Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

  • Television and the Appearance of Authority

    I was fortunate enough to invited to to be a panelist on Up With Chris Hayes. I've said before how much respect I've long held for Chris is a thinker as a writer. (Let me again link this prescient piece on Obama and pragmatism.) To see him--along with Melissa Harris-Perry--extend his breed of hard study out into the world of television has been remarkable, and frankly, something I didn't think was possible.

    Before Chris started his own show, when he was guest-hosting, we'd often have discussions about me coming on to talk. I mostly declined early on and then slowly warmed to the idea, almost wholly out of my trust in the work I'd seen from Chris. My general sense, when I was trying to establish myself as a writer, was that it would be the ultimate disgrace for me to wind up as "From the Left" guy on some cable news show. That the format--with all its inherent constraints--is now opening up to something more than professional talkers is progress.

    At any rate, here is a clip where Chris asked about reluctance to appear on television and why I was now doing it more in relation to Trayvon Martin. There's a lot more from the show worth discussing which I'll link to throughout the week.
  • All Black Friends Are not Created Equal

    The report from Zimmerman's African American friend does not vindicate the his use of a racial slur.

    Joe Oliver, an African-American friend of George Zimmerman, tells us that he doesn't believe Zimmerman said "coons" and even if he did "coons" is not actually a racially offensive term:


    That's a term I listened to over and over on there and to me, it's a matter of interpretation of whether he's saying 'coon' or 'goon.' There are a lot of parts of this country where people proudly call themselves 'coon asses,' in Louisiana in particular.
    One reason why having a black friend(s) says little about your identity is that black friends are human friends, and thus subject to all the array of ignorances that all other human friends are subject to. 

    As ThinkProgress reports "coon ass" is most certainly an offensive term. The fact that some people use it proudly, only shows that some people have a sense of irony and an understanding of context . Toby Kieth's White Trash With Money is ironic. Me going calling a white dude on the street I'm arguing with "white trash" is not. 

    These subtle differences are important, and nothing about being "black" guarantees you will be nimble enough to understand them. I'm sure I can find an Asian-American, somewhere, who will assure me that I may use chink at my leisure and not expect an ass-kicking to follow. But I think it best to decline.
  • What If Trayvon Martin Swung First?

    As a legal question, it may not matter. By the lights of Florida's law, Zimmerman doesn't need much to immunize himself.

    There was a lot of new reporting out yesterday, that wasn't really new:


    With a single punch, Trayvon Martin decked the Neighborhood Watch volunteer who eventually shot and killed the unarmed 17-year-old, then Trayvon climbed on top of George Zimmerman and slammed his head into the sidewalk, leaving him bloody and battered, law-enforcement authorities told the Orlando Sentinel. 

    That is the account Zimmerman gave police, and much of it has been corroborated by witnesses, authorities say. There have been no reports that a witness saw the initial punch Zimmerman told police about.
    Aside from getting knocked out with one punch, Zimmerman's account was already out. The Sentinel's account of what the witnesses actually saw is vague. From what I can tell, no one actually saw Martin throw the first punch, but someone did see him getting the better of Zimmerman.

    I think two things are worth remembering here. In the earliest defense of Zimmerman given by his father, it was claimed that "at no time did George follow or confront Mr. Martin." This was proven false by the 911 tapes which showed that Martin in fact ran from Zimmerman, and Zimmerman chased him. I'm very interested in what would make a kid whose greatest offense to society, seem to be weed and juvenile tweets, simply cold-cock a man and repeatedly slam his head against the ground for no reason.

    As a legal question, it may not much matter. By the lights of Florida's law, Zimmerman doesn't need much to immunize himself. Part of what's disturbing  about this case, is I can easily imagine myself in Martin's shoes. If you are following me in a truck, if you come out your truck to pursue and eventually confront me, it would not take much for me to believe that I needed to do whatever it took to stand my own ground.

    I can't say I would wait for you to swing, anymore than the law expects defendants pleading self-defense to wait for someone else to shoot. 
  • Trayvon Martin Updates

    The Sanford police chief is done, Obama offers a brief remark, and Geraldo Rivera blames hoodies




    First, Sanford police chief Bill Lee is done -- for now.

