Race Relations in Wake of George Zimmerman’s Acquittal

Some days I wonder if I am the only person who recognizes ‘white privilege’ is more than real; it’s a burden I need to shed. I am a white male. That means I am already leaps and bounds ahead of others. In 2013 America, this breaks my heart.

White privilege comes with easier access to better education, higher paying jobs, better choices in housing. These sound like good things, right? I find it disgusting that because of something I have no control over — the color of my caucasian skin — I have more choices to better my life. I don’t want special treatment. I want to know my hard work is what got me to where I am, not because of something I had no control over. I want to walk in the rain wearing a hoodie (because, let’s face it, we all wear our hoods when it’s raining and we don’t have an umbrella) knowing I look just as suspicious as a black teenager.

Today, President Obama spoke about his experience as a black man. Experiences I have never had nor ever will have. Experiences like being followed while shopping in a department store, hearing car doors lock while walking by and seeing women clutch their purses when I enter an elevator.

I attended both a PWI (predominately white institution) and an HBCU (historically black college or university). It’s no doubt thanks to this experience I have arrived at the conclusions I have about race in America. And I’ll tell you, folks: we have a very long road ahead of us.

At this point I need to mention I am a Floridian, and I am currently ashamed of my state. Just days ago, a jury in Sanford, Fla. acquitted George Zimmerman, a 29-year-old hispanic man, who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old black adolescent.

A facebook post by a friend

Now, based on the evidence before the jury, I believe they came to the right conclusion, much like my friend John explained in his Facebook status here. Based on Florida’s wide-reaching and poorly written self-defense law, George Zimmerman was well within his right to defend himself with deadly force.

The problem is George Zimmerman never should have confronted Trayvon Martin.

After I tweeted this one, 127-character tweet, I got serious backlash from the twitter trolls. I call them twitter trolls because none of them followed me and all of their timelines were filled with falsely “correcting” people about the 911 call. The saddest part of these trolls? They were all white. All of them. Every single one. The people who retweeted my tweet were primarily black.

Now, did police tell Zimmerman to stay in his vehicle? No, and I admit I incorrectly said they did. But:

Dispatcher: Are you following him?
Zimmerman: Yeah.
Dispatcher: Okay, we don’t need you to do that.
Zimmerman: Okay.

A police dispatcher, who may not be a sworn police officer but still has some authority, told Zimmerman not to follow Martin. Had Zimmerman listened to that simple instruction, Trayvon Martin, who had nothing on him but a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles, would have made it home to watch basketball. For almost 20 seconds, it sounds like Zimmerman continued to run after Martin.

When it comes to strict, racial definitions of the actors in this story, neither is “white,” so neither really enjoyed white privilege. Zimmerman is hispanic, but his name sounds white, which qualified him for society’s white privilege.

Were there racial undertones to this crime? Yes. According to Zimmerman’s brother, Robert, George Zimmerman tutored young, black kids in his past, suggesting Zimmerman was not racist. But, as was pointed out to me after the original posting of this blog, one act of tutoring black children is not enough to prove someone is not a racist. No matter how you look at this, Zimmerman called the police because he saw a black teenager in his neighborhood acting “suspicious.” Hell, his call to the Sanford Police had several racial undertones with statements like “these assholes, they always get away” and “f**king punks?” Some argue Zimmerman didn’t say “punks,” instead believing him to have said “coons,” a racial slur. The audio is not of a high enough quality for me to easily make that distinction, so I won’t guess which he said.

16 months passed from the time Trayvon Martin was shot until the day George Zimmerman was acquitted. That was plenty of time for the mainstream media to dig into the case, to decipher what was said on that 911 tape, but it seemed few media outlets wanted to spend the time digging until Zimmerman’s trial started. CNN experts say Zimmerman said punks, not coons. But in the time before the trial, why was no one examining and digitally enhancing the 911 call?

What I don’t understand is how someone can justify using a gun in a fist fight. When someone has a gun, fight or flight doesn’t enter into the equation any more. I know a gun can end any confrontation, so why would I choose to run? In 2005, Florida’s legislature expanded the Stand Your Ground law to include someone like Zimmerman — someone who pursued a fight. I’m not saying George Zimmerman chased Trayvon Martin with the intent to kill him, but an aggressor should have a much steeper climb to prove self defense. Was George Zimmerman beat up? Yes. Was he bruised and bloody? Yes. However, he never needed to fear for his life had he left justice to those sworn to uphold the law.

