The unheard story of Trayvon Martin

To use the media cliché, it could be that we never know what really happened when George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, but as with any case that attracts such widespread publicity, the telling of the story becomes highly selective.  In the aftermath of Zimmerman’s acquittal, I was reminded of this excellent article from the Washington Post that I read while in the US last month.  Dan Zak goes beyond the rhetoric of court room drama to tell a much more complex story in which – inevitably – housing features as part of a wider series of issues that make the Martin case an American parable and a UK warning.

The Martin case became a cause celebre because it presses hard on America’s sore spot – ‘race’, or more precisely, the relationships between ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ (it’s an unfortunate consequence of writing about this subject that it entails the use of meaningless labels).  All the features are there:  colonisation, the Deep South, the legacy of slavery, segregation, poverty, fear, lethal violence – and a housing system that is historically racist and continues to reinforce socio-economic and spatial discrimination.

As the usually not too bad Channel 4 Washington correspondent Matt Frei said last night, the key question that African-Americans and anti-racist campaigners will be asking themselves today is, what would have happened if the positions were reversed and Martin had shot Zimmerman, but actually, we know the answer.  The highly disproportionate application of criminal justice in the US, ranging from routine policing to application of the death penalty, means that a young black man accused of killing a ‘white’ man would almost certainly be convicted, sent to prison and not released for a long time, if ever.  The fact that Zimmerman is half Hispanic further complicates the racial badges, but given his assumed status as a righteous protector of private property, the case has not been treated as a ‘black on black’ crime which, as Zak’s article points out, would have elicited a very different response.

But what makes the Washington Post article worth reading is the context it provides to the place where Martin was killed, a town/city deeply inscribed with the separation of people according to skin colour and wealth, embodied by a public housing project, the sum of all fears for many Americans.  Dan Zak suggests that the loss of 483 affordable homes has destabilised the local community and contributed to some of the tensions that collided when Martin met Zimmerman, in particular the displacement of public housing tenants who, in an ironic twist, appear to have been rehoused in the type of gated communities that are emblematic of US aspiration, inequality and paranoia, but which have become substantially devalued since the 2008 crash.

In a school-masterish way, I’m hoping that readers are picking up the undertones of similarity between the root causes of the Martin case and the convergence of US and UK housing policy that has long been my lament.  The US public housing programme has been decimated in recent years, but like council housing, has been a policy whipping boy for decades, fueling the stigmatisation that might have contributed to Trayvon Martin’s death.  Pressures on low-income American families, particularly those on welfare, are increasing, leading to a breakdown of family and kinship networks as the search for a decent, affordable, secure home becomes a new trail of tears, exploited by State-sponsored speculative housing investment that nurtures fear and loathing.

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