Trayvon Martin and the value of our youth

The murder of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford FL has ignited outrage and an important conversation in this country. People are now asking: When should deadly force be used? Why are young black men considered dangerous? Are “stand your ground” laws a license to kill? And will true justice finally see the day in the case of Trayvon Martin? Like President Obama, I felt the pain of envisioning Trayvon possibly being my own child. In my case, I have a 17-year-old who is a well-behaved intelligent young man in dark skin. Although of Mexican descent, I could envision somebody pre-judging him for being a danger. I’d hate that such a person might also have a gun and, based on such pre-judgments, harm my boy. Any father would. Yet Newt Gingrich attacked President Obama for having such thoughts—that is if this were a “white” kid Obama should also be outraged (as if Obama wouldn’t be). Even Gerardo Rivera was mocked for daring to declare that Trayvon’s death was due to his wearing a hoodie! The problem is black and brown youths are the general scapegoats of the greater society. You see this upfront or in subtexts in the news, on TV, and movies. The default “dangerous” persons in our society are dark-skinned teenagers, particularly in hoodies. Laws like Florida’s “Stand Your Ground,” which makes it legal to use deadly force in the face of possible danger, has created three times the number of people who have killed than otherwise would have. The reality is most states already allow one to defend oneself if under attack—but these laws take this further. It appears that the perception of danger may also give one an excuse to kill. And if the cultural “bad guy” is a young black male you can see where this is going. The fact is whites are more likely to be killed by other whites (blacks are more likely to be killed by blacks; Mexicans by Mexicans… and so on). The fact is the biggest thieves and destroyer of livelihoods are not in hoodies but often in suits and ties, behind desks, making decisions in the boardrooms of major banks or corporations that end up ripping off more people, getting rid of more jobs, than any perceived “gangsta” in the street. That’s not to say people don’t get mugged, jacked, or even killed by urban dark-skinned youths—but it’s a rare thing in relation to those who really control our jobs and homes. I’ve heard such fears about dark-skinned youths expressed in Neighborhood Watch meetings and other public gatherings. I went to one NW meeting where neighbors of a sober living home were trying to shut it down because of the “perceived” danger (the parolees were generally tattooed Mexican youth). One veteran police officer, however, pointed out that in the thirty years that home had been operating, they had never had a crime linked to any of the occupants. I recall once being on a panel to address a “gang injunction” (in which police powers are heightened in designated areas to stop young people believed to be in gangs from congregating, using cell phones or baseball bats during certain hours, and the imposition of strict curfews and putting such youths in gang data bases, among other acts). The mostly white members in the audience were more than happy to have such an injunction, directed at the predominantly Mexican and Central American members of this area. A few people said some silly things at this meeting. For example, one woman claimed the local park was worse than an allegedly gang-infiltrated Chicago park she once visited. I later got a reporter to visit that park, talk to people, hang out a bit—he found nothing dangerous or gang related during that visit. We have got to stop the media or official portrayal of what’s “bad” in our society point to our young people. We have got to stop laws that allow such unfounded fears to perhaps lead to deadly violence—as in the case of Trayvon Martin, where the perpetrator, George Zimmerman, has yet to be arrested although the killing occurred in late February. On Saturday, March 24, I had the privilege to take part in a retreat sponsored by Inside Out Writers, held at the Central Juvenile Hall in Los Angeles, one of the largest juvenile lockups in the world. Hundreds of adjudicated young people—male and female—from L.A. county juvenile facilities were brought in to read poetry; a couple of them even sang and more than a few did raps. The words were powerful, heart-felt, full of beauty and full of truth. There were more than a few tears. I wish the whole country could have seen and heard these young people. The majority of them were brown and black, middle school-aged and teenagers. I wish the world could have witnessed their genius, their stream of amazing language, and to finally comprehend their complex humanity. How they are essentially no different than any other young people. Perceptions can be dangerous. Let’s make sure we can finally heal from these historically evolved perceptions, rifts and justifications—and that Trayvon Martin and his family will finally get the justice they deserve. c/s


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