In President Obama’s address today, he raised the best question: “if Trayvon Martin were of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk?” That answer, I would hope a jury would find, is yes. What person in their right mind wouldn’t fear great bodily harm or death if someone they had never met before started running after them? I know I would. I was taught to defend myself; if someone starts a fight, you can bet your ass I’ll be the one to end it. In this case, I can’t see how Trayvon Martin could have been the one to start a confrontation. Zimmerman pursued him; it really is that simple. The fact is, the color of Trayvon Martin’s skin played a role in George Zimmerman’s call to the police.

The saddest part is knowing the Martin family will never see Trayvon go to college, get married or start a family. Their baby boy will always be 17 years old. They will always deal with the scar of a family ripped apart senselessly. Trayvon Martin, if it is up to me, your death was not in vain. We will fix this country one day, and I pray it happens soon.

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Defending Marriage

So the Supreme Court again made history. The court paved the way to re-allow gay marriage in California, and it ruled section three of the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional.

Windsor v. United States, the case fighting against DOMA, and Hollingsworth v. Perry, the case against California’s Prop 8, are definitely landmark decisions, but they leave a lot of life-improvement work to be done in dozens of states around the country. Teenagers are still taking their own lives because who they are doesn’t fit in with who society thinks they should be; one life taken is one too many.

The high court did not strike DOMA down in its entirety; section two is still in place. Section two is the section that allows one state’s government to pick and choose which official marriage records from another state will be valid and legal. This goes against the simple, 22-word sentence in the U.S. Constitution known as the full faith and credit clause.

“Full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.”

A marriage license is listed as a public record in every state, so by federal law, a marriage license issued to Adam and Steve from New York must be recognized in Florida. That’s not the case.

“No state […] shall be required to give effect to any public act, record, or judicial proceeding of any other State […] respecting a relationship between persons of the same sex that is treated as a marriage under the laws of such other State […] or a right or claim arising from such relationship.”

There’s no way around it, that’s unconstitutional. To its very core, section two of DOMA goes against the constitution of the United States. Couple this ruling with changing American opinion, and suddenly LGBT rights seem mainstream and inevitable.

“55% of Americans support same sex marriage,” claims an ABC News, Washington Post poll from May 9, 2013. The problem is same sex marriage is not an American issue; it is one of many issues delegated from the federal government down to state legislatures.

There’s no question opinion on gay marriage is shifting over time in this country, but like most big things, it moves slowly. In the last eight years, people in every state have become more accepting of LGBT people getting married.

Gay Marriage Opinion ShiftThose were the numbers from last year; take a look at state support for same-sex marriage at its most recent polling:

States with black borders around their bars already allow same-sex marriage. (Data from FreedomToMarry.org) * Percent of Nevadans who support a repeal of the state's same-sex marriage ban ** Percent of Indianans who oppose barring same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment
States with black borders around their bars already allow same-sex marriage. (Data from FreedomToMarry.org)
* Percent of Nevadans who support a repeal of the state’s same-sex marriage ban
** Percent of Indianans who oppose barring same-sex marriage with a constitutional amendment

So, looking at this bar graph, gay rights are advancing in the nation, but that doesn’t necessarily translate to gay marriage. 10 states want to improve standing for their LGBT citizens, but they are wary of the word “marriage.” Arizona, Florida, Alaska, Kansas, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Nebraska and Louisiana all have more than 50% support for some kind of recognition for same-sex couples, but they don’t want to use the word marriage.

The troubling part is the number of states that have constitutionally banned same-sex marriage: 30. Even states with some of the highest polled support for same-sex marriage, like North Carolina, have passed amendments to their constitutions that will require several years and state congressional bipartisanship to undo. There is one act that could sweepingly change that: a ruling by the Supreme Court that declares it unconstitutional, and Hollingsworth v. Perry is likely not the last gay marriage case to be decided by the high court. However, the court’s more conservative judges, even the swing voting Anthony Kennedy, seem unconvinced this is the right action now.

