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The February death of Trayvon Martin in the US shows the need to address the underlying structures of racism that are embedded in the ideology of a capitalist and imperialist society.

When the news broke about Trayvon Martin - a 17-year-old unarmed African-American youth allegedly murdered by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighbourhood crime watchman in Florida, USA, on 26 February 2012 - I was half way through reading ‘Strange Fruit: the Biography of a Song’ by David Margolick.

‘Strange Fruit’ is the haunting ballad depicting the ritualistic brutal murder of black people otherwise known as lynching by white mobs in the USA’s Deep South. The eloquence and poetic lyrics of this song were written by the Jewish school teacher and communist sympathizer, Abel Meeropol in the late 1930s and first performed by the beautiful 24-year-old Billie Holiday - also known as ‘Lady Day’ in 1939 at New York’s Café Society.

Since then, others have made renditions of that mesmerizing ballad, including Nina Simone, Josh White, Sting, Cassandra Wilson, and many others. It succinctly tells the utterly painful narrative of the history of people of African descent and specifically the cruelties and injustices inflicted by a white racist society on the body of the black male. However, this infliction was not merely physical but also deeply psychological and therefore underpinned how black people behaved, consciously and unconsciously. Whilst black males were predominantly the target of these lynchings, so were black women.

The profound inhumanity of lynchings speaks of the sheer degradation of people of African descent by Europeans; their denial of human worth; the savagery and barbarity of a racist European culture that held itself superior to other cultures and peoples. That is why when Frantz Fanon discovered around 1960 that he had contracted leukemia and was advised by Soviet physicians to seek treatment in Bethesda, Maryland where the best treatment was being carried out, he initially resisted against seeking aid in what he referred to as a ‘nation of lynchers’. Fanon’s remark expresses his profound abhorrence of the practice of lynching, but he would also have been fully aware that he and his European wife, Joséph Dublé, would have been the target of racial animosity expressed towards intra-racial unions in the Deep South, of which Bethesda was a part.

Lynchings were acts of terror inflicted on people of African descent. Living under conditions of terrorism under enslavement and Jim Crow segregation is nowadays unimaginable to many human beings. It is however a brutal aspect of the history of people of African descent that cannot be forgotten on the basis that the lives of people of African descent continue to be expendable. Those racial injustices continue in the 21st century and have their antecedents in history. Therefore as William Faulkner correctly points out: ‘The past is not dead. It is not even past.’

In the USA, methods of lynching black males - apart from the capital punishment that was meted out to Troy Anthony Davis on 21 September 2011 and the other deaths on death throw that received little to no media attention - continue. Shoot to kill policies by the American and British police and the high number of deaths in UK police cells and mental institutions also fail to abate.

Michelle Alexander writes of ‘The New Jim Crow’ in the USA in the form of mass incarceration in her recent book of that same title. There is a direct link between the disproportionate numbers of the 2.5 million incarcerated in the USA being African-American and Latino and racial oppression. Imperialism abroad and racist oppression at home are also inextricably linked for there is no distinction between the alien uncivilized enemy and the dehumanization of people of colour considered lesser human beings at home. The torture of Iraqis that took place in Abu Ghraib in 2003 and the pre-mediated murder of 16 Afghans on 11 March 2012 by Sergeant Robert Bales are symptoms of an imperialist mind-set that deems the ‘other’ as extinguishable and impunity as the order of the day.

In the UK the murder of Mark Duggan on 4 August 2011 sparked the so-called summer ‘riots’ and was preceded by the death of David Emmanuel, more popularly known as Smiley Culture, on 15 March the same year. Since the infamous murder of 18-year-old Stephen Lawrence in April 1993, the Institute of Race Relations reports that in the UK ‘at least ninety-six people have lost their lives to racial violence – an average of five per year.’[1] They also report that between 1978-2009 deaths in police, prison and psychiatric custody of black and Asians (predominantly men) have numbered 175.[2] Since the ‘riots’ the British newspaper, The Guardian (14 January 2012) reported that ‘black people are 30 times more likely than white people to be stopped and searched by police in England and Wales.’ In short, ‘racial profiling’ or the use of section 60 that allows the British police to stop and search individuals without reasonable suspicion has increased since the ‘riots’ of 2011. Ironically, it was this policy that incited the ‘riots’ in the first instance.

