Trayvon Martin's Fate Is the Fear of Every Young Man of Color
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The case of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin is an abomination.
Martin, a black 17-year-old who was described by an English teacher as “an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness,” was killed February 26 during an altercation with a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain who confronted the teen for what looks to be the offense of being black in a predominantly white neighborhood.
Martin’s killer, 28-year-old George Zimmerman (who was described as white in early news reports, but is actually of Latino descent) claims he fired his 9-millimeter handgun in self-defense. Martin’s girlfriend, however, who spoke with Martin on his cell phone in the minutes leading up to his murder, recounts that Martin told her someone was following him--an act Zimmerman admitted to while on the phone with a 911 operator. Zimmerman also told the operator, “These a**holes always get away."
Though only two people know exactly what transpired that evening, and one is dead, details of the incident only seem to get more discouraging as they are discovered, including another part of Zimmerman’s 911 call in which he is believed by some to have referred to Martin as a “f***ing coon.” Zimmerman’s father, coming to his son’s defense in a letter posted in the Orlando Sentinel, describes Zimmerman as a “Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members," as if that disqualifies him from being a racist. At this point, we know far too little about Zimmerman to call him a racist, but also too much not to consider it.
Martin’s case came to the nation’s attention almost a month after his murder, with police having neither arrested nor made plans to arrest Zimmerman. While a federal investigation into the case is finally under way, a public awareness campaign is also taking place, causing people to assess much about their country and maybe more importantly, about the things they can believe about it.
The Trayvon Martin case hits especially close to home for me, a black (and Latino) male who encountered many a circumstance throughout my adolescence like the one leading to Martin’s death. You’d be hard pressed to find many young men of color, of approximate college age, who haven’t at some point in their lives been told that they “fit the description of a suspect” police are looking for. The experience is far less typical for those whom police reports would classify as Caucasian males. But it becomes something of a gag after awhile. It's dark humor—the sort that helps to quell the growing frustration of feeling like you aren’t welcome in the space you were reared in. It was a point of camaraderie for many of us; I can remember feeling especially close to the occupants of my college dorm after one such communal exchange. Our shared misery brought us closer together.
As a young man coming up in the predominantly white suburb of North Haven, Connecticut, I learned very quickly what it was like to be “behind enemy lines.” I know too well the accusatory glares and the impromptu neighborhood watches and eventual inquisitions that come with traversing the sidewalks of the town whose name stuck out so proudly from the front of your high school basketball and football jerseys. Those jerseys had power, to be sure; not just in the way they stirred smiles from females or nods from other athletes or reverence from nerds, but in the way they brightened the glances of adults, of parents, of administrators, of the neighbor who can barely be made to bob his head while cutting his lawn every weekend. You’re all right with us. You are allowed here. I can remember when I wasn't allowed.