Trayvon Martin’s death proved, once again, that we Black men cannot feel safe living in our own brown skin. Or in Trayvon’s case, a hoodie.
No matter our professional prowess, academic pedigree or legal citizenship, we cannot feel safe walking the streets of our own communities without sensing imminent danger from the George Zimmermans of the world who are hellbent on criminalizing our every move.
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That someone cannot be safe walking in their own neighborhood after making a run to a 7 Eleven proves that Black men continue to shoulder the heavy burden of other people’s stereotypes and suspicions.
My colleague, Leigh Davenport, penned a passionate, yet disciplined column on the travails of being a Black man in America and how we have yet to truly transition from the racially inclement days of Emmett Till. The line in her piece that resonated with me most was, “There is no space in this country where Black men can’t be threatened.”
Here I expound her thought by saying that there is no space in this world where Black men can walk in peace.
As a Russian-speaking brotha who lived in Eastern Europe for nearly four years as a Peace Corps volunteer, journalist and more, I know this to be true from personal experience. My most challenging experiences with racism occurred during my Fulbright Scholar days in Ukraine, where I was a Russian language student and freelance reporter.
Those were harrowing days indeed.
Black Man in Ukraine
On a breezy autumn afternoon in October of 2009, I walked into the Universitet Metro station in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, to catch a train to Russian class. I was standing in line waiting to purchase my train token, when from my peripheral vision, I caught sight of a police officer a mere 10 feet away staring at me suspiciously.
He was joking with some gentleman, who I assume was a friend of his, when he pointed in my direction, then whispered something unintelligible to the man in Russian. At that point, I knew I was going to be stopped and asked for my documents. (WWB or Walking While Black is enforced beyond U.S. borders) True enough, the officer approached me, gave me a hangover Soviet-era salute and demanded I present my passport. After a brief perusal, the young officer signaled that I should follow him in to the metro station’s mini-police station.
As a Black man who had lived in Eastern Europe for four years, I had long become used to being stopped by police officers who assumed that I was an African immigrant who they could scare a bribe out of, or worse, make an object out of their sadistic fantasies of physically dominating a Black man. Unfortunately for them, however, my American passport normally curbed any incident from going beyond a racial slur or brief embarrassment. Americans, for better or for worse, seem to get “special treatment” in sticky situations on foreign soil.
Not on this October day!
The officer escorted me into the police holding room, where a plainclothes officer was sitting at a worn, wooden table shuffling through passports. When I asked in English what I had done to warrant an additional inquiry beyond the typical document check, the young officer, who looked fresh out of the academy, shot me a sinister smirk.
Narrowing his eyes, he pointed his right finger inches away from my face and said in Russian, “You’re a n***a and we know you are bringing drugs into our country, so hand over your drugs.”
I had never been so disrespected by someone in authority before, so his words took me off guard. The officer and his plainclothes partner went on for nearly a half an hour, shouting racial slurs and intimidating demands in Russian.
“Where are you from,” the young officer shouted. “What are you doing in our country?”
“To whom are you selling drugs,” the other asked. “Do you speak Russian?”
Actually, I speak the language of Pushkin very well but was warned by my African friends to never, ever communicate with Ukrainian police officers in their mother tongue as they are notorious for trumping up charges of verbal abuse, giving them cause to arrest their unsuspecting victims.
Frustrated with my “poor Russian skills,” the plainclothes officer asked me, “How long have you been in Ukraine?”
“Three months,” I replied. Damn, I had slipped, but fortunately, the cop didn’t notice.
“So you’ve been here for three months and you don’t understand a word I am saying,” he asked in an exasperated tone. I shook my head in ignorance.
While the officers eventually let me go, I was gravely shaken. I reported the incident to the American Embassy, and they took it very seriously, giving me a special ID that stated I was an official employee. My American friends, fellow Fulbrighters and Facebook pals all rallied to my emotional aid.
Thinking I would get sympathy from my African friends at the church I attended in Kiev, I shared my unpleasant encounter with Ukraine’s finest. The facial reactions from those in the audience were either blank or indifferent. I thought they were being cold, until one of them coolly shook my hand and said, “What you experienced is nothing. We Africans experience far worse in this country. Now you have a taste of what we experience every day.”
