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Criminal Justice

I Could’ve Been Trayvon

I saw this picture yesterday and I started to think to myself.  How many could’ve been Trayvon Martin?

The tragedy of Trayvon Martin is a tremendously sad story. Here is a seventeen year old boy, walking home to his father’s house in a gated community in Florida after buying some Skittles and a bottle of iced tea, only to be fingered as “real suspicious” by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, who was packing a gun.  After Zimmerman calls 911 to report Martin, he pursues the teenager against police’s orders.  Ultimately, Martin ends up dead, shot by Zimmerman.  The details of how and why are murky, largely because Martin is no longer here to tell his side of the story about the encounter which Zimmerman claims was an act of self defense.  The police have decided to accept his claim at face value and have not arrested him or decided to pursue charges at this time. Welcome (again) to post-racial America…

And you know what makes it that much more chilling for me personally is that there were two situations that my mother told me that she feared the most as I grew up:

  1. That I would get robbed for something nice that I had or was wearing and…end up dead in the process (this was around the time when kids were literally getting strangled for their Air Jordans)
  2. That I would be suspected of doing something wrong by the police and…end up dead in the process (this was also around the time when Rodney King got brutally beaten by the police)

The reason these were my mother’s two biggest concerns were rooted in the understanding that despite what she could do for me, what she could teach me, how much she could protect me, in these two circumstances, I was largely at the mercy of the wider world.  She had worked hard to provide me with a lot of opportunities.  A lot of privileges.  A lot of security.  She also provided me with the best education one could have, a safe neighborhood and all sorts of activities to keep me engaged and make sure my idle mind was filled with baseball games, piano lessons and community service activities.  I was what one would call a “good” kid.  Therefore, there was little concern about my judgment and she trusted me to do the right thing for the most part.

Instead, what scared her most was that a situation would arise which I would not know how to deal with – one where someone else’s bad judgment, anger, jealousy or prejudice would drive them to act in a way which I could no longer control.  That someone else would make a tragic mistake.  Even then she tried to teach me survival skills…”If someone wants to rob you, don’t try to act tough, just give them what they want…If the police stop you, don’t run and don’t try to be smart, just do what they say.”  And make no mistake, these were survival skills, because a misstep could result in me not coming home again.

However, the irony of ironies is that my mother spent much more time talking about the latter than the former.  I grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Boston.  A nice, safe neighborhood.  A predominantly white neighborhood.  We had “made it” so I didn’t really face a tremendous threat of being robbed unless I ventured into the dark shadows of the inner city (cue the sarcastically sinister music).  But even as we had made it, ultimately we traded the dangers of Southeast DC, where my mother grew up, for those of being Black in a predominantly white neighborhood…and ended up at a similar intersection.  I had police cars trail me while I walked home from friends’ houses when I was a teenager.  When I went off to college, I once had two policemen stop me while I was walking on the outskirts of campus, demand to know why I was there, express skepticism when I told them that I was a student, and then demand my ID, which I was not carrying for some reason I can’t remember.  I remember thinking that I had little to no control over my future at that point.  It was only a matter of whether they believed me or not and whether I was lucky enough to not run into a bad apple who may have been having a bad day and found me as a convenient receptacle to relieve his stress.  And thankfully, they did believe me and they were not bad apples.

But if this sounds familiar, it’s because it is.  The story of Trayvon Martin appears to have largely followed the same script, just with a fatally different ending.  Which leads me to ask, what does it say about our society when someone can be targeted by the police and feel unsafe for doing too well?  That an entire Black middle class (still) has to teach their children how to behave and survive when law enforcement doesn’t believe that they belong in the middle class is ridiculous.  That a child can literally die because their family has worked hard enough to overcome the obstacles to achieve an American Dream which doesn’t even exist in the first place, makes it that much more outrageous. But that indeed is why Trayvon Martin was killed…

…and yes, I could’ve been Trayvon Martin.

(I want to make it clear that I’m not saying that Trayvon Martin should jump to the front of a long line of profiling cases that have ended in a supposed suspect dying, solely because of his class.  These scenarios occur way too often with too little attention.)

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