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Meet the “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” Creator

By//Kyra Kyles

The title of the tumblr site will jar you.

After all, you’ve been crying.

You’ve been hand wringing.

You’ve been protesting.

You’ve been trying to understand how anyone, let alone, six people let George Zimmerman walk free.

And though you’ve been trying to ignore some of the news reports and slowly go back to your normal life, it’s still bothering you, so when you see his name—the name of that fallen teenager—anywhere…you have to look.

And then you see the link go across your screen.  Right there in the title it reads: “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

trayfam

You could, understandably, get incensed.  After all, that is the message the jury sent America isn’t it?  Now, we have yet another site full of people daring to distance themselves from a young Black teenager who was minding his own business, walking home from a convenience store when an encounter with a neighborhood watch volunteer went nightmarishly wrong.

“We are not Trayvon,” you repeat to yourself disbelievingly, and then click.

Suddenly, you understand.  It’s a sea of faces, mostly white, and yes, they are stating unequivocally that they are not Trayvon Martin.  However, it is clear that they care deeply about the young boy who could’ve easily been your brother, nephew, son, or best friend.

And they are acknowledging that they aren’t Trayvon because they aren’t the victims of a lopsided stop and frisk policy, don’t get coached by their parents on how to deal with a biased police officer, or get followed through stores and ignored at restaurants.  Rarely, if ever, have they had to watch a woman clutch her purse in fear when they walk into an elevator or hear the audible click of car doors locking as they cross a residential street.

“We Are Not Trayvon Martin” is a blog born in the wee hours on Sunday morning from the mind of Joseph Phelan, an Italian and Irish thirty-something who, like many of us, watched in horror as the verdict was read the day before and then took to the streets to lobby for change.  Here’s an image of Joseph and an excerpt of his first post that set off the chain reaction.

Joseph Phelan

Joseph Phelan

I will never be Trayvon Martin. Look at me. I am a white-man from New York. I wear boat shoes and white t-shirts.
When I walk down the street in Brooklyn I am not seen as a street thug or a criminal, I am seen as normal.
I get all the things normal people expect to get – the cops don’t randomly stop and search me, strangers are generally respectful to me, and people in stores, restaurants, movie theaters etc. call me sir.
Oh yeah, no one has ever stalked me in their car and shot me to death and then been found innocent of any crime related to my death. The likelihood of that happening to me is zero. 
But I don’t need to be Trayvon Martin to know that what happened to him, and James Byrd, and countless other Black men is simply wrong. I don’t have to be Trayvon Martin to stand with those who are Trayvon and say enough is enough.

 

The interactive experience he has created, which questions, outs and pillories white privilege, has gone viral…with over 1,400 responses in all, many still being reviewed by volunteer moderators.  It has attracted almost 5,000 followers.

It’s honest.  It’s raw.  It’s encouraging.

“I really felt that what happened to Trayvon and what is still happening to countless other young Black men and women, not only in relation to the law, but other systems,” Phelan tells JET from his Brooklyn headquarters, where he is frantically reading and approving post after post.  He has just returned to the neighborhood after living, oddly enough, in Florida for seven years.  “The system is a failure.  I feel I’m a part of that failure and I want us to talk about that.”

What the space is NOT, Phelan remarks, is a place for “White folks to whine.”

That, however, has not stopped some detractors who feel that this tumblr is a way for non-Blacks to somehow make the Trayvon travesty about them.

It actually has to be about White people in order for real change to take place, Phelan argues.

“Racism is about White people because we are the ones who benefit from it, and we have to step up with others to stop it,” he emphasizes. “A lot of people like me don’t think about it.  And if you don’t think about it, it feels like you’re living in a normal world.  But the absence of bad things happening to us is that it is happening to other people. …people of color.  The flipside of racism is privilege.”

That’s why Phelan intends, with the help of friends, to continue this momentum…even as media attention to this case inevitably fades.  He wants, as actionable items, people to start having hard discussions about race, call out media bias in news coverage that paints Black males as thugs, lobby for changes to policies like stop-and-frisk or stand-your-ground, which disproportionately have worked  against minorities.

“Think about it,” Phelan says.  “Sandy Hook happened in part because a white guy with a gun on his hip can walk around and somehow still be invisible.  If that had been a Black guy in Brooklyn, he would not have gotten out of his apartment building lobby.”

And he also wants us all, but particularly his White peers, to keep talking.  To question the way things are and how they could be if we changed the system.  It seems to be working.  At JET’s last check, more people of color had even joined the discussion.  One of the first 10 posters was, in fact, an Asian American, who talked about even though he has faced bigotry, it has paled in comparison of the negative and forbidding treatment he’s witnessed towards Blacks.

Phelan wants to hear your voice as well.  He promises he won’t censor posts—too much.

“I will take down racist crap, but there are posts where people are asking questions and I see them struggling with issues and I will definitely take that on,” Phelan says.  “It shouldn’t be up to Trayvon’s mom to close that gap.  She was forced into the spotlight.  Trayvon’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, was forced into the spotlight to talk about these issues.  It isn’t fair and it shouldn’t be on them.”

One place it should be on though, Phelan says is on the school systems, which he points out has failed us all in its glossy portrayal of white heroes and minority bit players.

“I didn’t learn about Harriet Tubman in grade school, I learned about George Washington,” the Brooklynite explains.  “And when I did learn about a Black hero, it was Martin Luther King, I learned he marched to the capital and ended racism.”

He pauses.  A nervous laugh.  Understandable given the Zimmerman verdict.

“Later,” adds Phelan, “I found out that isn’t exactly the way it happened.”

YOUR TURN:  Do you want to engage in “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” discussion of race in America?  Visit the page here, and add your voice.  You can also check them out on Facebook and Twitter.