The powerful reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin could be a catalyst for addressing the shadow of suspicion black boys and men live under.
One month ago, on Feb. 26, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. The killing slowly worked its way into the national media and has become one of those cases that grip us emotionally and bring clarity to issues that have long resisted resolution.
It takes the lid off that foul mess in the trash can under the sink so that we get a full hit of its stink. So that we know it’s time to take the trash out.
The killing, and the way it was handled by the police and prosecutor, say something about who we are as a nation. The broad outrage that followed speaks loudly to who we want to be, who we can be if we use this tragedy as a vehicle for change.
Fear of black men, especially young ones, is on trial here. Inequality is on trial. Zimmerman should be on trial, but he is not.
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Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking from a convenience store to his father’s home in a mostly white gated community in Sanford, a community near Orlando.
George Zimmerman, 28, a Neighborhood Watch captain saw him, decided he looked suspicious, and called police. Trayvon was black. Zimmerman’s father is white; his mother is from Peru.
Zimmerman told police the person in the hoodie had something in his hand. Trayvon had ice tea and a bag of Skittles.
Zimmerman followed Trayvon, against police advice, confronted him, and shot him.
Zimmerman said it was self-defense, and the police left him free to go about his business. The prosecutor has brought no charges. Oh, but police did question witness reports of the boy crying out, pleading with the older man. It must have been Zimmerman they heard, police said. What armed man wouldn’t be afraid of a black kid in a hoodie?
So is the solution to ban hoodies and make all teenage black males stay indoors at night?
Maybe it’s silly, but it occurs to me a man with a history of violence — he once shoved an officer who was trying to arrest a friend, and in another instance was accused of domestic violence — shouldn’t have easy access to a handgun, and a permit to carry it.
The law Zimmerman uses as a shield, is the “stand your ground” law, a form of which has been enacted in 21 states. In Florida’s version, all a killer has to do is to say he was scared. I don’t know whether Zimmerman was in that moment, but the judgment he made about Trayvon and the acceptance of it by police grow out of a dangerous bias-driven fear.
The whole country has work to do to address its fear of black males. It is rational to fear dangerous criminals, but it is not rational when that fear envelopes an entire category of people, the overwhelming majority of whom aren’t about to harm anyone.
Recently, I attended a neighborhood meeting on crime in Southeast Seattle. The area is quite racially mixed, but most of the people who attended the meeting were white. At least a couple admitted their fears were leading them to categorize a whole group of young people.
Crime tends to stay within races, but emotions trump statistics.
The fear of crime leads the country to imprison a larger percentage of its population than any other nation by far. Black men are incarcerated at about seven times the rate of white men, and not all of the difference is accounted for differences in crime rates between the races. And we start early singling out black boys. The biggest group in prison are men who dropped out of school. Discipline out of proportion to actions helps drive those numbers up for black boys.
What happens in schools affects far more lives than do vigilantes like Zimmerman.
Trayvon did well in school, but he was, in the end, just another scary black kid in a hoodie.
Fear can make people embrace insane ideas as normal; the German slaughter of Jews is a prime example. We have many of our own: the Chinese exclusion and current attitudes about immigration, Japanese internment, decimation of Native American tribes. I could go on.
An innocent kid is dead, and the person who shot him is not even held for a minute. That is a tragedy that stirs our emotions. By marching and signing petitions people declare our community values.
Changing some of the dynamics that led to this death will make a lasting memorial and further enshrine the sweet smell of justice and equality in our society.
Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or email@example.com.