When There is No Justice, There is Just Us: concrete actions to address the Zimmerman verdict at the family, workplace, and community levels

Where were you when the Zimmerman verdict came out?  Were you stunned, outraged, numb?  Were you in a position to process its significance with people in your community?  Did you have an opportunity to mourn for Trayvon Martin's family and for black and brown-skinned youth who are being told their lives don’t matter here?

I found out while I was on my way to see the movie, Fruitvale Station.  I was stunned and yet strangely grateful for the timing.  The movie gives us a window into the life of Oscar Grant, another young African-American man shot and killed by a white man who, like Zimmerman, was favored by the courts.  Besides the opportunity to reflect on the undeniable racism that plagues our “justice” system, watching Fruitvale Station on the night of the Zimmerman verdict gave us a chance to weep. 

Sobs tinged with rage and heavy with sorrow filled the theater.  We wept for Oscar Grant, a young father whose love for his daughter was beginning to transform his life when he was shot in the back by BART police.  We wept for Trayvon Martin, who at 17-years-old was profiled, stalked and shot dead by an openly racist neighborhood watchman.  We wept for all the families who have lost their babies to court-sanctioned murder.  And we wept for a country that feeds on it’s young. 

Zimmerman’s acquittal is just a symptom of an insidious disease plaguing this country.  And like most diseases, we don’t like talking about white supremacy and the supreme devaluing of human life that comes with it.  And like most symptoms of disease, the Zimmerman verdict presents a supreme opportunity for us to rethink old patterns and choose new ways forward.

When there is no justice, there is just us.  I don’t know who first coined that axiom, but it points us directly at the blessing hidden within times of grave injustice.  These are the most powerful moments for us to come together to build alternatives, to have real conversations about the state of the world and the world we stand to create.

Let us all use this verdict as a springboard into the next level of our social engagement to create the world we want to live in.

Whether it is weeping together in a movie theater, protesting together in the streets, or strategizing together around how we can build a country where every young person knows his life is valued, we are all we’ve got.

The following are concrete suggestions for Facilitating Power to move forward from the Zimmerman verdict...

With Family:

We often underestimate how powerful our families are.  Sometimes, we are so caught up in the daily tasks of getting by, we forget we can draw strength, analysis and insights for social transformation from thoughtful interactions with the people closest to us.

Whether with your blood family or the people you have chosen as family, hold an informal meeting to discuss the Zimmerman verdict and what it means to the different people around the table.  Start by sharing what knowledge you have, making sure the young people in your family understand the case.   Then, identify what questions you all have.  Decide who will research answers and report back.

To take it further, decide on one collective action you and your family members will take to voice your feelings and opinions about the verdict publicly.  It could be as heartfelt as a letter from your family to the family of Trayvon Martin offering your condolences and solidarity.  And it could be as strategic as finding out what organizations in your area are organizing to end court-sanctioned murder to see how you can get involved.  Whatever you decide to do, start first with a brainstorm to get several ideas out and then discuss which one you can all get behind.  

If there are differing viewpoints in your family, don't worry.  That's what family is all about, right?  --learning how to overcome and respect differences.  The trick is: not having to be right.  Focus on hearing each other and learning from your different perspectives.  The more respect we show for each other's opinions, the more willing we are to listen to each other.  AND if there is no way to agree on a collective action - that's okay too.  Do your best and take action with whoever is willing (which might just be you).

Other ideas with family:

  • Go together to see the movie, Fruitvale Station.  Afterwards, have a discussion about the movie and how Oscar Grant's story is connected to that of Trayvon Martin.
  • Work together to make signs expressing your feelings about the case and take a family photo holding your signs.  Post it to Facebook.  

At work:

Obviously, how you engage people at work totally depends on your work environment.  Some situations may not offer much opportunity to discuss the verdict and decide on collective actions, while other may be super ripe for getting together.  It's up to you to see what you think is possible and then push a little further than that for some potential breakthrough.  For example, if you think there is no possibility whatsoever, push yourself to talk to at least one other person at work.. just asking them what they thought of the verdict.  Don't judge them if they think differently from you and don't argue against what they say.  Simply listen and reflect back what you are hearing.  Then, share your own thoughts.  

