by Stewart Alexander
During the spring of 1986, while living in Tampa, Florida, I had a clear sense of the meaning of “living on the other side of the tracks.” As I traveled the streets throughout Tampa, the black communities were very similar to the thousands of black communities across America; poverty and young people out of work could be seen from one black community to another.
It was also a common scene that young blacks were being detained by cops, having to sit on street curbs or sitting in the back seats of patrol units being transported to jail. There was always a strong police presence in the black communities; it was something that was taken for granted. It was very obvious that a line was being crossed, going from the white communities into the black communities.
During that same year, I worked as a political activist with the Florida Consumer Action Network (F-CAN). As a political activist, I routinely did door-to-door canvassing, did fund raising and lobbying in the Florida state capital, Tallahassee. The door-to-door canvassing was always during the evening hours; we would canvass neighborhoods, five or six canvassers working different streets in each neighborhood.
One evening, my group supervisor assigned me to work several blocks in an area of St Petersburg, Florida; across the bay from Tampa. I had my assignment to canvass approximately 100 doors, to share information what F-CAN was doing to protect the state’s environment, and at the same time to solicit funds to help continue the operations of the organization. Similar to all the neighbors that I canvassed, it was an all white community.
One night in particular, I will always remember. It was approximately 8:00 p.m. and I was nearing the completion of my route. With clipboard in hand and identification, I walked up the steps to the house and knocked on the door. As the door open and to my surprise, I was angrily greeted by a middle age white male holding a hand gun by his side. In anger, the man asked what was I doing at his door at that time of night. Trying to remain calm, I explain that I worked with the Florida Consumer Action Network, a Florida consumer activist organization.
No matter what I did to address his concerns and fears, nothing seemed to calm the man down. Finally, I suggested that I would be leaving; he then said I wasn’t going anywhere. Still with his gun in hand, the man said he was going to call the police, I told him I would wait there for the police. He then ordered his wife to call the police. It took approximately 15 minutes for the police to arrive and during that time the man tried to engage me in some talk. I remained absolutely silent until the police arrived.
Once the police arrived, I demanded that the man be arrested. The two police officers interviewed us separately. The police officer questioned me regarding my activities and work and was satisfied. Later, both police officers told me that the man was wrong and was nervous about my standing at his door, saying that he over reacted seeing a black man at his door. However, both police officers requested that I not file any charges and the matter was dropped.
I was fortunate that I lived through that chance encounter; however, Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black teen, was not so fortunate. On the evening of February 26, 2012, Martin went to a convenience store to purchase some candy and a drink. As Trayvon was leaving the store, George Zimmerman spotted Trayvon and began following the young teen. George Zimmerman, a “neighborhood crime watch” member, called the Sanford police, reporting Trayvon as a suspicious individual; however, against police department instructions, Zimmerman continued to pursue Trayvon. Shortly after the report, an altercation occurred and Trayvon Martin was shot in the chest and killed.
George Zimmerman claimed that he acted in self-defense and was in fear for his life; however, he was charged with Martin’s death. The case received national attention in the mainstream media and over the social media; the Zimmerman case placed a spotlight on how justice in America is not color blind.
Zimmerman’s case was built on the principle of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law and in deliberation, his defense stated that “Zimmerman had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so.” On June 10, 2013, Zimmerman’s trial began, and on July 13, a jury acquitted him of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges.
Over the past 150 years, it is evident that law enforcement, laws and the American judicial system are completely based upon the old Jim Crow Laws that were enacted between 1876 and 1964. The Jim Crow Laws were based upon the notion of separate but equal. However, the laws and the enforcement of those laws were not even close to being equal, and the enforcement of the Jim Crow Laws led to conditions of blacks being treated as inferior to whites in society.
Today, 22 states have adopted similar laws to Florida’s “stand your ground.” There are many gray areas regarding the “stand your ground” laws. There are still many gray areas regarding the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. Was it another example of how the laws in America are unfairly applied to blacks v. whites? Is the American judicial system based upon class? In another Florida case, based upon the “stand your ground” law, why was Marissa Alexander, a young black mother, sentenced to 20 years in a Florida state prison for standing her ground against domestic spousal abuse?
Today, it is obvious that nearly all 50 states have found a new tool to enforce the old Jim Crow Laws. As a nation, we have move into a downward spiral and into another phase of apartheid in America where the gains for black have been set back more than 100 years. Let’s hope that the new trial for Marissa Alexander will mark a new beginning to reverse this slide and offer a bit of redemption for the death of Trayvon Martin.
Stewart Alexander is a longtime activist and has run several electoral campaigns Mayor of Los Angeles in 1999, California Lieutenant Governor in 2006, Vice President in 2008 and President in 2011. Stewart is an at-large member of the Socialist Party and lives in Murrieta, California with his wife.