Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Martin murder case revives civil rights movement

By DeWayne Wickham

SANFORD, Fla. – For America's flagging civil rights movement, this place has become a Resurrection City.

The senseless death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin not only has made the city ground zero of a protest movement that has energized people from Boston to Los Angeles, it has resuscitated a civil rights movement that has long needed a cause célèbre to generate a wider following. And that is just what it got when gun-toting George Zimmerman killed Martin, who was armed with just a cellphone, a bottle of ice tea and a bag of Skittles.

Zimmerman, a 28-year-old whose father is white and mother is Hispanic, said he killed Martin in self-defense after trailing the black teenager inside the gated community he patrolled as a volunteer watchman. At some point, there was a confrontation and Zimmerman fired a single shot into Martin's chest. The police refused to arrest Zimmerman, who claims the protection of Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people who feel threatened to use deadly force instead of retreating to safety.

The idea that an armed man who stalks a teenager who has committed no crime can get away — if only for a time — with saying he was the victim has outraged a lot of people. Add race to this explosive mixture, and the case propelled civil rights activists into the front ranks of protesters.

Over the weekend, when thousands of demonstrators marched through Sanford demanding Zimmerman's arrest, they were led by the "Big Three" of this nation's aging civil rights movement. Walking behind a blue and yellow "Justice for Trayvon" banner were NAACP President Ben Jealous, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, leader of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, and the Rev. Al Sharpton, head of the National Action Network.

Unlike the old days of the movement that transformed America, they were riding the waves of this protest, rather than creating them. That's not an indictment of these men, but rather an acknowledgment of their ability to take control of a movement created largely by social media. As a result, the campaign to get Martin's killer arrested and tried on murder charges has brought about an interesting fusion of the old and the new.

The "new" movements are in cyberspace, causes such as the Kony 2012 video, to which Millennials easily connect. The old are the on-the-ground movements such as the 1963 March on Washington that were attended largely by the so-called Silent Generation, which was anything but silent about such issues.

The mishandling of the initial police investigation of Martin's death — and the quick recognition by civil rights leaders that they could use this tragedy to regain the center stage of social protest in America — has bridged the gap between old street protesters and the new Internet activists. The immediate effects of this will likely result in Zimmerman's arrest and trial.

The long-term impact might well be a partnership between the organizations that Sharpton, Jackson and Jealous lead and those of the less organized but far more numerous Generation Xers, who have already used Facebook, Twitter and blogs to express outrage nationwide over Martin's shooting.

In Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman said of the prophesies of futurists George Orwell and Aldous Huxley: "Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression." But Huxley worried that "people will come to love their oppression (and) to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think."

What the broad, cross-generational response to the death of Martin suggests about social struggle in this country is that its future might be even better than its past.

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