Credit: Talking Points Memo
Credit: Talking Points Memo

With today’s decision, it might be decades before same-sex marriage is an American right, now just a New England, Iowa and Washington right. North Carolina voters just passed an amendment to their constitution to ban same-sex marriage. That was in May 2012, when  51% of Americans supported gay marriage. That’s the trouble with polls and elections are similar: not everyone takes part. If North Carolina wants to vote to allow gay marriage, it would need 60 percent of all legislators vote in favor of putting it on a statewide ballot. That’ll take loads of time and money.

North Carolina’s way to equality is easy compared to some states. Nevada won’t have a chance at allowing same-sex marriage until 2016 because it’ll take two consecutive legislatures (so two votes in the state senate and two votes in the state house, before and after an election cycle) to put the ban-repealing amendment on a statewide ballot.

That’s in Nevada, a state on the border between majority support and majority opposition of same-sex marriage. The likelihood of Nevada coming together — when two polls, only a few months apart, said Nevada supports gay marriage by 47% and 54% — is almost nonexistent. The same goes for Wisconsin.

The other 27 states with constitutional bans on gay marriage have to go through a long process to repeal the bans, though none as brutally difficult as Nevada and Wisconsin.

(Thanks to buzzfeed for prompting this post)

NYPD

Scene: a car accident on Manhattan Ave and 109th Street. A white Infiniti sports coupe turned left too quickly and rear-ended a parked, empty SUV. There was little damage to the SUV but severe front-end damage to the Infiniti.

This Infiniti took the turn too quickly and rear-ended the parked Toyota.

The issue: I, as a reporter, grabbed my camera because it was my instinct. When I see more than one police car with its lights on accompanied by several ambulances, I go find out what’s up. I walk up, start snapping photos. My angle isn’t that great, so I switched to the other side of the road to get a better view of the car. As soon as I did that, the white-shirt NYPD investigator said to two of the other officers there “who’s that taking pictures?” while pointing at me. The two other officer—in plain clothes—came up to me and started harassing and belittling me with questions. “Who are you? Why are you here?”

I gave the standard reply; I’m Turner Cowles, and I’m a journalist. “Well where are your credentials? We need to see them.” Dude, I’m in a baseball cap, flip-flops and jeans. Do I look like I have my credentials on me? “I don’t have them, my apartment is right there; I just came out here to see what was going on.” “Well, go get your credentials!” he barked.

Now, I’ll admit I’m a little argumentative; that’s what makes me such a good reporter. I didn’t leave immediately, and they got uppity. Really uppity. Now, let me reiterate the scene. I’m on a public sidewalk of a public street. I am a private citizen; whether I work for media has nothing to do with my right to take photographs in public.

“Why are you still standing in front of me arguing?” “This isn’t a debate,” the other one chimed in. That’s where he was wrong, but I decided that, at 10p.m. on a Friday night, I had better things to do than wind up in jail for upsetting a lowly NYPD officer. I went home, but I wasn’t done for the night. I looked for my press pass; I couldn’t find it—how typical? So, instead I left my big camera at home and went back with only my iPhone. I wasn’t going to let these cops infringe my first amendment right. The reason they gave when I asked them why I couldn’t take pictures was “this is an official investigation.”

In no way was I impeding their investigation. I was well outside the crime tape. My camera wasn’t flashing. They just didn’t like that I was there taking pictures of them working. Well guess what: too damn bad.

This is my job. I’m not going to let you violate my rights. Sorry I’m not sorry officers, but you were wrong and I was right. I was standing as a private citizen, with my private camera, on a public street documenting a public occurrence. That’s. My. Job. I know NYPD is horrible about local media; even New York Times reporters say NYPD is notorious for their stubborn lack of transparency. Same response: too damn bad. That’s our job. All of you officers decided to work as public figures. That was your own decision, not mine. You chose a profession in which you knew you’d deal with reporters.

Several police cruisers and two ambulances arrived on scene as I got there.

On top of all this, a few weeks ago a classmate got an email from NYPD about a story we were working on. It said, “writing anything good about NYPD anytime soon?”

NYPD, if you’re reading this, I want to let you in on a little secret. We don’t write badly about you because we hate you. We don’t not write good things about you because we hate you. It’s impossible to include you in our stories when you blatantly refuse to speak to us about anything. These stories are too important to just not run because the police won’t talk to us about them. Here’s a piece of advice—we’re going to run out stories with or without your input. We’d rather have your input to make our story seem fuller, and I promise you’d rather have your input because without it there’s no way for us to tell your “side of the story.”

