They Killed the Boy, But Kept Their Hats On
by Lizz Brown / October 24th, 2007
The entire horrific crime was captured on tape, and a (second) autopsy showed 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson died of suffocation after being gang-muscled by guards on his very first day at a Florida boot camp. Despite the medical and video evidence, an all-white jury took only 90 minutes to find the guards innocent of all wrongdoing — a miscarriage of justice so blatant it recalls the worst days of official Jim Crow lawlessness. The guards — who were careful to keep their hats sitting jauntily on their heads throughout the fatal assault on Anderson — enjoyed the impunity that flows from a society in which Black life has no value.
It has nearly all of the makings of a snuff film — exploitation, cruelty, violence and of course murder — a 60-minute video (view it by clicking, below) that captures the first moments at Panama City, Florida, boot camp and the last few minutes of life for 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson. Most of us met lanky Martin only through the lens of that video camera. We were not there to introduce ourselves as Martin’s poor unconscious, adolescent body was slapped against the concrete time and time again.
We were not there as guards walked away from Martin, dusting off their hands as if it were the little bits of dirt picked up from his last thrashings of life that deserved prompt and immediate attention. We were not there to meet him — we could only get to know him after.
An introduction in absentia: how dreadful for us and how deadly for Martin.
As we watch this video of men brutalizing a child, it is striking how unmoved they appear. No one seemed touched by Martin Lee’s urgent and desperate actions. This child tried to explain, he begged, he pleaded and not one of these super-sized men seemed interested.
Eventually, Martin collapsed into unconsciousness. And even then he was unable to connect with those men. They continued to stuff ammonia tablets down his throat to “Get Him Up!” as if Martin’s lifeless body was a liar and an act of defiance.
Why did they treat Martin Lee like that? Why, in the middle of a melee, were these militarily dapper men, more successful in keeping their hats on than keeping a child safe? Why? The answer is revolting and yet simple. These men were able to keep their hats on because they know America keeps her hat on, her bonnet straight, in the midst of acts of raging racist lawlessness.
These men knew what America refuses to say — they knew that they would not have to spend one day in jail, they knew that they would end up with an all white jury and they knew that no jury of their peers would convict them for killing a Black child in a boot camp. They knew.
A little over one year later, after deliberating for only 90 minutes and despite controversy, video tapes of the crimes, suffocation conclusions by the coroner’s office, multi-million dollar admissions of guilt and protests, an all white jury kept their hats on and found no one guilty of anything.
They say that the Justice Department may charge the defendants with civil rights violations and another trial will take place. Maybe so. Perhaps they will get a conviction. I hope so. But at the end of the day, let us be honest about the legacy of America and what really happened to Martin Lee Anderson here in America.
A little black boy was battered, assaulted and suffocated to death by mostly white men in uniform. His murder was captured on tape and seared into our minds. The first and only charge directed to the State of Florida was to put someone in jail — for a long time. An all white jury in Florida refused to rock the boat.
After all, they had to keep their hats on.