By: Arley Johnson
Executive Director of AFTOA – Advocates For The Other America
The despicable tragedy unfolding in Florida surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin is all too familiar. An innocent life being brutally ended purely and simply because of the color of someone’s skin. Usually the person is young, black and male. The circumstances in each occurrence are different of course but the motive and end result is pretty much the same: Someone committing horrible acts against a person of another ethnicity or culture using some sorry, thin justification as their defense. And we, the American public are expected to go along with treating heinous behavior as a rational response.
What is it about humans that we so frequently seem to need to define “us” vs “them”? Why do we tip past the point where this makes violence a choice that seems so justified?
Over the years Trayvon’s story has been repeated many times in many places around this country. Every generation of African Americans can recount a similar tragedy. I’m not just talking about well-known national stories like the 1955 murder of 14 year old Emmitt Till who was brutally beaten for whistling at a white woman in Mississippi, that many credit the with sparking the modern Civil Rights Movement. Ask any African American. We can tell you of someone’s tragic death. These histories may not be well known but the horror and pain are just as real.
Every time I hear about this type of incident my mind goes back to September, 1975. I was a 16 year old boy growing up in Huntington, WV. Four friends and I had decided to go to a Marshall University football game that Saturday night. Three of us had walked ahead towards the stadium and two boys, Harry Woods and Leroy Cooper decided they needed to stop by the convenience store just a few blocks from the game site. After all, it was on the way.
As Harry and Leroy walked onto the store lot a Volkswagen bug pulled up to the gas pumps. One white man was driving, another was in the back seat. The guy in the back yelled out of the window as Harry walked by, “Do you know where I can score?” Harry didn’t quite hear what he had said and moved closer to the vehicle. The man in the back seat by the name of Dale Jean McCoy asked him the question again. He also stuck a 22 rifle out of the back window and laid it upon Harry’s chest. At point blank range McCoy discharged a bullet into Harry’s chest and exploded his heart. He was probably dead before he hit the ground.
I suspect if you are reading this, your question is “Why?” According to evidence and trial testimony, Dale Jean McCoy had driven into Huntington, a city of about 50,000 people, from neighboring Wayne County (a rural country county), earlier in the day to purchase a ten dollar bag of marijuana from one of the local drug dealers he met on the street. The dealer directed McCoy to drive to an apartment building nearby. The dealer took the money from McCoy and entered the front of the apartment building and exited the back never to return. After some time McCoy realized he had been ripped off and drove back to a trailer park in Wayne County with some friends to drink beer and stew. Later that evening he and a friend drove back into Huntington to find the man that ripped them off. They drove around for some time and couldn’t find the dealer. At that point they decided that “one nigger was as good as another”. The decision was made to kill the “next nigger we find”. They found Harry Woods that warm September night and my community, and my world, changed forever.
Often times when these things happen, the murder may not be the only glaring miscarriage of justice. My community sat through a three day trial for these two men where an all-white jury came back with a verdict of “First Degree Murder with Mercy”. In West Virginia that translates into prison sentences’ of five to ten years for the driver of the car and the shooter, Dale Jean McCoy served fifteen years in the state penitentiary. Can you tell me where the “Justice” is in those verdicts. These men had never seen Harry Woods before that fatal night. I suspect angels on the welcoming committee had to explain to seventeen-year old Harry what had just happened. You see the similarities to Trayvon’s senseless death. What I hope is changed is the Criminal Justice System’s response to this killing and the public outcry to these types of tragedy. The public is firmly engaged across the nation but the jury is still out on the Sanford, Florida Police Department.
Now media discussion is dissecting the character of both individuals involved. Did Trayvon throw a punch? Would you if you had been in his situation? Zimmerman’s friends and family say that racism was not what motivated him to follow Trayvon; against the advice of the 911 operator. Perhaps. But I wonder, if they had looked more alike would this have happened. Perhaps. Perhaps not. What is fairly certain is that if Trayvon had not been a young, black man chances are Zimmerman would have been arrested immediately.
Like so many of us, I’ve cried for Trayvon’s family. Cried, as people have through the generations. I’ve questioned God “Why do we have to repeat this anguish?” Why do we seem to need to divide ourselves by labels like race, religion, gender, gangs, politics and nations? Why do we divide ourselves under trivial labels and convince ourselves that these “differences” outweigh everything we have in common: our humanity, our fragile mortality. What can we do to help prevent this heartbreak from shattering another life, another family, another community?