“I thought about Emmett Till, and I could not go back. My legs and feet were not hurting, that is a stereotype. I paid the same fare as others, and I felt violated. I was not going back.” – Rosa Parks
I’ve been struggling for the right words to express how I feel about the Trayvon tragedy. I want to thank my friend Sara Haile Mariam for sharing her video (above) with me and prompting me to sit down and put words to paper.
There are moments when you can literally feel your heart break. For me, hearing about Trayvon being shot dead for walking while black was one of those moments. I’ve been walking around, (not so) ironically in a hoodie, in something of a daze, reflecting on the state of race relations in America and the violent epidemic that plagues so many of our communities.
As much as I want George Zimmerman to be brought to justice, I worry that by making the call for justice simply about prosecution, we are missing a moment. Justice for Trayvon should also mean a remedy for our shoot first, ask never culture. Justice for Trayvon should also mean America taking a long look in the mirror and realizing that we are regressing into the darkest days of our culture. We may not be stringing African Americans up in trees, but this is a lynching plain and simple.
A #plan4trayvon should mean a plan for how we can move forward as one country, protecting all youth. No child should have to walk in fear simply because they walk or dress a certain way. No parent should get a phone call saying that their child was shot dead for “looking suspicious”. No parent should get a phone call that their child was shot dead period. What is it going to take for us to wake up? How many more lives have to be lost?
This issue hits particularly close to home because of something that happened in New Orleans a little less than three years ago. Not unlike Trayvon’s parents, Trinise Henry lost her son in the prime of his life when he was shot by a police officer for having a suspicious item and being out after curfew. Like I said, we live in a shoot first, ask never culture. The difference in that case, for me, is that I taught Dawonne at an educational summer camp and could vividly remember what he was like. Let’s not miss another moment or opportunity for change. I hope you will spread Sara’s video far and wide and tweet it with the hashtag #plan4trayvon. Before you do that though, I wanted to share with you my reflections about that dark day in 2009, if for no other reason than Dawonne’s memory deserves to be honored as well:
On July 30th, 2009, Trinise Henry lost her son, the city of New Orleans lost another precious child, and my friends and I lost a bright-eyed former camper with a quick wit, a blinding smile and an immense love for life.
I haven’t been able to get this camper off of my mind since I found out. Scarcely a day goes by when I’m not abruptly confronted by the memory of Dawonne Matthews. I see a young student smiling ear-to-ear as I’m riding the Metro here in DC and it is like I’m instantly transported to the Cutoff in New Orleans. I see faces of all the campers I worked with, but Dawonne’s shines brightest of all. Perhaps because I know that from here on out I’ll only see it in pictures and daydreams.
I didn’t know what to expect from my AmeriCorps summer position in New Orleans. I suppose I hoped that since I can’t build or repairs homes, I’d try to build confidence in New Orleans’ young people and help them to repair their internal wounds from Hurricane Katrina. The goal of the local nonprofit I worked for was to raise the social conciousness of middle school students, to serve as a safe space for these youth for the summer, to provide them with positive role models in young college students, to encourage them to invest themselves in their community…really to give them a blueprint for how to stay away from violence, gangs, drugs and all the disruptive/destructive life choices that all too often end in a life cut short, a future lost, and a community in tears. Beyond the obvious tragedy of this situation, the whole thing is very frustrating because it was a repudiation of all that we tried to do with these students.
It frustrates me too to see New Orleans fall so far from the national consciousness. IT was only a few years ago that we all turned on CNN to images of our fellow citizens tuck on their rooftops waiting for rescue. It seems like yesterday that we were hearing horror stories about the emergency shelters in the Dome and the Convention Center. We all witnessed a failure by (all levels of) our government to protect our fellow citizens. Sure we sent donations. Sure we volunteered. We cut checks to Habitat for Humanity. We opened our veins to the blood banks, but no sooner did the needle prick heal than did we completely forget.
The local community in New Orleans rallied. I’ve never seen a more compassionate, considerate and strong-willed group of people. I went down there to lend a hand and they were the ones extending theirs to make sure that I and my fellow “Teacher-Counselors” felt at home. The ONE thing that they asked in return was that we not forget about the ever-present struggle of the city to bring itself back, not from the brink of disaster, but from ALL-OUT disaster. I’ll never forget the images burned in my mind of abandoned homes, of a city completely up-ended, of people clinging with the jaws of life to survive. Considering that my summer in NOLA was by far the most rewarding of my life, I have not done nearly enough to keep my friends from forgetting.
I grew complacent, not only in that, but in many aspects of my life. I was phoning it in at work. I was putting off decisions about my future. It took a tragedy to snap me out of it. It took losing Dawonne to reconnect with some of my co-workers from that summer. IT took that loss to get me re-engaged with the city itself. On July 31st, I was left with unfocused energy. I’ve managed to harness it and get myself writing again, studying again, fully engaging in social justice issues again. But what does it say about me that it took something like this to jumpstart me? I don’t want my meaning to be misconstrued. I would gladly revert back to my bubble in a second if it meant I knew Dawonne’s smile was still lighting up a room somewhere in New Orleans. Hopefully, something else would have jarred me out of my complacency. I can’t let his loss be in vain. It’s taken me this long to write about it because it’s taken me this long to even to begin to process how such a bright and good kid’s future could be taken from him. I reflect on it constantly and I know that it keeps me focused and determined to do more to, as Robert F. Kennedy so often said: “to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of the world”.
Thanks for reading,