Murdering Black Bodies in Culturally Sanctioned Spaces and the Myth of the ‘Model’ Victim

Credit: CBS 2

Credit: CBS 2

The murder of Trayvon Martin unleashed a deluge of media coverage (rightfully so) that continues one-year later, but I have yet to see half as much coverage from the mainstream media about the murder of Kimani “KiKi” Gray. Kimani was a sixteen-year-old boy from Brooklyn, hanging out with friends on March 9th, when two plain-clothes NYPD officers emerged from an unmarked car and approached him on the street. Their interaction ended when officers shot the boy 7 times total, including 3 times in the back. Kimani’s story should be inescapable, but it is hardly making a stir in popular media. The tepid response to Kimani– versus the response to Trayvon–illustrates a despicable cultural norm wherein we accept a certain level of unmitigated violence in cultural spaces occupied primarily by people of color, and we only react with collective furor when a victim meets the murky criteria of a “model” victim.

The media frenzy that ensued after Trayvon Martin’s murder is completely justified, and I am not saying otherwise. Anything short of a media hailstorm in the wake of a child’s murder is appalling. The response was, first and foremost, a response to the egregious murder of a Black teenager by an adult man, but the intense cross-cultural response followed because he was attacked in the suburbs. The suburbs are a space that White people have created to insulate themselves from poverty, crime, and diverse populations. Murder isn’t “supposed” to happen in that space. It happens to “them,” over “there.”

When certain types of violence happen in suburbia it disrupts a carefully constructed illusion of safety, and this disruption receives disproportionate attention. But the media went into silent mode over the murder of Kimani Gray because he was out at night with his friends in an inner city space. Zerlina Maxwell’s recent article in Ebony, “[ENOUGH] Why Doesn’t America Care About Dead Children” hits the nail on the head when she shares the words of author Tom Burrell, “It’s amazing in the sense that Black urban bodies are framed as a scourge. We have not washed the residue of this history off completely and are still seen primarily as a problem.”

You can be sure that the media’s reaction to Trayvon and Kimani would have been markedly different if either child was White (I hold no such illusions), but the reaction between the two presents a stark contrast. In racist (mainstream) society Black bodies are devalued in general, but urban Black bodies in particular are “framed as scourge.” And that’s why the case of Kimani is receiving near silence relative to Trayvon.

Kimani is also being ignored because he isn’t the “perfect” victim. There are claims that he has criminal charges for stealing cars, and he may have been carrying a gun (though reports indicate that he never showed his gun to police). Those two claims give the media a faux-justification for their silence. I don’t care what he did, or did not do, in his past, all signs point to lawful behavior the night he was killed. They dismiss him as a criminal because it is easier than having an authentic discussion about White society’s complicity in maintaining the conditions via oppression in the inner city. The media marks him as the Other, “the criminal”, someone that deserves to die, because talking about Kimani necessitates a serious discussion about the lives of people in urban spaces, and the way they are treated by people (usually white people) in power. Lest we forget, Zerlina Maxwell reminds us that even in the case of Trayvon, “Martin has been as scrutinized as the man who killed him, if not more,” but in the end he fit in better with our conception of a “model” victim. Any criminal infractions in Trayvon’s history mirrored those of White kids (pot, skipping school), and we can’t say that White kids behave in a way that justifies murder, so the response is outrage. But Kimani? Kimani was a thug, you know, one of those Black people that live in the city.

The bottom line is this: neither Kimani or Trayvon deserved to die, and there is no such thing as a “model” victim. Both children were victims of a racist system that allows for the murder of people of color, and people of color that are anything short of a “model” citizen are especially vulnerable. Both cases–and all of the other underreported cases– deserve droves of media attention, regardless of where the children live. It is long past the time for a serious discussion about the cultural conditions that allow for the murder of Black bodies. We need to take a hard look at the facts, because the facts tell a grisly story. We also need to take a look at both cases and ask ourselves why one boy’s death received national attention, and the other’s is relegated to an article here and there on the third page.

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