The tragic death of Trayvon Martin has ignited a firestorm of emotion across the country, in the African-American community and beyond. At the heart of the case are centuries-old ideologies about black masculinity and white fear.
Recently, a group named the New Black Panther Party offered $10,000 to anyone who makes a citizen's arrest of George Zimmerman, the white Hispanic man who admittedly shot the 17-year-old Martin on the night of Feb. 26 in Sanford, Fla.
Despite apparent evidence that the Sanford police were negligent in the handling of the case, they appear to be attempting to regain a forfeited moral high ground.
"The city of Sanford does not condone the actions and recommendations of the New Black Panther Party," officials said in a statement (pdf). "Attempts by civilians to take any person into custody may result in criminal charges or unnecessary violence."
This statement offers insight into the death of Martin, the response of the police at the scene and an antiquated, discriminatory mindset that requires addressing now. If the Sanford police had exercised an equally balanced reaction to Zimmerman, as expressed in the statement to the New Black Panthers, Zimmerman would be behind bars today.
How can police sanction vigilante justice in the name of self-defense by Zimmerman against an unarmed child but condemn a response of "perceived" vigilante justice by the New Black Panthers? The double standard inherent in this inequitable response is solely defined by race.
Too often in American society, the very potential for black aggression is immediately met with force and an admonishment to use caution and temperance. But Zimmerman is excused for being rash, unreasonable and violent. How is that acceptable in a supposedly colorblind society? And then upheld by the law-enforcement apparatus?
The Orlando Sentinel reports that the New Black Panther Party's call for a citizen's arrest led law enforcement to consider taking steps to protect Zimmerman and his family. That very consideration is an example of cognitive dissonance. Why are Zimmerman and his family deserving of more protection than a child walking home with Skittles and an iced tea?
Politicians, pundits and community leaders alike have expressed discontent with the methods of the New Black Panthers. Originally their quest was described as a "bounty" on Zimmerman's head. A spokesman for the party has since clarified its intent not to use violence at all but simply to act as responsible citizens.
Regardless of the veracity of the New Black Panther Party's intent, actions or statements, the truth remains that vigilante justice is excused for white people in America but never for blacks. In fact, just days after the statement, Hasim Nzinga, a 49-year-old leader of the Panthers, was arrested on gun charges. This is in stark contrast to Zimmerman who, more than a month following Trayvon's death, remains free and uncharged.
The Ku Klux Klan committed violent offenses for more than a century and hardly ever facing prosecution. But black men are swiftly arrested for nonviolent offenses every day.
Martin, as described by Zimmerman in the 911 tapes, was "suspicious." Why? Because, as Zimmerman claimed, he was "a black male." Despite the suggestion of the lead investigator on the scene to charge Zimmerman with homicide and unintentional manslaughter, the police officers at the station chose to overrule that decision and let Zimmerman walk.
In what universe does this happen?
Sanford issued a press release "requesting calm heads and no vigilante justice" in response to the Panthers. But vigilante activity has already occurred, the most direct result being the death of Martin, who, according to his English teacher was an "A and B student who majored in cheerfulness."
The double standards around race in general and black masculinity in particular are deeply entrenched in old racial codes that have been reinforced by Hollywood, media images and false metanarratives for decades. But when they are reinforced in the 21st century, under the tenure of the nation's first African-American president, a more critical examination is necessary.
The Sanford police's response to the shooting death reveals a prejudicial attitude and disregard for the life of young black men. And their response to the New Black Panther Party underscores an equally problematic approach to recompense and justice.
Disagreement with the methods of the Panthers aside, reasonable minds can appreciate the point being made in calling for Zimmerman's arrest — by civilians or authorities. Isn't that the very least that should have occurred when Martin was killed?
Amadou Diallo's brutal death on Feb. 4, 1999 — just a day before Trayvon Martin's birthday — ignited what then-president Bill Clinton called a "national dialogue on race." Diallo, a Guinean immigrant, was killed after four plain-clothed officers fired 41 shots, though he himself was unarmed and had simply reached for his wallet. The officers were all acquitted. It seems America is in desperate need of more than a "dialogue" on race, but a moratorium on gun violence, racial profiling and the double standards inherent in our sociopolitical construct that correlates black male identity with criminality. When simply having brown skin while walking becomes a crime, then Jim Crow isn't a thing of the past — it is a reality of 21st-century life.
And when the very call for justice by black people becomes an arrestable offense, then the concept that African Americans have "no rights which the white man was bound to respect" is reinforced, undermining the principles articulated by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Tea Party activists attend rallies with guns openly displayed while marches for justice by African Americans are required to be nonviolent, yet garner significant police presence to ensure order.
The Sanford authorities have blatantly — though unintentionally — revealed why federal oversight is needed in this investigation. The hypocrisy expressed in their statement critiquing the New Black Panthers is in direct opposition to their actions on the night of Martin's death.
The problem with Zimmerman's behavior and the police department's failure to adequately investigate, detain and arraign is that such a failure sanctioned the very actions the police now claim to abhor.
Had they answered Zimmerman with the response given to the Panthers, no need for consideration of "race" as a factor in law enforcement's role would be necessary. Instead, police discarded the civil rights of an innocent child — at the word of a man with a criminal record — and by doing so engendered the very tactics of vigilantism against which they now claim to guard.
To sanction vigilante justice in one instance is to open the door to unbridled violence in another. Without acknowledgment of that truth, there can be no justice.
Edward Wyckoff Williams is a contributing editor at The Root. He is a columnist and political analyst, appearing on Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, ABC, CBS Washington and national syndicated radio. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.