    Second, here is an absolutely disgusting clip from Geraldo Rivera, who essentially blames Trayvon Martin's death on the fact that he was wearing a hoodie. In the rain:

    It's those crime scene surveillance tapes. Every time you see someone sticking up a 7-11, the kid is wearing a hoodie. Every time you see a mugging on a surveillance camera or they get the old lady in the alcove, it's a kid wearing a hoodie. You have to recognize that this whole stylizing yourself as a gangsta, you're gonna be a gangsta wannabe? Well, people are going to perceive you as a menace. 

    That's what happens. It is an instant reflexive action. Remember Juan Williams, our colleague? Our brilliant colleague? He got in trouble with NPR because he said Muslims in formal garb at the airport conjure a certain reaction in him or response in him? That's an automatic reflex. Juan wasn't defending it. He was explaining that that's what happens when he sees these particular people in that particular place. 

    When you see a black or Latino youngster, particularly on the street, you walk to the other side of the street. You try to avoid that confrontation. Trayvon Martin's you know, god bless him, he's an innocent kid, a wonderful kid, a box of Skittles in his hand. He didn't deserve to die. But I'll bet you money, if he didn't have that hoodie on, that -- that nutty neighborhood watch guy wouldn't have responded in that violent and aggressive way.

    As someone said on Twitter, this is, essentially, the "what you were wearing" rapist's defense.  That really is about the best you can say. Again, the personal callousness is striking.

    Finally, I was on PBS Newshour last night. Video here.

    MORE: Obama offers a brief comment.

    Video up top. Stunning. Pitch perfect. No idea how it'll play. Don't care right now. Maybe I'll care later. But for now, I just felt it was a stunning exercise in political minimalism. That's a compliment.
  • Did George Zimmerman Use A Racial Slur?

    I've been slow on this, mostly because I haven't been sure what to say. The question at hand is whether Zimmerman muttered "fucking coons" during the 911 call minutes before he killed Trayvon Martin. Several people whom I respect--all of them black actually--don't hear it. When I listened, I heard it immediately and in this CNN account, I hear it clear as day. I don't know what that means. 


    But we need to be clear about the importance of this. This is not merely a matter of "Is George Zimmerman racist?" The major barrier to a federal case is demonstrating racial animus. If Zimmerman actually did use a racial slur before he killed Martin, then you have the makings of a federal case. 

    So this isn't merely the old fun "Is it racist?" parlor game, as Jeffrey Toobin says below, this is extremely significant. 

    UPDATE: One of those people whom I respect, now hears it with the CNN audio.


  • Stand Your Ground and Vigilante Justice

    Trayvon Martin is merely the worst case of some one avoiding justice through Stand Your Ground. He is, by no means, the only.

    Trayvon Martin is merely the worst case of some one avoiding justice through Stand Your Ground. He is, by no means, the only. To wit:


    Greyston Garcia was charged with second-degree murder in the slaying of Pedro Roteta, 26, whom he chased for more than a block before stabbing the man. 

    The incident took place on Jan. 25, when Roteta and another youth were behind Garcia's apartment at 201 SW 18th Ct. According to police, Roteta was stealing Garcia's truck radio. Garcia, alerted by a roommate, grabbed a large knife and ran downstairs. 

    He chased Roteta, then stabbed him in a confrontation that lasted less than a minute, according to court documents. The stabbing was caught on video. 

    Roteta was carrying a bag filled with three stolen radios, but no weapon other than a pocketknife, which was unopened in his pocket and which police said he never brandished. 

    After initially denying involvement in the man's death, Garcia admitted to homicide detectives that he attacked Roteta even though "he actually never saw a weapon." 

