I remember when Yusuf Hawkins was murdered in Brooklyn. I wasn’t very old—it was August 1989, so I was 10 at the time—but I can vividly recall being really sad and then really angry that a group of people felt collectively entitled to take the life of another person based on something as frivolous as their race. No provocation, no just cause, and certainly no remorse for their actions. My mother had purchased the Eyes on the Prize collection, so I had seen more than my share of grainy footage from the Civil Rights era when men and women marched despite being pelted and spit on by White antagonists furious at having their way of life and their White privilege threatened by a group of uppity niggers.
But this was almost the 1990s in New York City. It was a current event, not something we learned about in history. It might as well have been a throwback to the Jim Crow yesteryear. Yusuf’s killers were fueled by a hate so unchecked and a mob mentality so contagious that, for the minutes it took to end his life, it could have been 1949. Or 1849, for that matter. They were virulent, subhuman even. And that really troubled my little 10-year-old thoughts. I wrote an essay about him in school and kept up with the case until the media tired of it and moved on to a new hot-button headline. I’ll never forget how I was so deeply affected by the brutal killing of a complete stranger.
More than 20 years later, I’m still emotionally invested and Black males are still dying cruel, wasteful, unfortunate deaths at the hands of folks who are so gone off of their prejudice that the inhumanity of murder takes a backseat to hate-filled impulse. We’re all feeling the loss of Trayvon Martin right now. I believe that God will deal with George Zimmerman in the afterlife. But I can’t wait. I’m impatient. I want the justice system, the one established here on earth, to give him his just dues, too. If Trayvon can’t be at graduation, prom and holidays with his family and friends, then George Zimmerman damn sure shouldn’t enjoy his life either.
If there’s ever anything good and useful in a tragedy like this, it’s the community activist that comes out in most of us to lend our voices to the fight for what’s right. It doesn’t matter if it’s your first time wielding a public opinion. Your involvement, at this point, is just as valuable as someone who’s been on the Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson Emergency Response Program since they were in Pampers. The other day, I had to go in on some overly critical folks on Facebook poo pooing on the influx of people wearing hoodies to represent Trayvon and throwing sour grapes at the rallies and marches on his behalf. There are more pressing, less publicized issues going on and people who have been doing real work on their behalf for years, they grumped. Oh boy, I thought. Enter all the self-righteous folks. So here goes: if you’ve consistently dedicated your weekends, talents, time-juggling and energy to community work, we applaud and appreciate you. We really do.
But if someone only does one socially relevant thing this year and that one socially relevant thing is helping to get justice for Trayvon Martin, then that’s cool with me. Even if it means just wearing a hoodie in a show of solidarity. Even if it means going to their first public protest and holding a sign for a few hours. I’m not going to knock anybody because they weren’t on the frontlines of Community Rally X six months ago or won’t be backpacking through Grassroots Movement Y six months from now. Coming at folks because they aren’t as politically or community-involved as we think they should be is the sure-fire way to make sure people never participate again. Don’t we want them to catch the fever for making a difference?
I’ve heard folks grumbling that there are other situations that warrant notoriety for lack of justice, and that’s true. Trayvon’s case was once upon a time a local story that gained national attention for its legal absurdity and in-your-face racism. If we really want to make a statement, in addition to the hoodies and outcries, we’ll hit Florida where it hurts and stop sowing money into its travel and tourism economy. Hold your conventions somewhere else. Find another resort to go to. When governments start losing money, they stop playing stupid—and we all know the consumer power of Black folks en masse holds enough weight to make it hurt. In the meanwhile, don’t let anybody tell you what your activism should look like. Mine started as a 10-year-old kid mourning and writing about Yusuf Hawkins, which proves it doesn’t matter when or how you set it off. Just set it off.