S.C. Authors, S.C. Books

One Dead Black Man — And Many

Killing Trayvons Explores Legacy of Violence

By Rodney Welch
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Kevin Gray
Kevin Gray's new book is Killing Travyons: An Anthology of American Violence. Photo by Jonathan Sharpe

Columbia writer and activist Kevin Gray’s new book is about one dead young black man, and many.

Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence, edited by Gray along with Jeffrey St. Clair and JoAnn Wypijewski, is a factual and critical examination on the 2012 Sanford, Florida, case of a black teenager named Trayvon Martin who was shot by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch chief who claimed Martin attacked him.

On the fact side are extensive police records, a medical examiner’s report, Zimmerman’s lie detector test, the FBI report, the investigation by the Sanford Police Department and extensive documents from the Zimmerman trial.

On the critical side are essays, investigative reports and think pieces by a wide variety of writers, including the late investigative journalist Alexander Cockburn, Dr. Cornel West, Jesse Jackson, social activist bell hooks, rock critic Dave Marsh, poet Rita Dove, the three editors, and many others.

As the title indicates, it’s not just about Trayvon Martin, but the growing number of young black men who wind up dead after a confrontation with powerful white men who have the law on their side.

The 1955 Emmett Till case — on which a 14-year-old boy was lynched by two Mississippi men, who were tried and set free by a jury — is the compelling example from history.

Yet the ink had barely dried on the book when Ferguson, Missouri, provided another example, where an unarmed teenager named Michael Brown was gunned down by a police officer on Aug. 9 for reasons that remain unclear.

Gray cited statistics in the book that a person of color is killed every 28 hours by either a security officer or a person operating under cover of the law.

The threats come from all over.

“You’ve got the war on drugs and racial profiling,” Gray says. “You’ve got police and the rise of militarism by the police force and them believing they are the law instead of enforcing the law, believing that black males in particular are a dangerous animal, and then you have [the] Stand Your Ground [law], that gives citizens the right to act as police.”

Cockburn — co-founder with St. Clair of the left-leaning monthly newsletter CounterPunch, where Gray contributes a monthly column — sets the tone in the first essay, written not long before his death in 2012.

“I’d say the chances of George Zimmerman spending time behind bars for killing Trayvon Martin are about zero,” he writes.

Several writers express concern that the Martin case is one more indication that young black males can be walking targets.

The worry that “someone will look at a black man and deem him to be ‘suspicious,’ and feel justified in killing him, is a threat that only deepens as he grows older,” writes novelist Tayari Jones. “If he is lucky enough to get older.”

NBA player-turned-poet Etan Thomas worries about the world his own 6-year-old son will have to face.

“He has an innocence that I am going to have to ruin for him very shortly,” he writes. “He is still under the impression that everyone will be treated fairly.”

Novelist Jesmyn Ward writes of the verdict exonerating Zimmerman.

“The message was this: your skin and your hair and your blood and your bones are worth nothing,” she writes. “You are worth nothing. The subtext was clear: because you are black, your lives are worth less, as are your deaths.” 

Gray says he and his co-editors looked for the most provocative pieces written on the Martin case. They got a strong response once they sent a query letter out, receiving some 200 pieces. From there, the book mushroomed, tackling the larger issue of being black, and usually male, in America.

Not all the articles are left-of-center — one, by former ACLU vice president Michael Meyers, argues the jury made the right decision in the Zimmerman case.

“The main thing was that they were interesting,” Gray says, “that they said something different, they educated people on race relations so that they could have a better and deeper conversation on race, as opposed to the simple can’t-we-all-just-get-along discussion that we always have.” 

Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of America Violence will be published shortly by CounterPunch Press.

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