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Trayvon Martin, Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi and Observing Drone Policy Through A White Lens

In the week following the George Zimmerman verdict, a stream of articles were published comparing the targeting of young, Black men and the policing of Black communities to the targeting of young, Arab men in combat zones and Barack Obama’s drone war. In particular, these columnists compared Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Black boy who was fatally shot by George Zimmerman almost two years ago to Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, the 16-year-old Yemeni-American teenager who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen around the same time.

Now, in many ways the comparison is natural. Like the targeting of young, Black men and the policing of Black communities, the Drone War indiscriminately demonizes entire communities and justifies violence through a loosely defined “reasonable suspicion.” In the same way that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law protects the racially-motivated intentions of a potential killer, the lack of Congressional oversight on drone killings and categorization of all military-aged men—ages 16 through 40—in a combat zone as “militants” excuses civilian casualties and records their deaths as terrorist deaths.

Both Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi were innocent teenagers in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong skin color at the mercy of horrifying racist laws. If either of these boys had been white, neither of their deaths would have happened.

But they weren’t. And they did.

However, instead of drawing the comparisons between Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi, many of these columnists—all of whom are white men—questioned why President Barack Obama, the media and the protests that emerged focused on Trayvon Martin instead of Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi—instead of calling into question the racist laws that killed them both.

David Sirota of Salon.com—the most prominent columnist to make this argument—claims, “…when it comes to military policy, the Obama administration is George Zimmerman perceiving the world as filled with Trayvon Martins supposedly ‘up to no good’—and deserved to die.”

Jesse Lane Metz, a freelance writer and graduate student responded to Sirota—and many other white commentators on the George Zimmerman verdict—in a blog post titled, “Ally-Phobia”

“I felt that [Sirota’s article] and the other articles that observed this issue through a white lens largely privileged one issue over another, effectively working to silence the Black community, and to draw attention away from one cause to prioritize one that they felt was more important,” she elaborated to me later.

Many others—on various blog posts and social media outlets—echoed Metz’s criticisms.

Sirota responded to these critics—many of whom were Black—by publicly misquoting Dr. Martin Luther King.

In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf made a similar—ill-founded—point to Sirota’s original point, “I fear that having a name like Abdulrahman is itself enough to make the American public more comfortable with your unexplained death than if you have a name like Trayvon or John.”

“To deliberately misrepresent or attempt to erase the oppression of Black people to magnify another social justice issue is deeply racist, oppressive and problematic,” commented Metz.

I will admit that my first response—as an Arab-American—to the rallies across the country in support of Trayvon Martin was to wonder why the same support wasn’t there for Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi. I wished that someday Arab and Muslim-Americans across the country would have the outrage, organization and cultural space necessary to publicly declare their rage and desire for justice—without being called terrorists or surrounded by FBI plants. It wasn’t that I didn’t expect anything less for Trayvon Martin—the similarities of the two cases just made me wonder when it was going to be our turn. Not instead of those grieving for Trayvon Martin—but in addition to them. In solidarity with them.

Because in the same way that the Black mothers and sisters who turned out for rallies across the country saw their sons and brothers in Trayvon Martin’s face, in the Arab-American community Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi is also our brother and son. Every time I read a description of Al-Aulaqi’s wild, tousled black hair that he refused to cut—and the way that the drone’s bomb sliced through his head and matted his wild curls with sticky, dark blood a lump builds in my throat so strong that the only way it can be released is through tears that silently drip down my face and a painful, lead-like weight in my stomach. I think about all of the times I’ve run my hands through hair like this—the wild, unruly Arab curls of friends, family members and friends who are like family. I think about how they could have been Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi. Or Abdulrahman al-Aulaqi could have been them. It is an indescribable and unforgettable pain.

And it isn’t fair to minimize this pain for anyone—whether they are Black, Brown or White. It is inappropriate, useless and counter-productive. Ultimately, our racialized bodies and particularly the racialized bodies of the men in our communities are at the mercy of the same laws and oppressive forces of power that killed Trayvon and Abdulrahman. Instead of privileging one cause over the other—whether that is misappropriating the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s killing into a conversation about the drone war or questioning what the purpose of discussing the detrimental effects of foreign policy and the national security state when there are issues of domestic racism and mass incarceration at home—we need to share our stories, listen to each others stories and find our common ground—which there is plenty—to question and combat those in power, whether they are the domestic forces targeting and criminalizing innocent teenagers, or the military might of our national security state that is killing our relatives and loved ones with our tax dollars.

This is something that the white male commentators who capitalize on our plights for column inches and Twitter fame don’t quite understand.

Photo by Don Mcullough, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license