More than 4,000 miles from Sanford, Florida, a young British man’s cellphone sprang to life when the George Zimmerman verdict was delivered. Dean Atta’s friends wanted to know if the award-winning poet and spoken word performer intended to respond to Zimmerman’s acquittal in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
Atta had his reservations.
“Because I’m not American, I didn’t want to impose my thoughts and my feelings on people at this time,” Atta, 28, told BET.com. A short period spent questioning his reluctance prompted Atta to pen “Black Britain and Black America” that same evening.
“I wanted to rationalize why I didn’t feel like I could comment,” said Atta. “This is injustice against a fellow Black man and a fellow human being, you know? Why can’t I relate to it?”
Throughout the poem, he admits that while the two communities and their respective histories are not identical, both Black Americans and Black Brits have experienced similar forms of racial profiling and stereotyping:
“I Am Trayvon Martin/For our races and birthplaces/We are not to blame/ I stare into this shattered mirror/A society that reflects our own/Black America, you are not alone”
“It just really broke my heart to see what was going on,” he said. “It’s just a small kind of way of saying, ‘I hear you; I feel you.’”
Addressing racial controversies is nothing new to Atta. The racially motivated murder of another young Black man inspired “I Am Nobody’s N----r,” Atta's 2012 poem that resulted in a book deal after the piece went viral on social media.
“Rappers when you use the word ‘n----r’ remember that's one of the last words Stephen Lawrence heard, so don't tell me it's a reclaimed word,” wrote Atta in the poem’s opening. Lawrence was just 18 when he was killed by a group of white youths while waiting for a bus home on the evening of April 22, 1993.
Lawrence’s death, one of the highest-profile racial killings in U.K. history, mirrored the Trayvon Martin shooting in that it sparked widespread controversy and heated public debate around racism, the law and police practices. Rampant institutional racism within the police force — as revealed in a public government inquiry — stalled the ultimate conviction of two suspects for almost 20 years, delaying justice for the determined Lawrence family.
The Stephen Lawrence case materialized once impalpable notions of institutional racism and judicial inequity to a then 8-year-old Atta. So, when claims of an undercover police operation aiming to smear the Lawrence family and their close supporters emerged in June 2013, he was not surprised.
“I think that would have been a common practice for most cases involving Black people from the police back then,” Atta said. “I think we were criminalized before we were helped.”
Though specific elements differentiate the two cases, the death of Martin and the death of Lawrence both thrust discussions of present-day race relations and the welfare of young Black men into international headlines. Striking similarities between the two cases — namely the interrogation of Martin's and Lawrence’s character versus that of their killers — have inextricably bound the young men’s legacies to Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Amadou Diallo and other young, guiltless Black men gunned down on assumptive grounds.
Atta and dozens of other Trayvon Martin supporters and organizations gathered before the American Embassy in central London on June 16 to rally against the Zimmerman verdict. Cries of “No Justice; No Peace” and fiery personal testimonies had rung out amidst a larger crowd of demonstrators and armed authorities the day before, whereas more strategic, action-based dialogues and contemplative mourning took place that Tuesday afternoon.
A third rally organized by local activist Lee Jasper has been scheduled for July 27. Still thousands of miles away from Black America, Atta plans to join the march, feeling closer to his distant cousins than ever before.
“When I write something, I feel like I’m a lot more articulate than I would be if I’m shouting at a demonstration,” he said.
“But my mum always tells me, ‘Actions speak louder than words.’”
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(Photos from left: Courtesy Trayvon Martin Family, Metropolitan Police via Getty Images)