    Garcia claimed Roteta made a move that he interpreted as a move to stab him -- so he struck first.
    Yesterday the judge tossed the case against Garcia. The investigating officer was stunned:

    Miami police Sgt. Ervens Ford, who supervised the Garcia case, was floored when told Wednesday of the judge's decision. Ford called the law and the decision by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom a "travesty of justice." "

    How can it be Stand Your Ground?" said Ford, a longtime homicide investigator who on his off-day on Monday plans to attend a rally in the Trayvon case in Sanford with his two teenage sons. "It's on [surveillance] video! You can see him stabbing the victim . . ." 
    In the case of Martin we have--as long as there areno immediate witnesses--presumably the right to bait a fight, kill the "assailant," and then escape on self-defense. In the case of Garcia we have the right to essentially kill anyone who harms our property or person, if we claim we perceived them to be menacing us with potentially lethal violence.

    Then there is this case:

    Shortly after 2 a.m., three vehicles were headed south on East Lake Road -- one driven by Brandon Baker, the second by Seth Browning, and the third by Brandon's twin, Christopher Baker. Browning told deputies that he had become concerned about Brandon Baker's driving. In an attempt to get his tag number, Browning followed him onto the frontage road. The third car followed the other two. 

    The vehicles came to a stop, and Brandon Baker got out of his Chevy pickup and aggressively approached Browning's car, deputies said. Browning responded by using pepper spray on Baker and his brother, who was also approaching Browning's car. Deputies say Brandon Baker reached into Browning's vehicle and punched him, and he in turn pulled out his gun and shot Brandon Baker. Browning called 911 and stayed at the scene until sheriff's deputies arrived.
    I can't escape the the thought that if Baker had, himself, been carrying he might be alive today. He conceivably could have shot Browning--noting that he had been followed for several miles, and then pepper-sprayed him, when he tried to investigate. 

    What we have in Florida--and doubtlessly in other parts of the country--is the state relinquishing a crucial aspect of meting out justice. The logic here militates toward getting a gun--even for people who don't like guns. The logic incentivizes an armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead.

    Perhaps that is the point. I have no idea. 
  • Two Thoughts on Trayvon Martin

    The first from my colleague, Andrew Cohen who gives us some sense of what the case against Zimmerman will look like when the prosecutor puts it before the grand jury

    The first from my colleague, Andrew Cohen who gives us some sense of what the case against Zimmerman will look like when the prosecutor puts it before the grand jury. Cohen zeroes in on the claim by Martin's girlfriend that Martin was attempting to flee:


    This is the essence of this case. If grand jurors believe this story, there is no reason not to indict Zimmerman. And if trial jurors believe this story, it is likely that Zimmerman would be convicted of a crime. You can't "reasonably" be trying to avoid serious injury or death, you can't be doing something absolutely necessary to spare your own life, if you are at the same time chasing down the very person you claim to be deathly fearful of. Even under Florida's addled self-defense law, even under its most strident interpretation from its worst judge, such an explanation makes no sense.

    We know from the 911 tapes what Zimmerman's motive might have been in going after Martin the way he did. But what would Martin's motive have been to attack Zimmerman, who was 11 years older and 100 pounds heavier than him? That's a question grand jurors will have to answer if and when they are confronted by the evident conflict between Zimmerman's story and the version offered by Martin's girlfriend. And it is here where the failings of the police investigation will likely deprive grand jurors of all the pertinent evidence and information they might have had, and should have had, in looking into this tragedy.
    The last part is crucial. We have a good idea of who Zimmerman is; a guy who called 911 almost weekly -- once to report a group of kids "playing in the street" and another time to report two black men who were "hanging out" by the gate -- and ignored the dispatchers instructions not to pursue Trayvon Martin. Why would Martin, a teenager with no criminal or violent history, ambush Zimmerman from behind? And why would he do it while on the phone with his girlfriend?

    The second thought is from me. I was on WNYC this morning talking to Brian Lehrer. I lost it a bit when Brian played the tape, and then lost it a bit more when a caller impugned the release of the statement from Martin's girlfriend, and pitched the police as blameless. I try to make a point of keeping cool. But there is something about those tapes that is heart-breaking, and the caller just pushed me over.


