By Tui Rademaker, Daily News Editor
Published July 16, 2013
Standing up among a fired-up crowd of about 300 overflowing the Michigan Union’s Pendleton Ballroom on Wednesday night, 8-year-old Me’Shach Reece spoke up.
“(Why did an African American) have to get shot because he was wearing a hoodie?” Reece asked. “If anyone else was wearing a hoodie that wasn’t black … I’m sure he wouldn’t have gotten shot.”
The Black Student Union hosted a forum to discuss the recent verdict in the Trayvon Martin case. In the case, George Zimmerman was initially charged and on Saturday was found not guilty of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin in 2012.
The event, which was full of passionate voices, was essentially an open-mic discussion that allowed people to come forward and share their thoughts on the case and also the presence of racism in the United States. Of those who spoke at the event, there was a pervasive opinion that the combination of Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s acquittal was an example of modern-day prejudice.
The coordinators of the event presented PowerPoint slides to prompt discussion, asking questions about the argumentation of the case itself, laws that disadvantage African Americans and solutions to racism in the U.S. When a slide appeared asking whether or not the there was a feeling that Martin was racially profiled, the audience laughed with irony.
In an interview before the event, Public Policy senior Donovan McKinney said the verdict in the Zimmerman trial greatly disappointed and saddened him.
“It’s definitely a fair trial — I definitely respect (the jury’s decision) but I think race was involved … but by no means do I agree with (the verdict),” McKinney said. “In this particular case, I feel like the defense put on a definite show and they definitely won the case but that doesn’t mean (Zimmerman is) innocent… and I think he should be accountable for what he did.”
There was a general sentiment expressed among those that spoke that the law has a history of disproportionately targeting African Americans.
“I’m just very confused and angry … and sad and disappointed in our country and in our infrastructure and the way we send some people to jail for heinous crimes but then this man kills an unarmed boy and he hasn’t paid for it at all,” McKinney added.
Kelsey Goodman, a student at Eastern Michigan University, also said she felt that while laws such as Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute — which Zimmerman and his defense team used to cite self-defense as the reason for shooting Martin — are not inherently designed to allow racism, they are not enforced and applied equally to white and minority races.
“A lot of this is also a socioeconomic thing,” Goodman added. “If you have money to prove your case then you can but if you do not, that is when you suffer.”
Tiran Burrell, a student Eastern Michigan University who also attended the event, spoke of the way he feels that he and other young African Americans are routinely profiled by white society. He asked the audience — of which a vast majority were African American — to raise their hands if they had ever been followed around a store in a shopping mall. Almost every hand in the room went up.
A common theme that was discussed was the way many audience members said they felt racism has generally become too controversial of a topic to be raised in many situations and dialogues.
Many speakers touched on their beliefs that discussing race makes many people feel uncomfortable and thus the issue is often neglected. Judge Deborah Steinberg Nelson — the Florida Seminole County Judge who presided over Zimmerman’s trial — ruled early on that the term “racial profiling” was to be inadmissible for the duration of the case.
The event’s dialogue then turned to the issue of race relations at the University. Leon Howard, the hall director of Couzens Residence Hall, said he feels the University should do a better job of representing diversity so as not to contribute further to societal norms where the white race is exclusively credited and represented.
“What do you see on the wall?” Howard asked, pointing to the numerous portraits of white men that decorate the Pendleton Room. “You see a bunch of old white men. I think … the University could do a lot better (in representing) diversity.”
LSA senior Ozi Uduma, “Seba” of the Black Student Union, said she felt disappointed that the University has not been more active in addressing and supporting the needs of African American students.
“Four years ago… I stepped onto this campus at the University of Michigan expecting my soul to be fed,” Uduma said. “And looking back on those four years I feel like every time I step into a classroom, and (every time) a face like mine steps into a classroom, our souls have been ripped apart — not only by our students, but by our faculty who have yet to put in that time … to feed our souls.”
Wednesday’s event is one of many discussions, demonstrations and vigils that have been opening up around the country in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal on Saturday. The case has prompted a national debate on racial profiling which has seen people from all sides of the argument take to both social media and the streets of cities nationwide.
Following the discussion facilitated by the Black Student Union, many audience members attended a candlelit vigil on the steps of the Michigan Union to honor Martin’s death.