“There is Power in Pain: Remarks on the Two Year Anniversary of the Killing of Trayvon Martin and the Michael Dunn Verdict”

#NeverLovedUs image from Dream Defenders


Nathaniel Phillipps, graduate student at Milano and student member of the University Social Justice Committee, shares these thoughts on the tragic anniversary of the killing of Trayvon Martin and the verdict on the death of Jordan Davis:

There are few moments in a person’s life that coincide with a moment in history that they will never forget. For some those moments might be the first lunar landing, the first color television broadcast you ever watched, the assassinations of MLK and JFK, or the release of Nelson Mandela and the crumbling of legal apartheid in South Africa. For other generation it might be 9/11 or the election of Barack Obama. But there’s another one that will forever be etched into my mind, and that is the “not guilty verdict for George Zimmerman.” I watched it happen while I was holding hands with 100 of the most incredible and powerful young Black activists across the country. What cruel yet cosmic timing. You can imagine the psychic and physical trauma that hit us all in the same second; it was as if someone we knew and loved was just ripped from us and the future they were going to lead was erased from time. That’s because we did know Trayvon. We knew him through the Black faces of our brothers, our father’s, our friends and neighbors. His death represented more than a senseless killing. It represented what we all already knew–that Black lives and Black bodies don’t matter to the United States, unless we are making songs, or wearing a jersey, and even then our utility as individuals is finite.

We are the Black Youth Project #100, and the day after the verdict we released a stunning written and visual statement that only a group of bold and unapologetic Black youth could. In it, we denounced the evils that still reverberate throughout contemporary America:

The salt water falling from our eyes now is not different from the salt water we were trafficked on then. If the soil of the United States could speak, before saying a word it would cough up our blood. Choking frantically, crust-curdling with the gore of an oppressed peoples it has been force-fed. White supremacy has water-boarded it with the remnants of its genocide of us.

Since Trayvon’s death, a few commentators have had the audacious courage to assert this, and I will echo them now. When 20 mostly white little kids are slaughtered by a crazed shooter in a quaint suburb in Connecticut, the country mourns and comprehensive gun reform dominates the political and social realm. But when a Black teenager is thought to be in the wrong neighborhood and is pursued and disposed of, it is justified in the eyes of the law and the country is deeply divided. Surely there is enough love and compassion to cover all of our young people?

I was interning in Congress last summer when Zimmerman went free. The idea of returning to work after that weekend to the institution that has enabled and sustains the structural racism in our laws that killed Trayvon and exonerated Zimmerman sickened me to the point that I didn’t go in to work immediately after. But there is power in pain. I was a Congressional Black Caucus Foundation intern in the office of Steven Horsford of Nevada, the first Black man and person of color to serve in Congress from my state. He lost his father at a young age the same way I lost mine, murdered by a bullet. Someone in the intern cohort before mine drafted the letter that was sent throughout the halls of Congress collecting signatures on its way to the Attorney General which is the reason that George Zimmerman was investigated for civil rights violations and a hate crime. That is the power of pain that fueled one single person or a group of people to do what was in their ability to affect change and it is that power that we must channel now.

When I tried to devise a strategy to get the Republican leader of the House Judicial Committee to hold Congressional Hearings in response to Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s verdict I was told to find a way to give political clout to a man who would never call for a hearing on why a white man got away with killing a Black boy; because his constituents didn’t care or wouldn’t vote for him again; because they don’t care about Black bodies and our lives enough; because they can’t love Black children–our children–enough. Providing political “cover,” in essence reducing Trayvon’s death and Zimmerman’s verdict to a political game, was something I would not, and could not do. I could not stomach finding a way to absolve legislators of their responsibility to prevent and zealously respond to paramount problems within their power to mend, nor the responsibility of some to practice compassion for those who may look different (in other words, for white people to decry and dismantle racism).

Now, I have to say a few words about love. Cornell West wrote that “justice is what love looks like in public.” If we no longer know what justice is let me remind you. Justice would have been for the three jurors that didn’t vote “guilty” to first-degree murder to find it in their hearts to be able to love Jordan Davis as their own child, to know that the facts of the case and the evidence of what happened that night couldn’t have been deduced to anything but the unjustifiable and callous murder of a Black boy who refused to submit to the command of a racist. There is nothing that Jordan Davis did, has done, or could have done that merits him the inherit label of dangerous, based on the color of his skin or the music that he listened to. If their son were now dead at the hands of Michael Dunn instead of Jordan they would have deserved nothing less than a murder verdict. The love from the jury, the essence of justice, would have defeated the malice that killed Jordan.

I have a confession, and it is one that I can barely displace the shame to utter. I don’t carry that same fear that so many of my Black and brown peers do. I don’t fear being stopped and frisked, or profiled, or looked at suspiciously because of what I look like, or how I walk, or the clothes I wear, or the way I can talk. But I would be no better than the racists, than the Zimmermans and the Dunns, if I was complacent in that absence of fear. All of us are just as complicit in the injustices that occur daily if we fail or choose not to call out, speak up about, and dismantle our deeply American, our quintessentially American culture of racism, sexism, patriarchy, hetero-normativity, classism, white supremacy, and other oppressive systems. And that is a choice, to speak or to remain silent. Because whether we like it or not, whether we feel good about it or not, the same oppression that kills and targets and haunts some of us is conversely the privilege that protects the rest of us.

And I’ll be damned if it takes us another generation for the content of our character to be more important than the color of our skin. I don’t want to, I refuse, to even ponder that in 10 years when my White partner or husband is walking about with our brown or Black child, that they could be the target of sideways glances or confused stares. Or if I am about with our child who doesn’t “look Black”–as if there were only one way– and I am the target of suspicious glances or concerned inquiries from passersby.

ALL lives matter. Black lives matter.