  • The Sham Investigation Into Trayvon Martin's Killing

    Florida police refuse to consider certain evidence

    As it happens, Trayvon Martin was on the phone when George Zimmerman was following him. The young lady with whom he was speaking, through her lawyer, talked to ABC News:

    "He said this man was watching him, so he put his hoodie on. He said he lost the man," Martin's friend said. "I asked Trayvon to run, and he said he was going to walk fast. I told him to run but he said he was not going to run." 

    Eventually he would run, said the girl, thinking that he'd managed to escape. But suddenly the strange man was back, cornering Martin. "Trayvon said, 'What, are you following me for,' and the man said, 'What are you doing here.' Next thing I hear is somebody pushing, and somebody pushed Trayvon because the head set just fell. I called him again and he didn't answer the phone." 

    The line went dead. Besides screams heard on 911 calls that night as Martin and Zimmerman scuffled, those were the last words he said.
    ABC News verified that Martin did talk to the young lady by looking at his phone records. I don't know that they can corroborate the exact contents of the conversation.

    Nevertheless, when you read this, it's worth remembering the tale Zimmerman told the cops:
    Zimmerman said he had stepped out of his truck to check the name of the street he was on when Trayvon attacked him from behind as he walked back to his truck, police said. He said he feared for his life and fired the semiautomatic handgun he was licensed to carry because he feared for his life.  
    This tale was broadly repeated by Zimmerman's father who claimed that his son had neither pursued nor confronted Martin.

    We know that this is almost certainly fiction. We have Zimmerman's on the 911 call explicitly stating that he was pursuing Martin because, "These assholes. They always get away."And we now have someone on the phone claiming a "strange man" was following Martin. 

    Again, I don't know that Zimmerman will ever do a lick of jail time, or even see a court room. But what angers people is not simply that Zimmerman might get off, but that the Sanford police would conduct a shoddy investigation, claim it was thorough, and then claim that all who objected were compromised by prejudice:
    Our investigation is color blind and based on the facts and circumstances, not color. I know I can say that until I am blue in the face, but, as a white man in a uniform, I know it doesn't mean anything to anybody.
    This investigation wasn't one. It was a sham, an homage to the bad old days of Southern justice. Lee should resign. 

    Emily Bazelon has more on the actual laws in Florida, though the more I see of this, the less I think "Stand Your Ground" will save Zimmerman.
  • Feds and the State of Florida Move on the Martin Case

    Maybe they can rectify this flawed investigation

    A welcome development:
    The federal and state agencies are intervening in what attorneys call a botched investigation into the killing of the Michael Krop Senior High School student, who was killed Feb. 26 in Sanford, a town of 55,000 just north of Orlando. The teen, on suspension from school, was staying at his father's girlfriend's house when he stepped out to 7-Eleven to buy candy and iced tea. 

    A neighborhood watch volunteer with a long history of calling in everything from open garage doors to "suspicious characters" called police to say he spotted someone who looked drugged, was walking too slowly in the rain, and appeared to be looking at people's houses. Zimmerman sounded alarmed, because the stranger had his hand in his waistband and had something in his other hand. 

    The unarmed teen carried Skittles and Arizona iced tea.
    I don't know what this means in terms of the chances of a trial or a conviction. It is almost beside the point. What was so infuriating about this case was not simply that Florida law made it hard to prosecute, or that a federal charge would face such a high standard. It was the slipshod manner in which the Sanford police conducted this investigation,  and the damning message it sent to the citizens it allegedly was sworn to protect. 

    Zimmerman also blatantly violated major principles of the Neighborhood Watch manual, ABC News has learned. 

    The manual, from the National Neighborhood Watch Program, states: "It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers, and they shall not carry weapons or pursue vehicles. They should also be cautioned to alert police or deputies when encountering strange activity. Members should never confront suspicious persons who could be armed and dangerous...."

    According to Chris Tutko, the director of the National Neighborhood Watch Program, there are about 22,000 registered watch groups nationwide, and Zimmerman was not part of a registered group -- another fact the police were not aware of at the time of the incident.
    What now have is, hopefully, an end to Keystone justice and, at the very least, a statement that the authorities will regard the killing of a child with something more than the lax scrutiny generally reserved for a broken tail-light. 

