The most fundamental right we have as Americans is the right to be let alone.
All our other rights and responsibilities grow out of this simple, basic idea. The second sentence of the Declaration Of Independence--the document on which our nation was founded--is this (emphases and omissions mine):
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all ... are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.The men who wrote and signed those words did so for themselves alone--after all, they were committing the most audacious heist in history, so they had to make it sound good. As it turned out, anyone other than a propertied, white male was out of luck. American History is the story of the rest of us fighting for inclusion in the "blessings of liberty" these men took for granted.
Fifty years on from Dr. King's "I Have A Dream" speech, that fight for inclusion has become more pointed as those who believe that America is diminished rather than enriched by diversity clash with those of us who just want to raise our kids, and do our jobs, and mind our own goddamned business.
One would think that such a simple idea--you have the right to be let alone--would be more popular in a land predicated on freedom.
That would be wrong.
Black people have never had that right in America. Ever. Not in New York and not in Sanford. Not today. Neither do women, for that matter. Anywhere.
Trayvon Martin's murder and George Zimmerman's acquittal and the technology that delivered the story to us drive that point home more deeply and more sharply than mere printed words could hope to accomplish.
There are terms--labels--for people who don't have the right to be let alone: Nigger. Faggot. Slut. Illegal. Muslim. Trash. Homeless. Crazy. Heathen. The shorthand characterization never fails: Everything you need to know about any one of them, you know about all of them, thanks to that label. George Zimmerman chose the "coons" variant for "nigger" the night he murdered Trayvon Martin, and the Sanford Police, the prosecutor, the defense, the court, the Governor Of Florida, the Feds, and the media are running The Playbook exactly as written and they are doing it in the broadest daylight. There was no surprise amongst those who understand how these things "work" but millions of Americans are aghast at their first exposure via basic cable and social media to the bracing, naked, in-your-face reality of "Nigger" as it is understood and used by people who really, really mean it.
It has never been "just a word."
Trayvon Martin dead?
Niggers don't scream for their lives when they're at gunpoint. Why didn't the nigger just go home? Why didn't the nigger do as he was told and obey Mr. Zimmerman? Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in Sanford! Why should we believe the nigger's Ebonic friend when she describes--in clear detail--Zimmerman's assault on Trayvon Martin?They always get away...
The grief and bewilderment among Black Americans is as profound as I've seen or felt since Dr. King's passing. This hurt deeply. I can't listen to the 911 tape with Trayvon Martin screaming. I can't stop listening to the sound clip of George Zimmerman muttering "fucking coons" as he gets out of his truck--words that made the dispatcher ask "are you following him?" I'm heartened by the genuine hard work people are putting into understanding what Martin's murder and Zimmerman's acquittal mean to and for us as a nation and I'm grateful to and for the people in this country and around the world who are the stem cells helping produce the antidote for the sickness plaguing us.
Parents of all races, colors, conditions, and creeds are saying of Trayvon Martin: That could be my child! That's because sympathy, and empathy, and cooperation, and common decency are the dominant human traits--not hate and hostility. When you come to know people--when you've cried with them and laughed with them and argued with them and failed them and come through for them and been surprised by them and loved them and lost them--you realize that the labels used to render us "The Other" are utter bullshit. The more we learn about the world and about each other, the more we realize the truth: Race is a lie, and culture is everything.
America proves it.
Martin Luther King, Jr.'s historic speech of fifty years ago was not about "The American Dream." To be sure, he said his own dream was "deeply rooted in the American Dream," but current conditions vouch for his wisdom in choosing to "dream a little bigger, darling."
"The American Dream"--get an education, work hard, play by the rules, and you and your family will prosper--is flatlined, put down by the very people it enriched. It had been the big, fat, juicy carrot dangled by The Founders in front of White America from the beginning:
"Just buy into the dream, and you will always have privilege."
African slaves and the power over their appropriated labor were the stick supporting that carrot. Their resistance to the malaria that plagued European settlers in the New World was just icing on the cake. Dark-skinned, unfamiliar hemi-semi-demi-humans taken by violence, kept ignorant by violence, kept working by violence, bred in violence, and controlled by violence can only be described in one vocabulary: violence.
