Orange County residents discuss Trayvon Martin case at gathering

mschultz@newsobserver.comJuly 24, 2013 

— Michelle Johnson was in her kitchen when she heard jurors had found George Zimmerman not guilty in the death of Trayvon Martin.

The verdict in the fatal shooting of the unarmed black teenager in Florida sparked protests, conversations and a presidential speech about race.

In her kitchen, Johnson said the verdict was personal.

“I was devastated,” said the Carrboro alderwoman. “I felt like I couldn’t breathe.”

For Johnson, who is black, the not guilty verdict triggered memories of times when she and her relatives had been treated unfairly because of the color of their skin.

“I have a lot of grief,” she said. “It felt like every trauma I had experienced related to race, and all the traumas that my mother and my grandmother experienced.”

“I call it cultural trauma.”

On Saturday, a week after the verdict, Johnson organized a gathering at Carrboro Town Hall.

About 55 people, mostly white women, attended. The meeting opened with spoken word poetry from the Sacrificial Poets, including C.J. Suitt, who described growing up with the fear of being different.

“For me, it’s personal; it’s not political,” he said, echoing Johnson. As a black boy, he said he grew up taught to fear his surroundings. “Getting older, I realized my learning had to be based on awareness.”

The group then split: people of color in one room, whites in another. The people of color asked for privacy while they talked.

In the white group, an exercise asked people what they were feeling and where in their bodies they were feeling it.

“I feel anger, a rage, in my head,” someone said

“I feel exhausted everywhere,” another offered.

“Pissed off,” said Alderwoman Jacquelyn Gist, one of four elected Carrboro board members present.

Several people said white people still have privilege in society and that breaking racism and other “-isms” down can start as simply as saying “hello” to people who are different from you, instead of passing them by or avoiding eye contact.

“As a white person I will always have some racism in me, and I think it’s important to recognize that,” said Susan Spalt. “I think a lot of us in the ‘60s thought we’d get past that.”

For 13-year-old Monique McLeod, getting to share her thoughts and hear others’ Saturday was exciting.

“I feel no matter how much money they have, (people who kill people) should still be sent to jail,” the Smith Middle-schooler said. “You kill somebody, it’s wrong.”

“I hope everyone in America would actually open their eyes and actually see how America is,” she said.

In an interview, Johnson said she felt a responsibility as a black elected leader to do something.

“Trayvon Martin’s case is so public,” she said. “But teens of color are getting killed all the time.” And even when they are not physically hurt, children of color suffer in other ways such as the achievement gap that limits their opportunities.

The history of black people in this country is rooted in slavery and laws and public policy that have treated dark-skinned people as less, Johnson said.

To those who say slavery ended a long time ago, she said: “It’s not that long. I think that (statement) is a way of distancing. When I hear that, I think that’s a way of negating that legacy.”

“If we think in 2013 we’re so far removed from that, we’re not.”

Schultz: 919-932-2003

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