    Again, I'll take all of this over a "teachable moment" which would almost certainly make this thing into a fiasco to be batted around by "strategist" from the "right" and the "left." We talked earlier about comforting Martin's parents. I don't want to speak for them, but I imagine they would rather this kind of attention, then the kind that comes from serious issues being reduced to polling questions.
  • Sanford's Police Chief Is the Real Victim of Racism

    Props to commenter Ian for catching yet another disgraceful quote from Sanford police chief Bill Lee:


    Our investigation is color blind and based on the facts and circumstances, not color. I know I can say that until I am blue in the face, but, as a white man in a uniform, I know it doesn't mean anything to anybody.

    When you read this sort of absurdist inversion--white men with guns and the legal right to kill are the true victims--it's always worth examining the historical context, helpfully outlined here by Trymaine Lee

    Somewhat related, see my colleague James Fallows on the importance of not seeing Trayvon Martin as simply a "black" case:

    ...this case is obviously about race, and is important on those grounds. Race relations are after all the original and ongoing tension in U.S. history. But it is also about self-government, rule of law, equality before the law, accountability of power, and every other value that we contend is integral to the American ideal -- and also to "the America idea," exploration of which was the founding idea of the Atlantic Monthly back in 1857.

    I just want to echo this sentiment and expand on it a bit. The approach here is not "either it's about race or it isn't." It's "this is about race along with..." From the outset, I sought to understand, not simply how the state of Florida's views young black men, but how its self-defense laws impact citizens, regardless of color. 

    Moreover, it's worth understanding that this movement toward an absurdly low threshold for self-defense claims is a national one, which is making headway in states where very few black people live. As is often the case, black people bear a spectacular burden for bad public policy. But the burden is never solely--and rarely even mostly--born by black people. 
  • Gone Writin'

    Hey guys. This week will be a little slow as I'm (finally) off to write. Consider this you're early open thread.

  • On the Police 'Investigating' the Killing of Trayvon Martin

    Increasingly, it appears that the Sanford police are not conducting a proper investigation.

    Digby flags this quote and gives us some sense of the operation Bill Lee is running down in Sanford


     "We are taking a beating over this," said Lee, who defends the investigation. "This is all very unsettling. I'm sure if George Zimmerman had the opportunity to relive Sunday, Feb. 26, he'd probably do things differently. I'm sure Trayvon would, too."
    That is an incredibly ugly statement filled with the kind of passive maliciousness for the victim and his family. That he is the police chief is frightening.

    More:
    Ibrahim Rashada, a 25-year-old African American who works at U.S. Airways, once spotted young men cutting through the woods entering the complex on foot, and later learned items were stolen those days. 

    "It's a gated community, but you can walk in and steal whatever you want," Rashada's wife, Quianna, said. They discussed the topic with Zimmerman when the watch captain knocked on their door late last year. Zimmerman seemed friendly, helpful, and a "pretty cool dude," Ibrahim Rashada said. 

    "He came by here and talked about carrying guns and getting my wife more involved with guns," he said. "He said I should have a weapon and that his wife took classes to learn how to use one. "I do have a weapon, but I don't walk around the neighborhood with mine!" 

    Actually, he does not walk around the neighborhood at all. 

     "I fit the stereotype he emailed around," he said. "Listen, you even hear me say it: 'A black guy did this. A black guy did that.' So I thought, 'Let me sit in the house. I don't want anyone chasing me.' " 

    For walks, he goes downtown. A pregnant Quianna listened to her husband's rationale, dropped her head, and cried.  

    UPDATE:

    ABC News has learned police seemed to accept Zimmerman's account at face value that night and that he was not tested for drugs or alcohol on the night of the shooting, even though it is standard procedure in most homicide investigations.
  • Alexandra Pelosi's Inane Attempt to Offend 'Both Sides'



    Alexandra Pelosi goes to a welfare office in New York and proves that she can be as dickish to poor black people as she can to poor white people. Pelosi's commentary is worth listening to. She evidently is declining to understand the critique, preferring instead to undermine it by proving that her sneering knows no bounds. But cruelty is cruelty and the fact that one's condescension is of the rainbow doesn't make one any less condescending. 

