“This is why we are called human beings. Hu[e] – for colour,” Kalmunity Vibe Collective member Zibz related through spoken word to the sighs of a lone saxophone, thus beginning the series of speakers and performers organized as part of the Hoodies Up: Justice for Trayvon vigil held on Wednesday night.
Around 250 attendees were present, despite thunderstorm warnings, at Square Phillips in downtown Montreal at 8 p.m., calling for justice in light of the verdict of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida courts. Organized by Emily Yee Clare and Zina Mustafa of the Students of Colour Montreal group, the vigil was named “Hoodies Up” as a tribute to Martin and his case as a symbol of the “social and institutional complex of racism that exists throughout the world,” according to the Facebook event.
“Trayvon Martin is not the first. And sadly, I don’t think he will be the last,” Zibz said, one hand holding the microphone and the other a lit white candle.
Trayvon Martin is the name of a 17-year-old black male who was shot in February 2012 by 29-year-old white-Hispanic George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Although Zimmerman’s defense lawyers didn’t invoke Florida’s version of the American “stand your ground” law, the Trayvon case is perceived as one such case because it borrowed heavily from the statute.
The “stand your ground” laws, present in many states, rest on the general concept of a citizen’s right to use deadly force in self-defense if they feel they are in danger. Florida gives citizens the right to not back down even outside of the home.
Last Saturday, Florida courts overturned all charges against Zimmerman, sparking a series of protests across the United States and Canada, as well as a revival of a lively debate on race relations in both countries.
Noah Weisbord, an Assistant Professor of Law at Florida International University’s College of Law, believes the controversy erupted because the Trayvon case “fits all of our stereotypes about how America functions.”
“This fits an old sad trope about black youths – male youths – being perceived wrongly to be dangerous, being pursued by aggressive white males in the suburbs, and killed,” said Weisbord in an interview with The Daily.
A vigil attendee described the Trayvon case as “modern-day lynching.”
Speakers at the vigil included filmmaker and victim of police brutality in Montreal Didier Berry; writer and co-host of No One Is Illegal Radio Robyn Maynard; members of the feminist Babae Collective; and members of the Kalmunity Vibe Collective.
Performances and speakers were followed by an open-mike session, where anyone could address the crowd.
Jasmine Wilson was one of those who took to the microphone. A McGill University graduate, and last year’s Chief Coordinator of the Black Students’ Network at McGill, Wilson said she “[hasn’t] met anyone who is surprised by [the verdict].”
Wilson’s experiences of being stereotyped as a black woman extended beyond her life in the United States to the campus of McGill University. “There is a level of surprising ignorance when it comes to different bodies of people that go to McGill.”
“Just because I’m angry doesn’t mean that I’m rioting. I don’t want to kill you. I don’t want to shoot you. I just want you to understand that I’m a person too, and that there is something that is making me unhappy,” Wilson said, adding, “I have anxiety when I walk down the streets because I wonder if somebody is profiling me, if someone automatically sees me as a black woman and speeds up or walks away, because they think I’m going to do something.”
According to a research investigation titled “Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law” conducted by the Tampa Bay Times, and based on around 200 “stand your ground” cases from Florida since 2005, “defendants claiming ‘stand your ground’ are more likely to prevail if the victim is black. 73 per cent of those who killed a black person faced no penalty compared to 59 per cent of those who killed a white.”
Weisbord identified the problem with the “stand your ground” law as the fact that it “blurs the distinction between aggression and self-defense.” He said the law is not being utilized in the way lawmakers envisioned. “It always seems to play out that the black guy is getting killed.”
According to Weisbord, the “stand your ground” term comes from Goethe. “It was used by a proto-Nazi community that was established by the husband of Nietzsche’s sister. And they said they were going to go to this place … where they could stand their ground. And essentially it meant against the violent ethnic masses.”
“It wasn’t like there was an injustice from a legal perspective. The problem is more systemic. The entire system leads people to be more aggressive because the law is designed for kind of this cowboy mentality that you shouldn’t have to retreat from anywhere you’re legally allowed to be,” Weisbord added.
Zibz and Wilson believe one way forward in wake of the Trayvon case is through dialogue. Wilson encourages McGill student groups to continue their work in bringing about knowledge of diversity on campus, which she said is different from simply having diversity on campus.
“Hav[e] discussions, make the people who are actually silent able to speak their mind without other people having to feel like they’re offended because you say either ‘white’ or ‘oppression’ or whatever the story may be. People have to be able to speak freely.”