An unaccompanied black person walking freely in the South has always been the equivalent to seeing a mountain lion strolling down a suburban sidewalk today. Slaves were property. They had to be property because they tended not to stay put or out of trouble if not kept in close check. Their bondage was God's Will, and the Christian thing to do was to teach them to work, to pray, and to obey. Race became class, class became race, and the label for the condition explained everything you needed to know about them: Niggers. One size fit all. And it was all constitutional.
Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney said in his ruling for the expansion of slavery in 1856 in Dred Scott v. Sanford that "slaves are so far inferior that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect." That Supreme Court decision and the reasoning used to justify it and the attitudes underpinning it are still with us today, most notably in Mr. Justice Antonin Scalia. The moral, spiritual, financial, intellectual, and political authors of the miscarriage of justice that is the Trayvon Martin case share Roger Taney's sentiment wholeheartedly. Trayvon Martin is dead in spite of all the progress we've made and because of that progress. The idea behind Stand Your Ground laws in Florida and other states is steeped in Taney's conceit. The rationale for violating the persons, privacies, and privileges of the women of Texas, Kansas, North Carolina and other states is informed by that attitude. Attorney Mark O'Mara's ability to dredge up the gall to ask Trayvon Martin's mother--to her face--if maybe her son wasn't responsible for his own death is of a piece with the justice's philosophy. Democracy is dead in Michigan's cities. Contraception is controversial again. The current Supreme Court's originalists have said this very thing in gutting the Voting Rights Act: "...No rights that the court is bound to respect."
That vision of America--that dream--may have gotten a well-deserved ass-kicking in the Civil War, but it did not die. Not by a long shot. It is very much alive and in full throat. That version of the dream is like the perpetually spinning top from my favorite movie Inception (2010), the story of people who have created the technology to design, control, and exploit the dreams of others in the future. The hero always carries the little top--it's called a totem--as his assurance that he is in control in his own dream. If he spins the top in his own dream, it falls over in normal course. The spinning never stops in someone else's dream.
That top is still spinning in America. It has perturbed us for long enough. It has defined us for long enough. It has been used to divide us for long enough. It has been used to kill us for far too long. American culture has changed. The pathologies of slavery have a long reach, but that reach is weakening. Those human stem cells around the country and the world I mentioned earlier... the internet has let people of all colors and all nationalities into each other's lives. Physical segregation can't overcome the strong human bonds so many of us have formed over time. We are connected.
Trayvon Martin has not died in vain because he has let us all see this continuum of hatred and prejudice in its full context indelibly documented by the stark testimony of the cell phone calls from that night and by the outcome in court.
Maybe we're headed toward the dream that Dr. King painted so vividly. Maybe the forces of reaction and division--the ones who now confer the labels and decide whose rights to respect--will relent, although the Zimmerman trial and Fox News and Drudge and Coulter and Stormfront and the Conservative Supremes and the NSA and the Republican Congressional Delegation starring Gohmert and Paul and Cruz and Pence and King, and that idiot "rape kit" senator from Texas don't make me hopeful for the near future.
Doc also said that "the arc of history is long but it bends toward justice," though, and that brings me back to my dream of a proper and lasting monument to the life of Trayvon Benjamin Martin.
I hope that Trayvon's example will help us all root out prejudices in our own hearts so we can take people one at a time. Everyone has a right to be heard once. We should honor Ed Murrow's injunction not to walk in fear of one another by challenging the idea that white skin or "white" culture makes one inherently better. It's as ridiculous as the notion that black skin does the same thing. I hope that we will use this time of mourning and reflection to identify just what our own dreams are and be true to them. I hope that we will insist on respect for our own rights and for the rights of others from the government and from any other entity with any power in this country.
We are what we do. We are the sum of our choices and actions. Let's start holding the right people accountable for the harm they've done to this country so that we can go back to raising our kids, doing our jobs, and minding our own goddamned business.