Civil Liberties

It's Not Just Trayvon: 9 Other Cases That Prove People of Color Can't Safely Walk the Streets of America

Lynchings and racist murders didn't end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Even in 2012, people of color can't walk in safety in many parts of the country.

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."

5. Donnell Harrington

Hurricane Katrina is already notorious as a dark period in American history. The response to the 2005 hurricane was roundly criticized, with race remaining an undercurrent throughout the national discussion. But an underreported part of the fallout was racist violence against people of color in the Big Easy. Assailants shot Donnell Harrington with a shotgun while shouting racist epithets. No one was ever arrested or charged. Indeed, there wasn't even an investigation. Unlike nearly everyone else on this list, Harrington was fortunate enough to escape with his life. Still, his case underpins a disturbing trend that is also expressed in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin. Working-class whites and blacks are pitted against one another, with gun laws and crime used as wedge issues. In the case of Donnell Harrington, the shooters expressed in an interview with the Nation their surprise that they were never investigated.

6. Aiyana Jones

In addition to racist mobs, militias and vigilantes, people of color have good reason to live in fear of the police. Aiyana Jones acts as a brilliant illustration of what happens when police shoot first and ask questions later. While details are sketchy, what's known is that in 2010 police tried to serve a search warrant to locate shooting suspect Chauncey Owens. After firing a flash bomb and entering the home, police officer Joe Weekley reportedly fired a shot that struck and killed Jones, who was only 7 years old at the time of her death. Weekley has since been charged with involuntary manslaughter and reckless endangerment with a gun by a grand jury.

7. Ramarley Graham

Earlier this year, Richard Haste, a 30-year-old NYPD officer, entered 18-year-old Ramarley Graham's grandmother's apartment. Haste entered the apartment without a warrant and shot Graham, who was unarmed, in the chest as he emptied a bag of marijuana down the toilet. This is only the most recent example of the NYPD using excessive, sometimes deadly force. (The names Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima immediately come to mind.) New York City is also home to the controversial "stop-and-frisk" rule that many believe is selectively enforced in poor neighborhoods and neighborhoods with a plurality of people of color and has led to record arrests for marijuana possession in the city.

8. Cornel Young, Jr.

Not even policemen are safe. In 2000, Sgt. Cornell Young, a police officer in Providence, was having a meal at a late-night diner when he saw a disturbance involving two other patrons. A suspect approached two uniformed officers with a gun drawn and Young attempted to aid them by drawing his own weapon. The officers demanded that he put his weapon down and he refused. They shot him dead where he stood. The suspect who first drew his weapon was charged with murder in relation to the incident, but a broader issue is raised: If the cops can't trust one of their own because he has the wrong skin color, who can they trust?

9. Alan Berg

It's not just blacks and Latinos who have to worry about racist vigilantism. Alan Berg, a white Jewish talk show host in Denver found that out in 1984. His murder at the hands of white nationalist group the Order (named after the protagonists of The Turner Diaries) made international news. Berg was fired upon by unknown assailants at his home after returning from a dinner date with his wife, in an apparent anti-Semitic attack. Four members of the Order were indicted on federal charges of conspiracy, racketeering and violating Berg's civil rights. Noted white supremacists David Lane (who coined the infamous "fourteen words") and Bruce Pierce were convicted and sentenced to jail terms of nearly two centuries. The events later inspired the films Betrayed and Talk Radio.

Trayvon Martin, Race Relations and the 'Perfect Victim'

Trayvon Martin is currently the subject of a smear campaign that is common when a person is victimized by police or vigilantes. While nothing is worth the life of a 17-year-old boy, perhaps one positive thing could happen in the wake of his death: If we are able to point out the threat of racist violence that people of color live under daily in the United States in the 21st century, we can honor Martin's life and death. It will be small comfort to the Martin family, but it might prevent future incidents that rob families of their children, parents, siblings and friends.

Nicholas Pell is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasPell.