For three straight nights following the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, protests raged here in Oakland and throughout the Bay Area. Our communities have been reeling with fury, fear, and frustration.
For many in this historically black, culturally rich, and economically ravaged town, the “system” — the whole damned system — failed to provide an ounce of justice for Trayvon. The verdict’s message to young black and brown men: your lives matter less than those who fear you, and they have a right to kill you if you cross the line. It’s a horrifying and oppressive thought for anyone to hear. It’s even worse to have it sanctified by the courts.
Many see this case is proof-positive of the racial bias of our legal system. For all its vaunted ideals of equal justice before the law, that system now manages to cage 1 million African Americans in prison — out of 2.3 million incarcerated overall in the U.S. Not only are blacks over-represented, they’re imprisoned at nearly six times the rate of whites. If those trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend time in prison during his lifetime, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
It’s this backdrop of systemic racism that stacked the deck against young Trayvon the moment he dared to wander freely in the gated community in Sanford, Florida. And while this particular community was racially diverse, Trayvon was nonetheless profiled as a young, black, loitering, non-property-owner — in other words, a trespasser who didn’t belong. Being the scary trespasser, young Mr. Martin was automatically treated like a criminal by police, instead of Mr. Zimmerman, his assailant.
The fear of “trespassers” and perceived “undesirables” is now fueling a housing boom of gated communities across the U.S. Between 2001 and 2009 alone, our country saw a 53 percent increase in homes built in gated communities, which in 2009 amounted to more than 10 million homes. Author Benjamin Rich, who traveled 27,000 miles between 2007 and 2009 living in predominantly white gated communities across the U.S., summed up his impressions in the New York Times: “Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.”
Indeed, the meteoric rise of all things private — private communities, private security guards, private schools, private parks, private roads, etc. — only contributes to the “us” versus “them” mentality. The privileged get to enclose and insulate themselves from their surroundings — creating a kind of Fortress America — while the rest of us are left to scramble for what’s left, hopefully not getting targeted, profiled, or killed for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. If we’re not careful, our world may one day become filled with ever-higher walls, endless security checkpoints, and a population consumed by fear. Is that the America we want?
Let me be clear: we all deserve safety and security. We all deserve communities where we and our children can flourish to our fullest potential, free of predators, criminals, or others who may wish to do us harm. But by erecting ever more walls, ever more security gates, and ever more barricades, we’re really only denying ourselves our full potential.
It’s time to ungate our communities, both figuratively and literally. Safe and vibrant communities have neighbors who know each other and look out for one another. They have active and proud residents who are involved in local improvement efforts. They’re mixed in income, race, cultural background, and cut across generations. They have homegrown businesses, neighborhood groups, and regular events that bring people together in common cause. And they have plenty of accessible parks, open spaces, and well-trafficked walkways that facilitate interaction, familiarity, and security.
Let’s honor Trayvon’s death by recommitting to building inclusive, welcoming, and resilient communities for us all.