Revolution #272, June 17, 2012
Getting Down to BAsics With the People of Sanford
"I Couldn't Put It Down"
In late May I joined the BAsics Bus Tour as it rolled into Sanford, Florida, the town where Trayvon Martin was killed. The tour brought the work and vision of Bob Avakian and his book BAsics into Sanford and I spent my time in the Black neighborhood of Goldsboro talking with the people about their lives and digging into the deep questions of how to change things. This series is dedicated to the people of Sanford and to the crew of volunteers on the tour, whose enthusiasm for spreading the work and leadership of Bob Avakian and for fighting to build the movement for revolution inspired everyone they encountered.
For more on the BAsics Bus Tour, go to basicsbustour.tumblr.com.
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Let's start where life ended for Trayvon Martin, the spot where he was murdered by a self-appointed "neighborhood watch" vigilante. It's a relaxed 15-minute stroll—max—from the 7-Eleven, where Trayvon loaded up on Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea, to The Retreat at Twin Lakes, the gated community where his life was stolen. It sits in what's called the suburban core of Sanford, Florida. Behind walls and a black iron fence it's a community of mixed nationalities and classes. Outside one of the gates to the complex people have built a memorial to Trayvon around a School Zone sign. All kinds of teddy bears, footballs, packs of Skittles and cans of Arizona Iced Tea are bunched up with personal messages, cards, religious texts and photos. We stopped for a moment to take it in and left behind a photo collage of all the banners of the No More Generations quote from Bob Avakian signed by hundreds of people around the country in solidarity with the people of Sanford.
One of the walk-through gates was missing a lock so we decided to explore. Streets lined with identical cookie-cutter houses wrap around each other. And it's quiet—a deadly, stifling quiet—everything muffled like a thick wet blanket had been dropped down over the complex. It was early afternoon on a Saturday and there were no kids' voices and only a few spotted for a second, standing outside their house. Nothing else—sterile and empty. Walking those streets I could almost feel the terror that Trayvon must have felt being tailed and hunted like human prey by George Zimmerman. We turned off the street onto a narrow sidewalk that ran between two rows of houses; the sidewalk was separated from the back doors of the houses by small grass yards. It was on this sidewalk—only 70 feet from where he was staying—that Trayvon was cut down, his child-morphing-into-adult face, a combination of beauty, hope and innocence meshing with newly gained scars of experience growing up Black in the USA, drew in its last breath face down on this grass. Those last minutes of Trayvon's life played out not 15 feet from houses filled with people.
I called out to a Black man watching over his barbecue grill from inside his house. Trayvon had been killed within earshot of his place and yet the man didn't even know about the killing until the following night. He explained that everybody pretty much sticks to themselves in this neighborhood, they don't mingle and rarely talk to their neighbors. A Black woman, who I stopped as she drove through another gate into the complex, told a similar story. She had gone to the community meeting held at the complex a couple of days after the murder and said that people were upset at what happened. But she said that people were upset and afraid that there was an armed man roaming the complex with the freedom to shoot their children. She said it seemed like no one in that meeting had any idea where Zimmerman came from and who gave him the authority to patrol the complex. She didn't know what happened later because she doesn't know too many people in the complex.
But there's no mystery here—what happened that horrible night comes up out of the soil of slavery and the continuing inhuman oppression of Black people under this system. Six public housing projects in Sanford have been closed down over the last couple of years. Some of the people pushed out of these projects used Section 8 federal housing vouchers to rent homes in gated communities—housing that became available to them because of the tanking economy and the housing market crash. According to local news stories, the people who moved into these complexes with Section 8 vouchers, including the one where Trayvon Martin was killed, were clearly less than welcome. At The Retreat at Twin Lakes a rash of home break-ins occurred in September and George Zimmerman was unleashed to form his neighborhood patrol and hunt down "suspicious" people. Six months later, Trayvon Martin lay dead in the grass.
I met Virginia at the speak-out the BAsics Bus Tour held outside the Sanford Police Department. I spotted her driving past the rally a few times before she finally pulled over and parked. A few minutes later she got out of her car and began filming the speak-out with her phone. The afternoon was unbelievably hot and humid, but Virginia kept filming until it ended. She told me later that it was anger, hope, and inspiration that kept her there. "When I seen you all marching, I was like, there should be more people here, you know, I was like, wow. And then I seen other people stopping and I had stopped and that's why I came over because of the fact that I knew you all were doing something very good. It makes us feel good to know that people are standing together and they really care about what is going on here, and that you're on our side. So that means a lot for me."
