We Fight Together


Today, especially today, I needed a reminder that I am not alone. It has been a difficult and disheartening few weeks on the civil rights front at home… attacks on women’s health, attacks on women in general, the invalidation of the Voting Rights Act, and case against George Zimmerman for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

The video above, a speech given by 16-year-old Malala Yousafzai to the United Nations about courage, equality, and the importance of education restored some of my temporarily lost hope that progress can be achieved in spite of tragedies through collective action. My admiration for Malala stands alone in hearing her speech, but her history highlights the enormous capacity of human beings for compassion and wisdom. At age 11, Malala began a diary about her experience living under Taliban rule in her home district, the Swat Valley of Pakistan, which appeared first on BBC Urdu and can be read in full in English on the BBC website. At age 14, Malala and two of her school friends were attacked by a member of the Taliban in October of 2012. Malala was targeted, attacked, and survived a gun shot to the head for speaking out against the Taliban’s ban on women’s education publicly. In her UN address she voices her steadfast mission to promote access to education for all children and even compassion toward those who terrorized her. It is incredible, inspiring, and heartening (though all of these words feel like vast understatements) so I will share a few of her own words:

“Dear friends, on the 9th of October, 2012 the Taliban shot me on the left side of my forehead.  They shot my friends too.  They thought that the bullet would silence us, but they failed. And out of the silence came thousands of voices.   The terrorists thought that they would change our aims and stop our ambitions but nothing changed in my life except this: Weakness, fear, and hopelessness died. Strength, power, and courage was born.”

As Americans, we tend to otherize problems of violence such as the attempted assassination of a young girl by the Taliban as a “far away” problem, removed from the comfort of the first world. Today, the distinction between atrocities in the U.S. and “abroad” do not feel remotely applicable or acceptable considering the not guilty verdict rendered in the case of George Zimmerman two nights ago. I accept that all involved in the court proceedings, in accordance with the law, did not convict Zimmerman as guilty of murder. However, outside the legal system and in the society of “lay people” who are to operate in accordance with the law it is difficult to make sense of this verdict: a young boy was shot to death by a grown man and no one is held responsible legally. I’ll say that one more time. Say it out loud or in your head. A young boy was shot to death by a grown man and no one is held responsible. I cannot find the justice in that statement.

We live in a society in which racism undoubtedly exists, but does not follow the letter of the law. There are no laws preventing anyone from thinking or expressing racist/homophobic/misogynistic/discriminatory attitudes, nor am I advocating that there should be any such laws. There are no laws that provide boundaries by which human beings should abide in regards to these prejudices, such as following a person who one deems “threatening” or simply assuming that people of color are criminals. But these thoughts, feelings, and beliefs matter when action is taken. Preconceived notions about black people were undoubtedly a factor in Trayvon Martin’s murder, but there is no legal recourse for this prejudice even when it ends in the death of an innocent teenager. Education, which is a U.S. crisis as much as it is an international crisis, is supposed to be the intervening force that promotes the examination of our thoughts, society, and functionality of our systems. And it is failing us.

Without intervening education, racist sentiments are passed down by generation, they are taught silently and overtly, instilled in us from youth, and reinforced by our selective reasoning through the lens of our training and through the institutional treatment of people of color, women, and other oppressed groups.  The deeply held (and conscious) beliefs about skin color, clothing, and ways of walking or simply being drove George Zimmerman’s pursuit and murder of a young, black child. Trayvon Martin was a victim of racism and racist actions. Trayvon was a victim of societal oppression and the potential harm that exists in our thoughts and deeply held fears of others who are different. He is a victim of our ignorance and lack of education around race, criminality, and privilege. The racist beliefs that led to Trayvon’s murder could easily be compared to Malala’s observations of the people who are uneducated fearing the education of women. Ignorance begets ignorance. Education, under the best of circumstances, should teach us how to think critically.

Personally, I am angry and heartbroken. As human beings it is natural to want to place blame on an individual who commits an atrocious act of violence. I feel strongly that George Zimmerman should have been forced to pay a debt to society for his actions. But focusing entirely on George Zimmerman misses the larger potential for learning and progress. What is the collective action that can take place after a tragedy occurs that is fueled by racism, hatred, and fear? Prosecute the perpetrator, yet the verdict rendered leaves me feeling that justice has not been served. What next? Instead of allowing fear and hopelessness about the judgment rule my thoughts and actions, I am making a conscious choice to follow Malala’s example by refusing to be silenced by those who oppose justice and equality, those who say hateful things, or those who deny that racism exists. I will not be calm or complacent about the violence in the world, the oppression that people face daily, or the powerful forces that benefit from silencing the oppressed. I will continue to try to educate those around me about the experience of others and foster progressive, thoughtful action.

Thank you, Malala for reminding me that we are all together in the fight for justice and equality. Thanks to the family of Trayvon Martin who have modeled such compassion and strength as they grieve this devastating tragedy. Thank you, to those of you out there who inspire me to keep fighting.

In the spirit of education, some recommended reading:

Gary Younge, writer and columnist for the Guardian wrote a particularly poignant piece that I recommend reading – Open Season on black boys after a verdict like this.  You can also follow Gary on twitter @garyyounge

I also highly recommend several articles by anti-racism author and educator Tim Wise (@timjacobwise & timwise.org):

Trayvon Martin, White Denial, and the Unacceptable Burden of Blackness in America

Trayvon Martin, White America and the Return of Dred Scott

Wise’s post-verdict piece at the Huffington Post Black Voices: Racism, Injustice and Explaining America to my Daughter

If you would like to support or learn more about The Trayvon Martin Foundation, visit http://trayvonmartinfoundation.org/

To learn about and support Malala’s efforts and education for young women globally, visit The Malala Fund at Vital Voices Global Partnership: http://www.vitalvoices.org/