If there is more opportunity for dialogue at your workplace, offer to host a dialogue about the verdict.  You may need to get permission from a supervisor.  Following whatever necessary protocol, invite your co-workers to discuss the verdict and its implications.  What you want to avoid is inviting your co-workers to listen you talk.  Start the discussion by giving a very brief introduction thanking them for caring enough to be there and letting them know why you were motivated to organize the talk. Then open it up with a prompt for everyone to speak to:  What was your reaction to the verdict and what if any ramifications does it have for you, your family, your community?  Affirm that this is a safe space, that people may not all agree and that no one will be attacked or judged for their beliefs.  If someone makes a blatant or passive racist comment, do not "take them on."  Name the racism and acknowledge that our country is plagued by racist assumptions.  I then recommend making a request to Human Resources that your workplace bring in an outside facilitator to help the staff see and address issues related to race, class and privilege.  Always remember that racism is about ignorance, not about being inherently bad.  The more compassion you demonstrate, the more open people will be to learning.

Once everyone has had a chance to speak, ask the group if they'd like to take some small action together to begin creating a world where all people feel safe and valued.  Acknowledge the power of small simple actions.  If your workplace serves youth of color or in any way is affected by the verdict, consider actions that are about supporting the staff to best respond to the issue.

The main point here is starting to see the work place and your co-workers as part of your community with whom you can take action for the transformation of our society, no matter how small the steps.

Additional ideas at work:

  • Start a study group dedicated to understanding profiling and/or the injustices of the US court system
  • Send out an article about the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case from a credible source that helps co-workers understand the issue
  • Work with the leadership of your workplace to send out a public statement about the case (if appropriate).  Here is a link to the statement sent out by the American Federation of Teachers: https://www.aft.org/newspubs/press/2013/071413.cfm

In the community:

'Community' means different things to different people.  What's needed is that we focus on cultivating community where ever and whenever we can.  You may define community by your ethnicity, getting together with others from your cultural background.  You may define community by those who have similar interests like the biking community, or comic book lovers.  Or you may define your community by your neighborhood.  However you define it, communities are made up of people who are connected to each other and who provide support to each other in some way.  

When we face crises and tragedies, we are much more equipped to move forward if we have community.  This is why groups like HUB Oakland are collaborating with other community-based organizations to host events like, "Pathways2Justice: Session 1" in respond to the Zimmerman verdict.  They are using their collective reach to bring Oakland-based community members together to generate strategies for justice.  This is how we build the power necessary to create real change.

If you are wondering how to get involved at the community level, the first step is to research what organizations are already active about the issue.  Maybe there is one, like your local chapter of the NAACP or a CBO dedicated to ending profiling that you could directly plug into.  Maybe there are none.  If there are none, think about which community based groups would/could be active in some way around this issue.  Your local high school, library, boys and girls club, a faith-based group, or neighborhood association, etc.

Approach one or more of these groups about co-hosting a community dialogue about the verdict and it's implications for your community.  Again, create a safe space for diverse opinions.  Emphasize the importance of coming together to prevent needless deaths, to make sure all kids feel safe and valued in our community.  Bringing together multiple community stakeholders builds power and increases the likelihood of making a real change.  

Additional ideas in the community:

  • Work with community groups to pass a community ordinance against profiling, against 'stand your ground' type laws, etc.  Or an ordinance focused on ensuring all people in your community feel safe and valued.
  • Invite your neighbors to a house meeting to share information about the verdict and it's ramifications.  Make it a potluck and emphasize the importance of community solidarity and inclusiveness.  Discuss what it would take to make sure people don't feel threatened in your neighborhood.  
  • Work with your neighborhood watch to identify what went wrong in the way Zimmerman used his authority as a neighborhood watchman and what your neighborhood watch can do differently to make sure the neighborhood is safe without wrongly profiling young people of color.
  • Work together with community members to create a series of poster expressing the rights of all young people to feel safe a valued.
  • Build a small team to research and post facts about the connection with racial profiling and mass incarceration.  Identify ways you can take action as a community to challenge the mass incarceration and brutality against African-Americans, Latinos, and poor people. 
  • Create a study/action group dedicated to understanding the role of white supremacy in the US "justice" system.  Commit to concrete actions to break down white supremacy in your community, especially if you are white!  Here is a great toolkit to get started: http://colorlines.com/archives/2013/07/a_justice_for_trayvon_toolkit_for_white_allies.html

Turning towards each other, we can turn this tragedy into a chance for social transformation.  That's what Facilitating Power is all about.

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