Trayvon Martin and National Grief

Well before the not guilty verdict was read in the George Zimmerman trial, media outlets were warning the public of possible riots and mass violence. Such warnings were without merit and served only to perpetuate  stereotypes about the black community, mainly that it is violent and dangerous.

Instead of riots, we saw outpourings of emotion.  After George Zimmerman was granted his freedom by a Florida jury, people gathered in the streets and on social networking sites to express their sorrow, disgust, and outrage. Citizens held spontaneous rallies, walking the streets of cities across the nation and holding up signs that proclaimed their solidarity with Trayvon's family. These protests were not just a way for people to release their frustration with the racism that plagues our society and justice system, they were profoundly emotional demonstrations of national grief.

We are grieving Trayvon--a young man who had his whole life ahead of him--but we are also grieving for all the people who, like him, were just  living their lives until someone decided that the color of their skin meant they deserved to die. I also suspect that many in White America are grieving the loss of a particular image of this country as fair and egalitarian. While people of color and other marginalized groups have known for a long time that there are different sets of rules based on your class, your race, your gender, and your sexuality, many who have had the privilege of not thinking about such things are now waking up to the fact that racism and other forms of oppression are alive and well in our nation. We are not who we thought we were but, with this vociferous conversation about race happening right now, there is a very palpable sense that we can be better, that we must be better.

Grief can lead to stasis or it can lead to action. Right now, groups across this country are harnessing their grief, they are being galvanized by it. Their grief is sending them into the streets, urging them to sign petitions, inspiring them to reach out to others and create community. Grief is propelling Trayvon's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, to use their traumatic loss to help other people. We need to feel our sorrow and despair. We need to be angry about the racism in our communities. But we also need to grieve and find the power in our grief; we need to recognize how it makes us more human, more compassionate, more aware of other people's pain. Our grief is important. It does not need to be hidden or suppressed. Instead, we must use it to fuel political action and to make meaningful change across this country because we should do all we can to stop another George Zimmerman from gunning down another Trayvon Martin.