It's Not Just Trayvon: 9 Other Cases That Prove People of Color Can't Safely Walk the Streets of America
Stay up to date with the latest headlines via email.
The death of Trayvon Martin has lit up the media for much of the past month. While there's a certain degree of added tragedy due to Martin's age, people of all ages have good reason to fear vigilantism and police brutality in the United States. It's worth noting that despite nearly 200 attempts, a federal anti-lynching law was never passed in the United States. Further, Florida's controversial "stand your ground" law, and others like it, have led to what is essentially legalized murder in several areas of the country.
Lynchings and racist murders didn't end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Even in the 21st century, people of color can't walk in safety in many parts of the country. Here are several cases that illustrate this sad truth.
1. Bernard Goetz
In 1984, Bernard Goetz shot four young black men who tried to mug him on a subway platform in New York City. It's hard to fault a man for wanting to defend himself against a legitimate attack, even if he was carrying an unlicensed firearm. However, what would the reaction have been if a black man had shot four white teenagers? While the legal system found that fear, not racism, drove Goetz's decision to open fire, Goetz himself admitted that the skin color of his assailants increased his fear. Goetz, an unassuming man who promotes vegetarianism, is far from David Duke. But that's sort of the point. There are few better examples of the effects of institutional racism on otherwise "good" people.
2. James Byrd, Jr.
The dragging death of James Byrd, Jr. in 1998 is one of the most notorious hate crimes in recent memory. After offering Byrd a ride home, John King, Lawrence Brewer and Shawn Berry took Byrd to a secluded area of town, beat him senseless, urinated on him and dragged him for three miles chained to the back of a truck. Alive and conscious for most of the torture, Byrd died when decapitated by a culvert. Police found Byrd's remains in 81 different places along the route the assailants took. John King reportedly made a reference to William Luther Pierce's racist novel The Turner Diaries before Byrd's beating began. King and Brewer got the death penalty, with Berry getting a life sentence. Brewer was put to death via lethal injection in September 2011. King remains on death row, pending an appeal.
3. Mulugeta Seraw
Mulugeta Seraw was an Ethiopian immigrant who sought a better life in Portland, Oregon. His dreams came to a close on Nov. 12, 1988, after a confrontation with three white racist gang members outside his apartment. The three men -- Steve Strasser, Kyle Brewster and Ken Mieske -- beat Seraw with baseball bats while their girlfriends watched. The group then left Seraw to die in a puddle of his own blood, in a killing the notorious Tom Metzger called their "civic duty." Strasser and Brewster caught manslaughter charges, while Mieske received a life sentence for first-degree murder. Seraw's son and father later received pro bono representation from the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center in a suit against Metzer and his son John. Seraw's family received $12.5 million in damages. Metzger later had to forfeit his home and go on welfare. He still has to make monthly payments to Seraw's surviving family.
4. Benjamin Smith
Benjamin Smith is a name that will live in infamy in the minds of people of color in the Chicago area. In 1999, this follower of imprisoned Creativity Movement leader Matthew Hale went on a two-state, three-day shooting spree two days after Hale was denied a license to practice law in the state. Nine Orthodox Jews were shot and wounded in the spree. Ricky Byrdsong, a former Northwestern University basketball coach was shot and killed in front of two of his children. A black minister and Won-Joon Yoon, a 26-year-old Korean pursuing a doctoral degree in computer science at Indiana University were other victims of the killing spree. Smith later shot himself while fleeing the police in a high-speed car chase. The Creativity Movement views Smith as a martyr to its "cause."