For Young Black Men, ‘Trayvon Martin Was You’
For any young person of color who has felt the weighted gaze of a racial profiler, the story of Trayvon Martin hits close to home.
Martin, an African-American teenager, was walking to his father’s fiancé’s house from a local convenience store when he was reportedly chased, confronted, and shot dead by a white neighborhood watchmen.
What happened to 17-year-old Martin was anything but isolated. Countless young, black, unarmed men are profiled on a daily basis—but most often they’re not the victims of one killer’s obsession with crime fighting in his local neighborhood. Instead, they are victims of law enforcement institutions entrusted to serve and protect.
VIDEO: Trayvon Martin's Parents Speak Out:
In Martin’s case, it was 28-year-old George Zimmerman who pulled the trigger. But it was the pervasive culture of racial profiling, the stereotyping of young, black males pushed by local police departments, federal agencies, and the justice system that should be found guilty of loading this killer’s head with dangerous images of hooded, black men whose “staring” and “walking” is always criminalized.
Zimmerman was an ill-trained, unregistered volunteer neighborhood watchman who has been painted by the media as a possible racist, a possible drunk, with a fixation on crime—but the Zimmermans of the world don’t just appear out of thin air. They are carefully kneaded and molded into a culture of surveillance, and policing of young black men’s behavior that isn’t just indicative of the racists, or drunks, or vigilantes but expertly trained and licensed law enforcement agents.
When Zimmerman called police, he told the dispatcher that Martin was wearing a dark hoodie and looked suspicious. He "looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something,” Zimmerman said, according to 911 calls released by the Sanford, Fla., Police Department. When asked to describe Martin’s behavior, Zimmerman said Martin just “looked wrong” for allegedly “staring at the houses” in the neighborhood.
Zimmerman’s absurdly vague description of Martin’s “suspicious” behavior—staring, walking around with a hood on, and just looking “wrong”—has been the subject of media ridicule and public scorn. If he were badged and dressed in blue, few would dismiss his assessment.
In response to statistics that New York City police officers were disproportionately stopping-and-frisking thousands of young black men, the agency cited “furtive movements” as the number one reason. Evidently, it’s not only men like Zimmerman who think being young and black warrants pursuit and confrontation. Last year, 87 percent of the more than 680,000 New Yorkers stopped-and-frisked by the NYPD were young black and Latino men—and just like Martin, the overwhelming majority were unarmed (90 percent of searches resulted in no weapons or drugs).
And it’s these types of institutionalized forms of racial profiling and policing of young black men who are guilty of nothing else butbeing that cue men like Zimmerman—who reportedly dreamed of being a cop—to label young men like Martin as inherently “wrong.” It shouldn’t be too difficult to infer that a man with a fixation on crime reporting who volunteers for community policing would emulate the very tactics of racial profiling used by the experts in law enforcement.
In this case, the local experts Zimmerman deferred to were Sanford city police officers, who have been the crux of harsh criticism for their haphazard handling of the investigation. Instead of trying to collect as many facts to paint a more vivid picture of what happened on that rainy night in February, officers made several gaffes—like not testing Zimmerman for drugs and alcohol (a standard procedure in death investigations), sending a Narcotics officer to the scene of the crime instead of a Homicide detective, and correcting key witnesses who reportedly heard screams of a young man crying for help moments before Martin was killed.
Despite knowing Zimmerman pursued Martin on foot with a loaded gun, officers seemingly took his word that he acted in self-defense and have yet to arrest Zimmerman.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr., has since questioned Martin’s behavior, suggesting that Martin shouldn’t have run away and refused to answer questions from a strange, white man holding a gun.
“If someone asks you, ‘Hey do you live here?’ is it OK for you to jump on them and beat the crap out of somebody?” Lee said, suggesting that Martin was the instigator. “It’s not.”
Zimmerman had some scrapes and bruises that suggested he may have been hit, but that doesn’t mean an unarmed teenager wasn’t the victim. (Remember, among other troubling facts, that while Zimmerman was armed with a 9mm handgun, Martin had just a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.)
By characterizing Martin as the aggressor, Lee is again demonstrating the pervasive stereotypes that continue to thrive about young, black men—that they’re inherently dangerous. Lee has since “temporarily” stepped aside amid the controversy.
It’s telling that in the moments leading up to his death, Martin decided to stay on the phone with his 16-year old girlfriend—rather than call 911—when he felt threatened by Zimmerman’s presence.
The sad truth is that when you grow up in a world where being young and black means you’re more likely to endure embarrassing pat downs in front of your neighbors and friends, to be pipelined from school to prison by harsh disciplinary practices, and to see stories in the news about black men who look like you being brutalized by all levels of the legal justice system (take Troy Davis, Oscar Grant, Sean Bell, and Amadou Diallo), who would you call for help?
Naima Ramos-Chapman is an associate editor at Campus Progress.
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