The worst he was referring to included beatings by law enforcement officers, attacks by neo-Nazi groups, and daily discrimination in innumerable facets of everyday life. Some unfortunates even died during a wave of of racist attacks before my arrival in July of 2009.
I would be stopped 29 times in total during my year-and-a-half stay in Ukraine.
Some of the stops were more humiliating and unfounded than others. When cops weren’t harassing me, I was racially taunted and accosted by skinheads. The racism didn’t damper my resolve to enjoy my time with my truly wonderful Ukrainian friends, though, which was thankfully 90 percent of my cultural experience.
But those stops and run-ins with skinhead groups taught me that, despite my Fulbright grant, my education and my unending efforts to make sure I didn’t look like “a thug,” I was still Black.
Trayvon Martin’s Death Is A World Issue
Throughout the new millennium, Blacks across Europe have died at the hands of racists. Roma, known as Gypsies, are looked upon with disgust in Western Europe and are often attacked because locals feel they are destroying the culture. In September of 2011, CNN aired a detailed report on Black soccer players who face constant verbal abuse by European fans.
More recently, a Russian soccer fan hurled a banana at a Black player, Chris Samba, during a match in Moscow. Sambe tossed the banana back. Such flagrant displays of racism are common during games in which Black players are on the field. In Moscow, 60 percent of the African population report being assaulted in racially motivated attacks. At the beginning of the year, two White men were found guilty for killing a Black teen in London, England, back in 1993.
While Europe has never been a homogenous continent, it has seen a significant hike in immigration in the past 10 years. Many migrate because of conflicts in Libya and other countries in Africa, for example.
I met many Blacks and dark-skinned peoples in Ukraine and across Europe who feared walking the streets because of racism. A Nigerian friend of mine, Chris, told me of the time he battled a towering skinhead of perhaps 6’4″ in broad daylight. No one came to his aid. Another good African friend of mine, who enrolled in a Ukrainian medical school, was attacked on at least five occasions. Although he hates living there, he is getting a great medical education, which he cannot afford to give up, even though he wishes he could.
A popular African music performer reported being beaten by Ukrainians cops and robbed of his money.
“Do you know where you have come?” one of them reportedly asked, adding, “We must punish you, you n***er,” according to his account to the Kyiv Post.
The Trayvon Martins of the world are also women.
One of my closest Black Ukrainian friends, Angelina Diash (pictured), told me that at times she didn’t feel safe in her own country. During a conversation over tea in a downtown cafe in Kiev in the spring of 2010, Angelina recalled an encounter, in which she was accosted by two skinheads who yelled racial slurs at her in a train station.
She noticed that a police officer had observed the harassment, but he did not come to her aid. A sympathetic male passenger pretended to be her friend and waved her over, averting further persecution. Angelina has never left Ukraine and has a Ukrainian passport, but her skin color is a signal to the racially ignorant of the Ukrainian populace that she is not one of them.
Or as her Black Ukrainian cousin, Violanta, aptly said, “I look at my passport and I laugh. It says I am Ukrainian, but I am not treated like one.”
Violanta and Angelina are Trayvon Martin, too.
The World Is Trayvon Martin
George Zimmerman’s lawyer claims that his client is not racist, and now he is playing the “I-have-Black-friends-and-mentor-Black-kids” card, as if his 40-plus phone calls to police and his eerily racist 911 call do nothing to undermine the validity of his claim of innocence.
There are many George Zimmermans in the world. Men who want to play cop without the proper authority. Fans who feel they they are the ultimate judges of who belongs and who doesn’t. Ordinary citizens treating those who don’t look like them as second class citizens–or worse– in their own countries.
The beauty of the web is that we can send out a call to the world that we in America feel the pain of all of the Trayvon Martins who live on this planet in fear. As human beings and concerned citizens, we must unite and summon to justice all the George Zimmermans of the world, whether they be in the United States or Ukraine. Wherever injustice currently exists, we must demand true justice to move in and prevail.
Most importantly, we must realize that being a Black man or woman is not a stigma: It is our God-given birthright. Let us all stand as one. Let us all have the ethnic pride to walk proudly in our own brown skin and claim our Blackness.
We are Trayvon Martin.