From the violence experienced by youth, to the imbedded racial discrimination experienced by people of color in the trial court system, to the obsession of the construction of whiteness around Zimmerman who in the end killed a young innocent man—there are so many powers at play in this case, and so many things to say. But I want to focus on what themes have been springing out from the dreadful case that are connecting to the work I seek to do with my own experience as a planner in training, but also as a woman of color deeply involved and in youth organizing, environmental and restorative justice, and community. The Missing Link of Transformative Love
Some of the people that I look to when working as a planner and as a community member are my sisters and guides whose wisdom I access through books: the radical feminists of color, in particular Professor of English and activist bell hooks who posted a response. In her acclaimed book, All About Love, hooks writes:
“The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety… The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally.
White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor…. This is what the worship of death looks like.”
This excerpt alone could have been a response to the Trayvon Martin case outcome where hooks describes how youth, particularly young men of color, are seen as a threat. Unlawful and devoid of humanity through their criminalization, young men of color are then subject to the racialized systemic violence and discrimination due to deeply ingrained societal racism. She also links the environment in which we live, the social and concrete ecosystem of place and space that make up the violence and the social understanding of what it means to be black and dangerous.
Her response to this phenomenon is that of transformative love, how the power of love can transform communities, socially and physically. Some people look at the matter of love as something of a subjective nature, something that is not objective. Similarly, some might underestimate this blog piece and deem it as a mere social science theory. But as a planner, I have to look at its application in the real world. Transformative love to me is not as theoretical as it seems; in fact, it can only be reached through simple and practical applications such as engaging in real conversations with each other.
The reason Trayvon Martin died is because we, as a society, do not communicate. We need to invest in one another. One group’s equality must be invested in another group in order for us to move forward to better cities, better schools and a better environment. I believe our society can no longer afford to leave some groups struggling, while others enjoy economic, social and physical protection. As hooks explains in her last sentences, justice itself is wrapped up in the love of human dignity. I think this is something that we have lost as the Trayvon Martin Case/Zimmerman acquittal becomes more and debated and sensationalized.
Trayvon’s life may have been like any other urban kid’s experience. Surrounded by poverty and stricken by lack of opportunity, young people like Trayvon Martin are harassed and need to defend themselves. These conditions often result in the murder of such young men. Trayvon Martin’s murder is the loss of a life, but it is also the loss of an opportunity for the entire world to see what young people like Trayvon can offer. What worldly perspectives, what deep insight on poverty, resilience, love, dedication, problem-solving and ingenuity can the strong and creative minds of our youth offer? And, most importantly, at what rate and at what cost are we losing them, especially our youth of color?
Roses from Concrete: What Makes Up the Concrete
Another idea that has been circulating the blogosphere and social media outlets has been that of Brooklyn-based black feminist scholar and activist Syreeta McFadden: “Only in America can a young black boy have to go to trial for his own death.” Not only can a black boy go to trial after his death, but it is only after he dies that his life is recognized as a life—or that his life can make it to the big screen. From Rodney King to Oscar Grant—America is familiar to stories like these. However, what about other deaths in our neighborhoods, the deaths of the urban poor?
I ask these questions because it is clear that black and brown bodies are not only unsafe in white spaces, but that the very spaces where poor people of color have grown up and that they have sustained are terrorized with hyper police-reinforcement, low health outcomes, and very little opportunity for educational success. These questions are part of the death sentence killing youth of color and they are also part of the work that comes with the privilege to plan cities. However, these are also the questions that have very little room in planning classrooms or in commission meetings.
Lastly, let us not mistake the murder of Trayvon Martin as an act of an individual; rather it was an entire system that killed Trayvon. As many of us mourn this loss, I think of the families of fallen heroes, of these roses from concrete. However, this cannot paralyze us. Let us honor the lives of these young people by actively creating avenues for transformational love that can change the way cities function and the way historically marginalized people live. Let us create new planning approaches, so that their environments and life outcomes can match the dignity of their lives.
Mar Vélez is a master’s student in both the Department of City and Regional Planning and School of Public Health at UC Berkeley. She is currently interning with the Pacific Institute and working along side Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) in Oakland on issues of health, gentrification, gang injunctions and popular education methods for participatory planning strategies for sustainable communities. Yes, all these things are related. She can explain how if you reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.