Walking While Black

double20dutchWhen Trayvon Martin was killed, the common description of his death was that he was killed for “walking while black.” Not surprisingly, the “while black” was the main focus of public discussion, in some ways inaugurating the Black Lives Matter movement. But “walking” is also important.

One of my main reactions to the case and verdict was that it was going to make it that much harder to convince parents it was okay to let their almost-grown kids walk places, and that part of the reason Zimmerman targeted Martin was because our society has now marginalized walking and simple freedom of movement without a car to the point the activity itself is seen as suspicious in most parts of the country. Ivan Illich wrote about a similar phenomenon in his essay, “Silence is a Commons,”

What a difference there was between the new and the old parts of Mexico City only 20 years ago. In the old parts of the city the streets were true commons. Some people sat on the road to sell vegetables and charcoal. Others put their chairs on the road to drink coffee or tequila. Others held their meetings on the road to decide on the new headman for the neighbourhood or to determine the price of a donkey. Others drove their donkeys through the crowd, walking next to the heavily loaded beast of burden; others sat in the saddle. Children played in the gutter, and still people walking could use the road to get from one place to another.

Such roads were not built for people. Like any true commons, the street itself was the result of people living there and making that space liveable. The dwellings that lined the roads were not private homes in the modern sense – garages for the overnight deposit of workers. The threshold still separated two living spaces, one intimate and one common. But neither homes in this intimate sense nor streets as commons survived economic development.

In the new sections of Mexico City, streets are no more for people. They are now roadways for automobiles, for buses, for taxis, cars, and trucks. People are barely tolerated on the streets unless they are on their way to a bus stop. If people now sat down or stopped on the street, they would become obstacles for traffic, and traffic would be dangerous to them. The road has been degraded from a commons to a simple resource for the circulation of vehicles. People can circulate no more on their own. Traffic has displaced their mobility. They can circulate only when they are strapped down and are moved.

Illich blames the loss of this freedom of the commons on economic development, but the near-total absence of children from the streets– the abrupt silence after many centuries of children’s noise and play– has been so sudden and complete in recent years that its causes obviously go far beyond mere capitalism and growth.  You can blame this on the “criminalization of childhood,” on technology and children’s constant immersion in media and screens, on obesity, on overprotective parents, on an increasing obsession with academic outcomes and early accomplishment and little time for unstructured play and, yes, at times on racism, too. But it’s clearly one of the signal phenomena of our times.


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