I arranged to interview Virginia in a local barber shop the following day. When I arrived at the shop, Virginia had a whole a crew of people there—her pastor and mentor, her friends, a young woman she brought along to sing a song "that fits what we're gonna talk about," the barbers and their customers. The bulletin board next to the front door featured a card with the "No More Generations" quote from Bob Avakian along with info about the BAsics Bus Tour and the poster collage of the banners signed by people all over the country standing with the people of Sanford who stood up against the murder of Trayvon Martin.
"When I heard about it, at first it just hit me, like a rock. It hit me like someone had just threw a rock at me, because of the fact that this is a young man and I know that a lot of times people look at the young people and the way they dress and they feel like they're suspicious or they feel like they're up to no good. And at the time, this young man, he was just minding his own business. He was just going to the store.
"And I know how it is to be provoked. I know how it is, and it's like his story against George Zimmerman's story, and nobody was there but those two. But I could just imagine what has taken place, or what he had to deal with, you know, being alone and not having nobody there to witness the fact or be able to speak up for him. And right now he don't have nobody but us to be able to speak up for him."
Virginia explained that she was born in Sanford but then moved up north and didn't return to Sanford until she was a teenager. She says she was stunned about what she found in her hometown. "I'd never dealt with prejudice with such an intensified effect, to where people look at you wrong. I had people where they grab their purse when you walking by them. Or they'll look at you like, 'Oh, my god, she's gonna hurt me, she's gonna hurt me.'"
Virginia spoke in a way that made it clear she was serious and you better listen. She's proud that she never liked prejudice but worried that all her experience in Sanford was taking her to a place where she felt she couldn't trust white people, that they were going to do her wrong, like they had done to so many others before her. Virginia struggles to make sense of the world and figure out how to change it. She's reached for what she had available and her religion became a big part of the way she dealt with the screwed-up world she lives in. Still, she's firm that Black people are being treated badly and it needs to stop and people need to stop making excuses for it. "You gotta look at our side. For years we have been treated one way. And now that we finally opened up and try to give our heart to love people in another way, then all of a sudden, we always get slapped in the face. And they say, give the other cheek, give the other cheek and that be slapped, too. But that's what I meant by provoking."
"Everything was designed for us to fail"
I told Virginia that I wanted to read her a quote from Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party and the author of the book BAsics. She immediately cut me off and said, "I started reading his book and it's awesome. I started reading his book and I just could not put his book down because he was explaining a whole lot about what is going on in America that a lot of us don't even know and everything that's in his book makes sense. And I can't wait to finish reading it."
I read Virginia quote 1:13. "No more generations of our youth, here and all around the world, whose life is over, whose fate has been sealed, who have been condemned to an early death or a life of misery and brutality, whom the system has destined for oppression and oblivion even before they are born. I say no more of that."
As soon as I got out the last word, Virginia started talking again. "Yes, I agree with that as well, because even when I was reading that book, I seen that and I was like, my god, just to think that our destiny was already designed for us, before we were even born, that someone else was making the decision how we are supposed to turn out. That is really scary. So how can we come out of that if this is what you want to put us in, and you're not really giving us a chance or a way out. Because you already planned from the time we were even born that you're gonna put your foot on our neck. That's a powerful statement, very powerful. And that's why I was like, I need to know who this man is. That's why I was curious and I bought the book in the first place. But then when I got into it last night, it was like I could not put it down because I was like, wow. I never even thought that it could be this way.
"And it's funny, because even the way that was in my heart that I was feeling, some of those same quotes, some of those same things were coming out because I was like, how is it that we have a chance when it's almost like everything was designed for us to fail. And this is what I was thinking for the past two months. And I was like, well maybe it's just me feeling this way, but I just kept feeling like when we came here, it was designed for failure. Can you imagine the babies that were born into slavery, and then so much that's gone on. Even in the book it mentioned about the sex trade, about how the girls are forced to make the choice to sell their bodies to businessmen that comes through—it's sad because even in doing that you get labeled. And can you come out of that? No. A lot of times you feel like you can't come out of it and that becomes a way of a lifestyle for you, but just guess what? Your country caused you to be that way. You know what I'm saying?