    Pelosi thinks she's surprising by her willingness to unleash her quick wit against poor black people. But there is nothing noteworthy about offending "both sides," a feat that can be managed simply relieving yourself on a crowded street. Moreover, very few black people who've spent time in the white world will be shocked to learn that liberals are just as capable as conservatives as regarding them as objects to be invoked at their leisure. 

    That a person who would use journalism to render whole geographies as cartoons, would journey to friendlier environs and pull the same vapid trick should be expected. If your work doesn't actually acknowledge people as full human beings, there's no real reason--short of naked racism--why you wouldn't deploy the white toothless hoarder as a weapon, with the same zeal that you would deploy the black layabouts and drag-behind.

    I thought liberals were against the dehumanization of the powerless?  When did we decide that there really was something to the lame-ass "both sides" trick? Since when did shitting on poor and working people become worthy of self-congratulation? When did punching down become avant-garde? 

    I think the worse part about this is that I actually enjoyed Pelosi's Ted Haggard documentary. It actually displayed some degree of sympathy, and while fully airing him out, somehow managed to not mock him. Maybe I need to rewatch.

    As an aside, those of you inclined to think (as Pelosi evidently does) that I'm doing this because I'm a liberal, should read my prior post on her other video. 




  • The Killing of Trayvon Martin: 911 Tapes Released

    The call that began the disturbing chain of events.

    Via Trymaine Lee, disturbing, disturbing stuff:


    ...for the first time, we hear the voice of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch captain who admitted to police that he shot Martin, who was walking home from a convenience store to his father's home in the gated community. Zimmerman has not been arrested or charged in the shooting. 

    "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something," Zimmerman tells the 911 operator. "He's just staring, looking at all the houses. Now he's coming toward me. He's got his hand in his waistband. Something's wrong with him." 

    Zimmerman described Martin as wearing a hoodie and sweatpants or jeans. He continues: "He's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is. Can we get an officer over here?" 

     "These assholes always get away," he says to the operator. Zimmerman is then heard giving directions to the dispatcher. 

    "Shit, he's running," Zimmerman says. 

    "Are you following him?" the dispatchers asked. "Yes," Zimmerman responds. 

     "We don't need you to do that," the dispatcher says.

    Dude, we really, really don't. There are reports of screaming for help on the tape. It's not clear to me who's actually doing the screaming.

    With the drumbeat of attention coming forward, I would be shocked if Zimmerman wasn't arrested and charged. His decision to pursue Martin for, at the worst, walking toward his car, putting his hand in waist-band, and then running away was tragically reckless. And perhaps worse. We just don't know yet.

    MORE: It should be added that George Zimmerman's Dad released a letter to the media earlier today decrying his son's depiction as a "racist" and claiming that Zimmerman hadn't followed or confronted Martin:

    "At no time did George follow or confront Mr. Martin. When the true details of the event become public, and I hope that will be soon, everyone should be outraged by the treatment of George Zimmerman in the media," the letter said.
    I don't want to speak for anyone else, but the contents of George Zimmerman's heart aren't really uppermost in my mind. I'm much more interested in what his son actually did that night and the fact that his father's denials are directly at odds with what Zimmerman reported to the dispatchers.

    MORE: From The Times description of the tapes:

    On the recordings, one shot, an apparent warning or miss, is heard, followed by a voice begging or pleading, and a cry. A second shot is then heard, and the pleading stops.
    This really escalates things in my mind. I am slow learner. I try to give as much benefit of the doubt as possible, mostly because I've seen people (myself included) get carried away with these sorts of cases, only to find out things are more complicated than they appear. That may still be true.

    But my feeling, at this moment, is that the decision to not arrest Zimmerman, along with ugly history of Sanford's police, really point to a department incapable of handling this case. Oversight should not be out of the question.

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