Trayvon Martin touches Oakland forum

The shock waves of George Zimmerman’s 9 mm pistol are still being felt even here in the Bay Area.

With rain trampling the roof of downtown Oakland’s Nile Center, a few dozen citizens gathered Tuesday night to find meaning in the Trayvon Martin slaying, and seek awareness of larger issues looming in the shadows of tragedy.

Panelists from within the Oakland community spoke out against the portrayal of African-Americans in the press, and considered how the role of the family, the government and the media shapes people’s perception.

Dori Maynard, president of the Robert C. Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, said many in the media are unaware of their own biases:

“Many who walk into newsrooms, they already have a distorted view of people of color. So it’s not that they are trying to send people to prison or further distort the view, they’re trying to tell the truth. But they don’t understand the impact the media has had on their thinking.”

Multiple speakers recounted their own personal experiences of discrimination, including multiple run-ins with Piedmont police. Piedmont police are notorious for harassing African-Americans whose only mistake is straying into the jurisdiction of a department where racial profiling is an unspoken policy.

Social media’s role in the Trayvon Martin story was also acknowledged. Maynard said she “probably” heard about the story first from Twitter, while panelist and comic W. Kamau Bell — from San Francisco — credited social media for putting the story on the national agenda:

“Social media is what’s responsible for these stories becoming mainstream. It used to be you sent something to your friend, and your friend said ‘yeah,’ and that was it. Now, you send something to Twitter, and you hashtag it with the proper hashtag, and everybody knows … People forget on Twitter that when you talk, you’re not talking to your friends, you’re talking to everyone on Twitter.”

Audience member Ted Marsh, semi-retired community activist, told the forum:

Many of the rites of passages that I and many in this room have grown up with — where I was in the Boy Scouts, I was on athletic teams, when I was in college I was in a fraternity, then I went into military service — those rites of passage are not being followed by our youth today. The question is what have we replaced those with? It’s very easy to say what they are doing to us. But the responsiblity lies with us. We have the responsibility to teach our kids, and we have the responsibility to develop our young men.

Even though we call each other brothers and sisters, we actually don’t treat each other as family. There’s an internal conflict that each of us are constantly bumping up against. And the measuring system is always dictated by white standards.

Panelist Tom Peele, investigative reporter with the Oakland Tribune, took the opportunity to speak out against guns. Period:

“How about no guns for anybody? No guns. Right. I don’t care. Stop anybody from having guns. Stop guns from being manufactured in this country. Let’s stop guns from being imported into this country. Let’s stop the gun culture. It will never happen.”

Panelist Kevin Weston, Director of New Media and Youth Communications at New American Media, told the forum he owned a gun to protect his family:

“I felt compelled to buy a shotgun. I live in north Oakland. I have a daughter. I don’t know if that’s rational or not. I’ll tell you what, if someone comes to that door, I’m going to be ready. Right? Huey Newton says, ‘if the cops have a gun, I need a gun.’ Right?

I think it’s a problem in this country because of the historic legacy dealing with African Americans, native Americans, and actually anyone who wasn’t white. You were chattel. We are in a struggle to become human to ourselves. Not just to people in society.

These young people need to know that they are human and they are worth something. And people who are doing that work know what I’m talking about right now… There needs to be another movement beyond Trayvon that addresses how we feel about ourselves. Then how we deal with these systems and how these folks are dealing with us.”

Maynard closed by placing the story in a larger context:

“This struck a nerve with African Americans. We all felt as if we knew this story. Whether it was Trayvon, stop and frisk, or any of the ways the criminal justice system has had a detrimental effect on our community. And that’s the story that needs to be told, and that’s not the story that’s being told right now. It really is a very personal narrative. Until we move away from the personal, I think this story is problematic. The way we have been looking at race in this story has been problematic. ‘George Zimmerman is Hispanic, so how can he be racist?’ These last few months have shown just because you are not a white male doesn’t necessarily mean you understand another community.”