouters, the non-demonstrators [who were] not racists” – brought Goldwater’s vision into being when he became president. By making drug trafficking and drug use a federal crime and a national panic, respectively, Nixon made crime prevention a national mandate, one that would establish the massively intricate system of policing as a fixture in the lives of people of color and the urban poor. It is widely believed that the “war on drugs,” is a blatant misnomer, a sinister soundbyte shaped to hide what Ed Burns, the former teacher and policeman that went onto to become the writer and producer of HBO’s miniseries, “The Wire” calls “the war on the blacks,” a war that was designed “to take the energy coming out of the Civil rights movement [in the 60s and 70s] and destroy it.” Obama, if he were to channel his inner Reagan as he claims he is wont to do (Reagan shifted the Goldwater-Nixon war on drugs into overdrive) could use the bully-pulpit of the presidency to call for more officer restraint and save the lives of youth like Trayvon. He could, at the very least, alter his crime control budgets so that they do not so closely resemble that of the Bush administration, a presidency believed to be antagonistic to the welfare of African Americans. By doing these things, Obama, rather than leading a social movement, would be reversing the trajectory of a devastating government initiative conceived in the White House several decades ago.
Instead of the intrepid leadership I am suggesting here, however, African Americans receive from the president coded remarks on his complexion and calibrated sympathy for fallen black boys. Obama’s attempt, after the facts of Gates’s humiliation, Trayvon’s death, and Zimmerman’s release, to forego the precepts of post-racialism and proclaim this biological allegiance to the slain boy is not only a tardy intervention in the national discussion about crime and punishment, but, as I am arguing here, a profane act of Rinehartism in addition to being deadly, terribly cynical and self-serving. It obscures the fact that the administration will do little in the way of policy to bring into harness the aggressions of the criminal justice system against black people (his supporters continue to remind us ad nauseum that Obama must be president for all Americans, not just black Americans). It further feeds African Americans with tasty verbal nuggets out of which Obama will nourish votes and make sure that the only change in the political order is he himself. Most despicably, it transfers the Rinehart-like invisibility that Obama has deployed as a political posture over to the black people whom he is assumed to represent. As a black spokesperson that is unwilling to speak for blacks dare he render himself unpopular, he represses the ideas about citizenship, democracy, and nationhood that black people would otherwise find a way to contribute to the conversation the country has about itself. Black politics may be dead indeed, as the Bai article suggested, because Obama’s strategic silence on racial matters is actively killing them. This is no small matter. First and foremost, black people want to be seen, not unseen, as human and as full members of the nation. Second, African Americans have historically served as the conscience of American society. Many of the country’s grandest democratic achievements are the results of black strife, courage, and protest (There is no public school system without The Freedmen’s Bureau of the Post-Civil War period; formal segregation would still live without Rosa Parks). American life is much more impoverished without a counterbalancing and correcting black voice to steer it away from its excesses and missteps.
I make these claims fully aware that they may fall on deaf ears. It is likely that Obama is too symbolically important for African Americans to ever withdraw their support from him. He is particularly important to the black middle and upper classes that look at Obama as a sign of their own competence and readiness to be productive members of the US managerial elite. He is also a potent symbol for progressives of all shades in that he assures us that the nation has given up bigotry for good and has embraced a future in which human beings truly can be valued for being human. These constituencies must come to grips, however, with the reality of how much and how often this leader, by his silence, ties our human dreams to the certainty of nightsticks, squad cars, manhunts, and prison cells. We must admit that he underwrites the ability of some of us to walk freely in the streets with the certainty that others will not. We have to reckon with the fact that the man who we hoped would save our lives from civic despair and moral doom is merely a man in sunglasses and a wide brimmed hat who is all too willing to let his drones – those made of metal, and others, sentient and made of flesh – abide by their own deadly choreography.
He did not protect Trayvon.
He will not protect black people.
He will not protect any of us.