In Brazil, the story is no different for black males. ‘A young black teenager in Brazil is nearly three times more likely to die as a result of violence than a white adolescent, a new report has concluded.’[3] On 26 March 2012, 13-year-old Igor Corderio Manhaes was murdered by the Brazilian police in Duque de Caxias, Rio de Janiero.[4]

In the UK a 21-year-old black man by the name of Mauro Demetrio was told by a police officer that ‘the problem with you is you will always be a nigger’. Fortunately for Demetrio he recorded this racial abuse that took place in August 2011. According to The Guardian (2 April 2012): ‘The mobile phone recording captured one officer by the name of PC MacFarlane, saying that he strangled him [i.e. Demetrio"> because he was a “cunt”. Whilst being held in custody Demetrio witnessed another police officer assault a 15-year-old black teenager by kicking him whilst he was on the ground. The two cases are being investigated by the Crown Prosecution Service in London.

Lynchings could be executed for the mere flimsiest of reasons on the say-so of Europeans on the account that blacks had no means of legal redress for they were considered sub-human. Blacks could be lynched for merely being regarded as ‘uppity’ i.e. not knowing their place and being over-confident; for fabricated sexual assault and rape; for looking at a white woman in the wrong way; for consensual sexual relationships between black and white; for looking directly into the eyes of whites; for black economic success during the era of reconstruction when some economically successful blacks in the South owned property that was envied by whites or for acting in a manner deemed to be suspicious, like Trayvon Martin.

George Zimmerman, who hails from a white father and Latina mother, said on the phone to the police that the young 17-year-old Trayvon Martin ‘looks like he’s up to no good. They always get away.’ The young teenager carried no weapon, simply a bag of Skittles (sweets); a bottle of pop and he wore the hood of his tracksuit up because it was raining. Though Zimmerman was told not to follow Martin, he ignored this instruction. He also muttered under his breath ‘fucking coons’. He allegedly killed Trayvon, who was a mere 1001bs in weight compared to Zimmerman’s 250lbs, in self-defence. It is staggering that the Sanford police did not immediately arrest Zimmerman, check his alcohol level or whether he had been under the influence of other drugs at the time of the murder.

Instead Zimmerman was shielded by the ‘stand your ground’ law that allows any citizen to claim use of deadly force wherever he or she feels threatened, without a duty to retreat. The law was first enacted in Florida and has now been adopted by at least 21 states. The law is promoted by the powerful National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Consequently, it appears that both the police and the legal system endorse a pernicious culture of impunity that appears no different from the era of lynchings.

During the era of lynchings in the Deep South (from just after the Civil War in 1866 to the 1940s), many who lived through that period could recall the profound fear that lynchings inculcated in the psyche of black people. The deference and obsequiousness that former enslaved Africans and later freedmen and women, particularly mothers inculcated in their children were part of the survival mechanisms of blacks, for to step out of line could easily lead to death.

In contemporary times, there continues to remain a fear and nervousness among black parents when their children, particularly their male children, are out late at night in some parts of the UK and US. Black parents now have to teach young black males their rights, how to conduct themselves, particularly when they are stopped and searched on the streets in the UK and US by racist police officers.

The murder of Trayvon Martin has been equated with the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in August 1955, who allegedly whistled at a white woman in Mississippi. He was abducted from his uncle’s home, savagely beaten to death and his white killers were eventually acquitted. It seems the death of Trayvon Martin has become a rallying point for progressive organisations in the USA (as was the death of Emmett Till for the Civil Rights Movement), as protest marches and rallies were held in the hometown of Trayvon Martin shortly after his murder as well as in New York, Washington DC and outside the US Embassy in Central London. The successful protests seem to have finally led to the arrest of Zimmerman on 22 April and he is now awaiting a murder trial.

Mobilizing for justice for Trayvon Martin is essential. In addition, the national debate in America over guns, self-defense laws and race relations is imperative. However, what also needs to be done can only be done as part of a mass movement of people who are genuinely prepared to address the underlying structures of racism that are embedded in the ideology of a capitalist and imperialist society that has unfairly imprisoned and killed many people of colour. In other words, the Trayvon Martins of history, the voiceless and those who go unnamed as a result of deplorable and racist murder, will continue unless these structures and the accompanying mindset are radically dismantled and some kind of reparative justice is achieved.

The historical phenomenon of ‘Strange Fruit’ still needs to be told to new generations for the political and economic conditions that produced racism retain their contemporary legacies in the US and across the Atlantic shores in the UK and Europe, for as James Baldwin once said: ‘history is upon our brows’.


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- 96 Murders since Stephen Lawrence Accessed 7/01/2012
- ‘Black Deaths in Custody’
Accessed 08/09/2010
- ‘Study charts Brazil youth murders
Accessed 09/04/2012
- See ‘Black Women of Brazil’,
Accessed 08/04/2012
- 96 Murders since Stephen Lawrence,
Accessed 7/01/2012
- ‘Black Deaths in Custody’
Accessed 08/09/2010
- ‘Study charts Brazil youth murders
Accessed 09/04/2012
- See ‘Black Women of Brazil’,
Accessed 08/04/2012