As for the impeding on my journalistic duty? Shame on you.

All the photos I took before I was shooed:
(Note I’m well outside the crime tape)

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September 11, 2012

Why? That is the only thing I can ask. Why? Why did so many innocent people need to die? Why did the city of New York have to be devastated for years after this pointless attack?

I recognize that I am lucky. I am amazing, unquestionably and irrevocably lucky. My father is a pilot for American Airlines. He flies 757s and 767s—he has flown almost every airplane American Airlines has in its fleet; in 2001 he was flying Airbus A300s.

I remember 11 years ago. I remember he had woken up and left for work a few hours before I left for school. I was 11 years old, and I had no idea where his trip was to. I remember going to school like it was any other day. I’m not going to rewrite something I’ve already written, so you can read my experience here.

I write this post to say I now live in New York City. Last night, Sept. 11, 2012, I went downtown. Now, I’ve been to Ground Zero before—several times, in fact. But last night was the first time I have seen the tribute lights. To say they were amazing; to say they were awe-inspiring; to say I cried is barely scraping the surface. My father was nowhere near New York City 11 years ago. Dad wasn’t even in the air. I didn’t know that, and—to an 11-year-old—everything is about them, so my mind created the worst possible scenario. I thought my dad was the pilot on those planes. I know at any given moment there are thousands of planes in the air (and, therefore, thousands of pilots), but at that moment, on that day, I just knew it was him. Immediately I started thinking of all the things I never got to tell him. I started crying, thinking I’d never get to see him again.

I have to say this again: I am lucky, so lucky. He was not on those planes. He came home immediately and picked me up from school. He shielded me from the horrifying images. For many years that followed, he studied everything that happened. He bought the TIME Magazines, Newsweeks, New York Times, with stories about the attacks. For years, he shielded me from that literature. He knew I would learn about it elsewhere, but he didn’t want me to see it. Eventually, (I was probably 15 or 16) we had a heartfelt conversation about what happened, and I understood why he had shielded me. At 11-years-old, my mind wasn’t prepared to fully comprehend what happened.

Now, 11 years later, I was fully prepared. Well, I thought I was. Then I went downtown last night.

I was many things, but prepared was not one of them. I walked past One World Trade Center, known colloquially as Freedom Tower, and it was lit up red, white and blue from base to top. As if that weren’t enough, I saw—for the first time in person—the tribute lights. Those lights are amazing. Photographs will never do them justice. They are the brightest lights I’ve ever seen, and they seem to go forever upward; up toward the sky, toward Heaven.

My dad will be in town tomorrow evening on happenstance. This is his first trip to NYC since I have been living here, and I’m really excited to see him!

So, I write this blog post with only one purpose. To honor and recognize those who have been lost. Know you are never gone from our hearts. Those lights from Ground Zero are pathways to you up in heaven.

Maya Angelou interview

Here is the unedited version of today’s interview. I began the recording right after the first question, which was ‘Tell me about FSU’s celebrating of their 50 years of racial integration.”

FAMU Journalism, graphic design and photo students earn 10 regional awards

FAMU-TV, part of the FAMU News Network

Special to News 20 at Five

By Prof. Dorothy Bland, FAMU Journalism Division Director

TALLAHASSEE, Fla.  –  Journalism, graphic design and photography students at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University are in the winners circle again as they have won 10 awards between the Best of the South Contest and the Society of Professional Journalists Mark of Excellence Contest  this semester.

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Robert Champion’s death ruled a homicide

By Turner Cowles, News 20 at 5 Correspondent

ORLANDO—Former drum major Robert Champion’s autopsy report was released just minutes ago by the District Nine Medical Examiner’s Office.
The manner of death listed on the report stands on a line of its own: Homicide.
The cause of death is listed as “hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident.”
In plain English, he was beaten to death.
“Mr. Robert Champion, a previously healthy 26-year-old member of the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University marching band, collapsed and died within an hour of a hazing incident during which he suffered multiple blunt trauma blows to his body,” said the report.
The autopsy showed extensive bruising on his chest, arms, shoulder and back.
During the weekend of Champion’s death, his father said he had no previous health concerns. The autopsy reveals he had a slightly enlarged heart.
The toxicology for Champion showed no signs of drugs or alcohol in his system at the time of death.
No charges have been filed yet.

View the autopsy report in its entirety here.