Thousands gathered in Hart Plaza in downtown Detroit on a day of action demanding justice for Trayvon Martin. The gathering took place on March 26, 2012. (Photo: Abayomi Azikiwe), a photo by Pan-African News Wire File Photos on Flickr.
Trayvon Martin and the need for an independent human rights movement
By Ajamu Baraka
The irrelevant, disconnected, abstract chatter that we see on the “mainstream” human rights listserves as it relates to issues that Black and oppressed communities are concerned with – and concomitant complete lack of substantive discussion about the Trayvon Martin case - demonstrates once again the need for a formation that centers the perspectives, interests and political objectives of human rights defenders from oppressed communities who are grounded in a radical understanding of human rights.
Mainstream formations dominated by middle-class lawyers seem to be unable to see” or understand the major impact that Trayvon Martin’s case is having in the Black community, and the progressive social change movement in general. Limited by their race and class perspectives (including “people of color” who have not dealt with their internalized white supremacist influences), and lacking any connection to grassroots organizations or popular social change networks, alliances or coalitions, they are unable to grasp when conditions are created that could allow for the advancement of a human rights understanding and framing that could influence the national discourse.
Hamstrung by a stale, mechanistic approach to human rights work dictated and controlled by the narrow and confused priorities of liberal funders who only pay lip-service to supporting social change efforts not tied to the interests of the Democratic Party, the elites of the mainstream human rights movement in the U.S. will either opportunistically co-opt an issue (especially if there are funding opportunities to be had – think national security and human rights, racial profiling, and so-called “immigrant rights”) or, as in this case, largely ignore it.
Yet, within the “mainstream” human rights circles there are decent and dedicated people who understand the limitations of a domestic movement that is dominated by middle-class lawyer advocates and “501(c) NGOs.” They understand, like we do, that the only way that the human rights movement in the U.S. can escape the class-based fragmentation and opportunism that characterizes so much of the approach to human rights work is to ground the movement in the interests, perspectives, objectives and leadership of the Black, Latino, Indigenous and oppressed communities that are dedicated to anti-colonialism, anti-imperialism, anti-oppression (in all its forms) and self-determination. This should not be paternalistic “empowerment” but a renouncing of class privilege and gate-keeping and getting out of the way so that an authentic, democratic leadership and processes can emerge out of a social change movement that is embracing a “people-centered,” radical approach to human rights.
But we know that the displacement of opportunism will not come about as a result of appeals to morality and conscience alone. We are not that naïve. There are powerful material incentives (including the ability to secure and waste literally hundreds of thousands of dollars) and non-material advantages that ensure that the various cabals’ of gatekeepers won’t give up easily.
It is only through self-organization and independence that we will be able to develop and advance a people’s agenda for human rights, democracy and social justice. That is why a National Alliance for Racial Justice and Human Rights is needed. An alliance of human rights defenders who understand an analytical framework informed by human rights principles that elucidate and give life to the connection between the political demands for self-determination for all oppressed nations and peoples, and the peoples’ insistence on dignity – expressed through the demands for the human right to education, housing, health and health care, a clean environment, water, individual and collective development, real social security through-out life, and an end to all forms of racial, gender (patriarchal), sexual, national, ethnic and religious oppression.
Those who take this approach to human rights advancement understand that these demands will only be realized when there is a shift in power away from the capitalist state and the white supremacist Republican and Democratic parties (the advancement of the interests of the white supremacist 1% is not dependent on the color of its agents!) to the organized people. This shift will require struggle and organization. An alliance of human rights defenders who recognize the historic tasks that this period demands will greatly facilitate the creation of an “alternative bloc” of the 99%.
As horrific as the killing of Trayvon Martin was, the cold objective fact is that every few years a case emerges, whether it is Oscar Grant or Sean Bell, just to mention a couple of contemporary cases, that reminds us of the disparate value that is placed on Black life by the agents of White authority.
But as human rights defenders who have an internationalist understanding and perspective, we would be morally remiss and politically irresponsible if we did not link the devaluation of Trayvon’s life to the general devaluation of non-White life that is a permanent feature of European and U.S. imperialism world-wide. The non-indictment of Trayvon’s killer should not be surprising for anyone with just a cursory understanding of what this country stands for and its real interests – from the “collateral” damage of predatory drone strikes in Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Somalia to the killings of 17 women and children by a U.S. occupation solder in Afghanistan, the killings, torture and assaults perpetrated by the U.S. state and its NATO criminal gang allies against people of color exemplifies a lack of respect for non-White life. Stamford, Florida is in fact not very different from southern Afghanistan in that respect.
So while we mourn the death of Trayvon Martin we must also remember the countless victims whose names we will never know and who have lost their lives at the hands of racist police, 500 pound bombs made in the U.S., or vicious mercenaries and economic sanctions. For all who understand that we must struggle against precisely those enemies in our fight for our human rights, we invite you to join us to discuss the way forward for building a powerful alliance for racial justice and human rights. That call will take place on April 4th, the anniversary of the murder of Dr. King, at 4pm.
To register for the call please go to
For more information on the Alliance contact Paul mclennan (firstname.lastname@example.org)