Our Murders Aren't Hate Crimes, They're Acts of Terrorism

'graveyard' photo (c) 2005, Emmett Tullos - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

In the west, these days we are taught to think of terrorism as something fundamentalist religious Brown men do to us.  Ask the average person about terrorism and they will probably bring up 9-11.  I agree that it was horrendous that all of those people died; however, it is equally terrible that the common acts of terrorism go unacknowledged as such. Terrorism happens everyday within the borders of western nations, it simply goes unacknowledged, because its victims are those we have chosen to “other’.  Not all life is deemed equal or precious, no matter how much we profess this as truth.

Last night I was thinking about connections, or more specifically what I see as terrorism and realized that there are acts specifically designed to terrorize entire communities of people, based simply in their identity.  When these acts of violence happen, only one person dies, but the community is deeply effected and it becomes part of their / our communal psyche. They force us to admit that we are not safe and that we are often powerless in the face of hatred.

Being marginalized we learn that we must perform in a certain manner, if we are to have even the most remote chance of being deemed one of the acceptable minorities.  This may mean altering our speech pattern, ignoring barbs specifically designed to demean us, not doing anything that could potentially cause an association between us and stereotypes that assault our sensibilities, hiding our personhood and individuality — and generally speaking — as much as possible fade into the crowd.  To some degree all marginalized bodies perform and what more, most of us are conscious of what we are doing even as it occurs.  We do this in the hope that we won’t be the next statistic.  We do this to avoid pain, and violence and yet the daily farce in the name of self preservation still hurts us deeply.

There are undeniable connections between Trayvon Martin, James Byrd, Brandon Teena, and Matthew Shepard. The isms these people faced in life were different; however, their deaths had the exact some effect on the communities to which they belonged – terror.  Trayvon, Brandon, James, and Matthew were killed for who they were and there was absolutely nothing that they could have done to avoid their terrible fate. Any gay man could potentially be Matthew, any trans* person could be Brandon, and any Black male could be Trayvon or James.  The only thing that separates us from them, is that we weren’t in that location instead of them at the time of their death. With the news of each murder, we grieve for their families, we experience anger, and we experience fear.

It’s fear that keeps us up at night trying to make sense of what happened, while desperately hoping that somehow we can find a way to remain safe.  It is fear that causes us to put on a mask in public hoping to go unnoticed and therefore manage to make it through one more day. It is the fear that forces us to acknowledge that even if we somehow manage to evade the violence, that at anytime violence can still enter our lives through our families, lovers, and friends.  Short of being alone in a locked room, we are always and forever targets because our marginalizations have marked us “other.”

To think about Trayvon, Matthew, James and Brandon is to actively think not only about violence, but terror. We tend to use the term hate crime to describe these acts of violence, but this term cannot hope to encompass what these murders truly mean to the effected communities. When we are subjected to slurs, beaten, or denied rights, they amount to state sponsored and socially sanctioned terror.  Think about how easily our complaints are dismissed as baseless and our voices called angry. We are told that these deaths are solitary acts, because to openly admit that they are specifically attached to an instutionalized hatred of us, would mean acknowledging that we are actively sought out for persecution. It would mean taking responsibility for the every day acts of micro aggression that leads to violence against our person.

The point of beating up or killing a member of a certain group because they are a member of that group is to instill fear in all the members of that group. If a white racist lynches a black person, it is in the hope that black people will leave town, or at least live in enough fear of white people so as not to attempt to gain equality with them. If someone murders a gay person for being gay, it is in the hope that gay people will be too fearful to live openly and fight for equality. The goal of a hate crime is not merely to harm the immediate victim of the crime; it is to send a message to everyone else sharing the same attribute that caused that person to be the victim in the first place, a message that they are not safe and they’d better not try to live on equal terms, “or else” — or else they might wind up in the hospital or in the grave. [source]

It has been quite a few years since the death of James, Brandon and Matthew.  The media has long since moved onto more pressing matters, and yet these names continue to reverberate through the effected communities.  Many allies today are expressing outrage and horror about the murder of Trayvon, but If I have learned anything since the deaths of Brandon, Matthew and James, it’s that a new news cycle will quickly eclipse the murder of Trayon Martin and the only people who will remember him, are those who share the same marginalization as him.   When you have privilege, you don’t have to live in fear, because you can afford to forget.  The burden of the violence and the terror that it creates, rests with the communities that have historically been targeted and this why these deaths are not hate crimes, they are acts of terror designed specifically to always keep us on our guard and living in fear.

When a single act can cause fear and alter the thought and behaviour pattern of an entire community, how can it not be called terrorism? We need to stop being gentle with our words and label these acts exactly what they are.  We need to start using the words terrorism and genocide, because that is exactly what is happening to marginalized people. James, Brandon, Matthew, and Trayvon are only the names we know of, but it is certain that they aren’t even a tip of the iceberg. Using word like terrorism and genocide may make privileged people uncomfortable, but as we have already seen, their comfort does not keep us safe.  At the very least, we owe it those who have died (for no other reason than being a marginalized person and occupying space) the respect of a label that accurately describes how and why they died.

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