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Once again, racial tensions in America are exploding in the wake of a tragedy. The shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager on the streets of a Florida gated community, has incited controversy across the continent, with even President Obama weighing in. Wednesday, Congressman Bobby Rush was “escorted” out of the House of Representatives for pulling up a hood as spoke to the floor. Both the media and internet are embroiled in controversy, and many protesters have taken to the streets.

The internet has seen a coordinated campaign of racist misinformation about Martin, often coming openly from white supremacist groups. “Evidence” showing young Trayvon Martin’s criminal intent and “nature” is spreading like wildfire across the internet. Among other things, he wore a “hoodie” (hooded sweatshirt), and pictures were found of him posing shirtless in his bedroom and sporting a “grill” (gold teeth). These pictures seem to have originated at Stormfront.org, the notorious Neo-Nazi web forums, and Martin’s online accounts were recently hacked by a white supremacist on 4Chan. Police also leaked records showing he’d been (*gasp*) suspended for an empty pot baggie. Many are also bringing up injuries sustained by Zimmerman in the confrontation (he was allegedly punched in the head and knocked to the ground) as proof the shooting was “self-defence”. This video, just released from Zimmerman’s arrival at the station, is casting doubt on that story.

Who is George Zimmerman? His father is a retired Judge. He aspired to be a cop and helped start the “neighbourhood watch” in which he was a “captain”. In his zeal for law-and-order in his suburban neighbourhood, he’d logged dozens of 911 calls over the past few years, for everything from potholes and trash-piles to “suspicious-looking” (usually black) individuals. He called police prior to shooting Martin, and the 911 operator distinctly asked him not to follow him. Also worth mentioning is his record for domestic violence. All of this paints a picture of an obsessive, hot-headed man with a very polarized, “action movie” notion of “law and order” which he felt constantly compelled to act on.

It would be hard to argue that racism isn’t a factor in either the shooting or the response, but so was age, class and culture. Zimmerman may not be white, but he’s not exactly from the “ghetto” either. This speaks to what has become a very dominant ideology in American suburbia – one which goes right back to the original “white flight” from the inner cities. Poor urban youths of colour have been cast as barbarian hordes, and suburbs as frontier outposts of civilization. There’s an ever-present fear of an urban black underclass coming to take their “property”, arguably the best marketing campaign in history for suburban gated communities, handguns and conservative politicians.

Whatever the truth behind the shooting itself, the fact that so many have rushed Zimmerman’s defence really says something about how ignorant and terrified the underlying society is, and how eager people are to assume the worst about Martin. In spite of all the evidence that Martin was doing absolutely nothing wrong, many still simply refuse to believe that a black teenager could have a legitimate reason to walk down a suburban sidewalk.

This is hardly an isolated incident. It could just as easily have been a Latino kid stopped by some gun-wielding idiot for his “papers”. And for all the outcry over “vigilante” gunslinging, we need to be realistic – Zimmerman’s constant police calls were every bit as likely to get somebody shot as personal confrontations like this. Today’s news of a Pasadena California man’s arrest for a 911 call which led to the fatal shooting police of Kendrec McDade, another black teenager, shows how easily this can go down. It even happens in Hamilton, as it did in 2008 around Upper James and Mohawk when passers-by chased and restrained a (young, black) shoplifter, Djo Bwabwa Kalamba, running from Canadian Tire, killing him in the process. These aren’t just random deaths, there’s a clear pattern in which young black males are presumed to be armed and dangerous when they venture anywhere near “white” communities. Every additional death is another tragic reminder to all youths of colour that a different standard applies to them.

An affinity for hip-hop culture isn’t a crime, nor does it prove criminal intent. Millions of young people across the continent listen to rap music, and I’d be surprised to find anybody under 30 who doesn’t own a hoodie. This shooting resonated so deeply because it could have been anyone, and because his case reminds us of so many others. When these actions are so common and so often go unpunished that means millions of youths of colour need to fear for their lives. Like the old-time lynchings, that’s the point. Racism isn’t just a bunch of “bad words” or off-colour jokes told at parties, it’s a power structure maintained by regular acts of violence. Until we grapple with that, these murders are just going to keep happening.

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