Kevin Powell on Trayvon Martin and Racism in America


As anger grows nationwide over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, many in New York have continued to mobilize and speak out against the unarmed teen’s death.

Kevin Powell, an activist, Guardian* columnist, and one-time Congressional candidate, is one of several advocates in the city leading the call for George Zimmerman’s arrest and a repeal of the stand your ground laws enacted in 20 states.

Powell took the time to chat with Runnin’ Scared about Trayvon Martin, and what the tragedy means for young, black men in America and the general state of civil rights the U.S.

Runnin’ Scared: You organized a rally for Trayvon Martin last night, at Brooklyn’s House of the Lord Church. What was the mood at the event?

Kevin Powell: It was so packed that we actually had to shut the doors. We filled up the main room and the balcony and the extra room. There was such an outpouring of support and grief. We wanted to have a space for the community. We also talked about practical things — from continuing to sign the various petitions out there from MoveOn and ColorofChange, who co-hosted the event, to boycotting Florida — the tourist attractions in Orlando. We also shot a video for Jasiri X, a rap artist out of Pittsburg. It’s an incredible song that’s been all over the internet called a song for Trayvon. They’re going to send it as soon as today to their 7-million plus listserve.

Runnin’ Scared: What were some of the goals?

Powell: It really served various purposes. One of them, as I said in my speech, is that we have to see the connection between Trayvon Martin and the right-wing attack on the bodies of women and their anti-immigrant policies. It’s all connected, this lack of respect for peoples’ lives. We wanted to bring people together because we wanted to see how these issues are interconnnected.

Runnin’ Scared: Why do you think these issues are linked?

Powell: When you see the right wing creating a climate for a reckless disregard for peoples’ lives — for coming after women and having debates over women’s bodies and not having women’s bodies, there’s something wrong with that. When you see immigrants who can’t get access to basic services, when you hear public candidates say that certain communities would rather collect food stamps than work, or when you see voter ID laws, or when you see what’s happening with the stand your ground law, it’s all the work of a very conservative movement in this country that has been in existence since the 1980s.

My challenge, my call for people, is that these aren’t seperate instances. They’re similar social causes and we have to stand together. We have to no matter what our race or culture — if you really believe in the value of all human life for all people, we can’t see these issues as isolated.

Runnin’ Scared: What does Trayvon Martin’s death mean for young, black men?

Powell: It’s a terrible feeling to know that the moment that you go outside, you could be the victim of some sort of violence. You might not return home — that’s a terrible feeling. What you saw last night at the rally — there was a very diverse group of people and there were a lot of young men wearing hoodies in tribute to Trayvon Martin, and they were listening very intently because they wanted to know: ‘What do we do?’

People think that Barack Obama is president that we have a post-racial society, but that’s not true, and that’s why you see this fear in this society. That’s why you see black men under stress. We just don’t feel like our lives our valued, and you see this across the board with middle class black males and lower class black males in inner city areas.

Runnin’ Scared: There’s been a lot of talk about Trayvon’s clothing, with Geraldo Rivera even saying that his hoodie was to blame. What do you make of this?

Powell: We need to stress that he wasn’t killed because of his hoodie. He was killed because of the color of his skin. I think we need to stress that there’s a tendency to say that if you if weren’t wearing XYZ, that something wouldn’t happen to you, and that’s offensive. As much as our society has evoled in the last fifty years we’re still very much rooted in racism and sexism, that’s clear to me.

Runnin’ Scared: What are your next steps?

Powell: First and foremost, we are continuing to speak very loudly locally and nationally about this issue of racial profiling in America. It’s just out of control. Sean bell, Oscar Grant, and now this with Trayvon Martin. I’ve not seen this kind of outpouring for any case. I believe that the Trayvon Martin situation is what Emmett Till represented in the 1950s. It’s so egregious, it’s really galvanized people.

Runnin’ Scared: What do you hope to be the outcome of this situation?

Powell: People say: ‘What do you want?’ We want George Zimmerman arrested and brought to justice. We want to make sure that all the states have this ridiculous stand your ground law have them repealed. And we want to have civil and humane conversations about race and racism.

We’ve got to have a national dialogue on racism, and I don’t know if President Obama is able to do that because his situation is so tenuous. Otherwise, this thing is just going to explode and we all know what happened when it exploded in the 1960s — it led to riots all across the country.

(*Full disclosure: I have written op-eds for the Guardian, but Powell and I haven’t worked together directly and had not spoken before this interview.)

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