On Trayvon Martin, Michael Donald, and “The Last Lynching in America”

You’ve probably heard by now about the Feb. 28 death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black Florida boy who was shot to death by 28-year-old Hispanic neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman (Zimmerman has admitted pulling the trigger) for reasons Zimmerman and the local police are calling “self-defense” but that look a whole lot like racism.

Despite the release of a 911 call in which dispatchers can be heard telling Zimmerman not to pursue Martin, Zimmerman informing dispatchers he was in pursuit anyway, and Martin pleading for his life, Zimmerman has, as of today (Mar. 19), not been arrested or charged with any crime.   (The 911 call audio is available online, but out of respect for Trayvon Martin, his family, and my own heartbreak, I will not link it here.)

There’s a lot here that has to do with Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and how the legal argument for self-defense works under it.  And I am a lawyer.  But this isn’t a law blog, and I’m not going to talk about that law.  This is a book blog, and I’m going to talk about a book.  

Some months back, I reviewed B.J. Hollars’ Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America for Shelf Awareness.  The book focuses on the death of 19-year-old Michael Donald, who was killed in Mobile, Alabama in 1981.  Hollars makes the argument that Donald’s was “the last lynching in America.” Not in the sense that black people have not continued to be killed by non-black people in the name of racism – because holy crap does that seem to keep happening – but because, in the early 1980s, we stopped framing the killing of black people by white people in the name of racism as “lynching” and started re-framing it as “hate crimes.”

And I was thinking about this over my lunch today, and I said to myself this: same @(*#(, different century.  And then, appalled that I was having to do it at all in twenty @*(#(ing twelve, I wrote this:

(click through for full size)

For those who can’t see the photo or read my chicken scratch, this is my lunchtime outline of the grim parallels between the “last lynching in America” in 1981 and the death of Trayvon Martin in 2012. It makes the following comparisons:

1. Trayvon Martin: black, age 17.
1. Michael Donald: black, age 19.

2. Trayvon Martin: walking home from convenience store with Skittles, can of iced tea.
2. Michael Donald: walking home from convenience store with cigarettes.

3. Trayvon Martin: wearing jeans, hoodie.
3. Michael Donald: wearing jeans, hoodie.

4. Trayvon Martin: pursued by George Zimmerman (age 28), white/Hispanic neighborhood watch guy, despite explicit orders from police dispatcher not to do so
4. Michael Donald: pursued by Henry Hays (age 26) and James “Tiger” Knowles (age 17), white neighborhood KKK members, despite explicit knowledge that hunting black people for funsies is illegal.

5. Trayvon Martin: George Zimmerman had violent criminal record. Trayvon Martin had no criminal record, remembered as good student, generally cheerful.
5. Michael Donald: Henry Hays had violent criminal record; James Knowles had likely mental disability. Michael Donald had no criminal record, remembered as good student, generally cheerful.

6. Trayvon Martin: Shot to death while pleading for his life.
6. Michael Donald: Beaten to death while pleading for his life.

7. Trayvon Martin: George Zimmerman admitted firing fatal shot, claimed “self-defense.” No arrest or charge as of March 19, 2012, nearly a month after Martin’s death.
7. Michael Donald: Henry Hays and James Knowles arrested over two years after Donald’s death.  Both eventually convicted of murder; Knowles confessed. Hays executed by the state in 1997; Knowles received life in prison. The KKK was found liable for wrongful death in a case brought by the SPLC on behalf of Donald’s mother.

Let me repeat, for the record: thirty-one years after “the last lynching in America,” I just outlined a crime fundamentally identical to “the last lynching in America.” 

I’m not saying that Hollars is full of it; in fact, I recommend Thirteen Loops now more than ever, if you want a well-written and well-researched in-depth look at how we got here.  I am saying that there is something deeply saddening and furiously enraging about the fact that we are still here, after thirty-one years and the dawn of a new century.

I don’t have words.  I realize how deeply important it is to have words, especially now, especially for me; words are my stock-in-trade, the only real power I personally possess.  And I don’t have them.

So I’ll leave you with this, from the Crunk Feminist Collective:

If this were 1912 and not 2012, we would call a Black man killed by a one-man firing squad with no just cause what it is: a lynching. These days, we search for euphemisms.

Self-defense. That feels so inadequate.

I mean, whose selves really need defending if it is Black selves—primarily Black male selves—that keep being murdered?

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About Dani Alexis

Dani Alexis is the Legal Coordinator at Autonomous Press as well as a freelance writer. When she's not working, she coaches winterguard and waits on the whims of two spoiled cats. Check out her most recent work by subscribing to her Patreon: http://www.patreon.com/noncompliantspace.
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One Response to On Trayvon Martin, Michael Donald, and “The Last Lynching in America”

  1. Sean McCann says:

    Bravo, Dani!
    This is excellent. Believe it or not, I discovered this article while investigating an instruction of yours on covering books!

    Via this strange avenue, I have been informed of a travesty of justice that I would have otherwise been unaware of. This is sickening. Why was this fool George Zimmerman allowed to roam the neighborhood armed, given free reign by local law enforcement?

    Not only should Zimmerman be locked up, but local authorities who allowed this dimwit to roam the streets in a position of authority should be held accountable.

    Thank you for keeping myself and the book-reading public informed.

    Sean McCann

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