“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”–James Baldwin
As the trial of George Zimmerman came to an end, I began to hear a troubling refrain, “keep calm.” In anticipation of a “not guilty” verdict, those who might be upset by the verdict were implicitly and explicitly asked to abstain from violence.
Perhaps, it is understandable that authorities in Sanford, Florida, where both the shooting and the trial took place, feared the reaction of the crowd outside the courthouse. The Sanford police chief and the Seminole County sheriff made a joint appearance and issued a statement. Sheriff Don Eslinger declared, “We will not tolerate anyone who uses this verdict as an excuse to violate the law.”
However, the pleas for calm were not only from Seminole County. The Kansas City Star (Missouri) reported that both the mayor and the police chief wrote blogs in which they urged the public to “remain calm” and “work together to quell any disturbances.” In fact, it seemed as if the whole country was getting an admonishment when President Obama issued a statement the day after the trial. He asked Americans to engage in “calm reflection,” emphasizing that “we are a nation of laws” and that “we” must respect the jury’s verdict.
But I knew that this was a very specific message to black communities when I read the tweets from civil rights activist and Rainbow/PUSH founder, Rev. Jesse Jackson. In tweets from July 12 through 14, he urged people to “avoid violence” because it would only “compound our pain with street justice.” A tweet from Howard Rambsy II, director of Black Studies at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, confirmed that I was on the right track with my analysis. On July 14, he wrote, “From the African American Leader Handbook, Rule #1: Tell black people to remain calm. Rule #2: See Rule #1.”
I was angered, though not surprised, by the verdict. There is nothing wrong with being angry, being outraged even. Trayvon Benjamin Martin, a teenager who took a walk to a convenience store, was targeted for “walking while black” and is now dead. The person who killed him was acquitted. Shouldn’t I/we be angry at this pointless violence and loss of life. After he was killed, people raised their voices in protest, organized, marched, petitioned and wrote to keep the memory of Martin alive and demand justice. Many African Americans could relate to this case because they or someone they knew had been pulled over, stopped, frisked, or questioned by “authorities” when simply minding their own business. Thus, a guilty verdict was not only important for Trayvon Martin’s family but also for the larger black community by extension. The paternalistic advice to “keep calm” plays into stereotypes of African-Americans as the likely perpetrators of violence. Now, isn’t that racial profiling?