Trayvon Martin case: sparks of racial violence appear

Police report isolated incidents of blacks attacking whites in the name of 'justice for Trayvon Martin.' The incidents are rare, but they indicate frustrations in the African-American community. 

By , Staff writer

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    Trayvon Martin's parents, Tracy Martin (foreground left) and Sybrina Fulton (foreground center) participate in the Million Hoodie March in Union Square in New York in this file photo. They have called for peaceful protests in support of their slain son.
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Recent isolated incidents of violence against whites by blacks, in which Trayvon Martin's name has been reportedly invoked as a justification, indicate that anger and frustration over the case within the African-American community are boiling over in rare instances. 

  • On Wednesday, 18-year-old Alton Hayes was charged with a hate crime for beating and robbing a white man in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill. He told police he was angry over the Trayvon case, in which neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who is part-white and part Hispanic, says he shot Trayvon in self-defense.
  • On Saturday, a group of black people severely beat a white man in Mobile, Ala., with one participant reportedly claiming, “Now, that’s justice for Trayvon.” Mobile police say the attack was not motivated by the Trayvon case.
  • On April 11, when a white man attempting to stop a black purse-snatcher in Gainesville, Fla., attracted a crowd, some people started shouting "Trayvon!" and three people in the crowd started stomping on the white man's hands. Earlier in the week, a white man in the town said he was beaten by several black men who shouted "Trayvon," but police said he was intoxicated and could not confirm his report.

The attacks put a sharper edge on recent polling data, which show that whites and blacks view the Trayvon case differently. Twice as many blacks and Hispanics as whites (73 percent versus 36 percent) say race played a major role in the shooting, according to a recent Monitor/TIPP poll. 

Given the huge amount of media coverage in the Trayvon Martin case, the fact that only a handful of attacks with some kind of tangential tie to the Trayvon shooting have occurred suggests that Americans are overwhelmingly resorting to words to settle their differences.

Recommended: How 5 young black men see the Trayvon Martin case

Indeed, some commentators suggest the case has helped to bring simmering tensions out into the open. 

“I’ve sat … tight-lipped as my white peers questioned the existence of racism in their post-racial American, white privileged minds,” writes Rachel Hislop for the Daily Grind website. “But then a young black man named Trayvon Martin was killed and the dirty blanket was finally pulled off the taboo conversation of the very present demon that is race relations in America, and I’ve decided that I am tired of staying quiet. I am ready to have this conversation.”

Yet some observers question whether the story really has anything to do with race. That narrative has become complicated as more is known about Mr. Zimmerman, who mentored black children and whose Peruvian mother has black ancestry. 

Many black leaders as well as news directors at mainstream media organizations “don’t see that you can’t just stir [race] up when it’s convenient and then turn it off when it’s not,” says Carol Swain, a law professor and race relations expert at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. “Once young people get worked up to where they’re committing acts of violence, you can’t turn it off like a switch.”

Professor Swain does not spare the president from her comments. His statement that “If I had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon” came off to many as a hearfelt and direct plea, but it immediately began polarizing whites and blacks along racial lines, she says. Since, some prominent blacks, including Bill Cosby, have said the case isn’t at its core about race, but about gun laws.

“There should be some accountability,” she adds. “The leaders who fanned the flames of racism should be out there directly denouncing the … attacks being taken in the name of Trayvon Martin.”

To be sure, Mr. Obama is in a difficult spot. As the nation's first black president, he has several times been compelled to speak out on racial issues, only to be berated by conservatives for bringing issue to the light.

“It’s not [Obama], it’s us,” write Andrew Romano and Allison Samuels in Newsweek. “Despite the powerful symbolism of Obama’s election, blacks and whites are still living in two different worlds,” a fact epitomized by differing reactions to the Trayvon Martin case.

Whether he has contributed to the polarized atmosphere or not, Obama – by his presence in the White House – is “pushing all of this racial misunderstanding out onto the political playing field, where it’s amplified and distorted by the polarizing forces of partisanship.”

Meanwhile, reports of Trayvon-related violence are now getting the attention of federal authorities. The beating in Mobile is now being investigated by the FBI, which will look for evidence of a hate crime. Police say the white man, Matthew Owens, was attacked after he wielded kitchen knives to chase away several youths from his sister’s yard. 

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