"So it makes you think like, wow, so everything that I was thinking within myself, through this book I'm finding it to be true. And it's awesome because I was like, I need to know more about this gentleman because how we gonna know if we don't study a person? How we gonna know if you don't come forth? But at first when you see it's a small group, you're like, what they're doing? But then as you start realizing a lot of things that you were doing in the book made me curious. And then as I got into the book, I started loving everything that was in it, and if I had a chance to tell the one who wrote the book, I want to say thank you, 'cause I'm getting emotional now and trying not to."
Virginia's eyes were wet and a few tears rolled down her cheek. The whole shop was quiet as she continued. "He's opening our understanding to the way it is, where other people are afraid to speak because it'll put their life on the line, and this man put his life on the line for everybody to know the truth. And he just told it just how it is. How can we make that change if we don't know the basics? How can we make that change if we really don't know what's going on?"
"There's a lot of Trayvon Martins out there"
Virginia and I talked some more about the work of BA, how important it is in terms of the possibility of making a revolution and building a whole new world free of all the oppression that's been weighing down so heavily on the world. We talked about the problem that there's a huge difference between the importance of Avakian's work and the number of people who have studied it or even know it exists and that this is what the bus tour is all about—bringing this out to thousands of people who don't have access to it and bringing them into a movement for revolution. I asked her what she thought about this.
"Oh yeah. And especially that, when you were talking about Trayvon Martin, you was basically letting everybody know that's a part of what was going on. That's a part of what he was trying to get out from the beginning, what really was going on. Because there's a lot of Trayvon Martins out there, you know what I'm saying? And that's why we consider ourselves as Trayvon Martin. Just reading this book, it opens up your understanding to realize hey, look, this is a man that's speaking out and he wants justice to prevail, and he's trying to get us to open up our eyes to see what is really going on behind the scenes."
Virginia continued on to talk again about how important it is that people from all over the country were showing their support for the people in Sanford.
"And that's why I was thanking God for that and just to know that you all and others coming into the city to stand up for us and for our rights, it caused a lot of us to come out and speak, to be able to speak out. And some things that I spoke out on, I felt like it could hurt me. Then I knew that it wasn't about me. It's about my people. It's about our community and all the things that we went through, that some don't know how to speak out of fear, or in fear of retaliation to be able to speak out. But to know that others, that we finally have people that could understand what we're going through, we were able—a lot of us came forward and was able to talk out in spite of what people would have thought or what people would have said. They didn't live in Sanford. They don't know what we went through. They don't know how, when we tried to find out information, what was this happening, how we were just pushed aside, how we were kicked to the curb and 'oh, we're working on it.' And they're never working on it. Or 'we're going to do something about it,' and it never been done about it. And then just to see how the Sanford Police Department handled it. Well, now they know, it didn't just happen now. This has been going on for years. I want to say thank you for standing with the city of Sanford, and we need all your prayers, and we need your support."
And to the BAsics Bus Tour Virginia had these words. "I just want everybody that was there to be encouraged and to continue to do what you're doing because it is a message that he has that is really opening up our eyes. Some may not want their eyes to be open and want things to be as it always has been, but this is something that need to be told. This story need to be told. It need to open up the eyes of what is really going on in America."
When Virginia was done talking, a young girl stepped up. She was 13, tall and reed thin. She had a quiet and very polite voice. Virginia explained that she had been working on a song from the film The Help with this young woman and she wanted to sing a verse from it for us after the interview because Virginia thought it was appropriate for what the bus tour is doing. Her name was Charity and she was extremely shy and nervous. But she pulled herself together and sang out in a voice that was stunningly deep and powerful. The entire barber shop was dead quiet, not even breathing for fear of marring the beauty of the song.
It's gonna be a long, long journey
It's gonna be an uphill climb
It's gonna be a tough fight
There's gonna be some lonely nights
But I'm ready to carry on
I'm so glad the worst is over
Cause it almost took me down
I can start living now
I feel like I can do anything
And finally I'm not afraid to breathe
Anything you say to me
And everything you do
You can't deny the truth
Cause I'm the living proof
So many don't survive cause
They just don't make it through
But, look at me
I'm the living proof.
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