News & Politics

Trayvon Martin's Fate Is the Fear of Every Young Man of Color

How the 17-year-old's murder shined a light on the dangers of being Black in America.

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.

The deeper in numbers, the worse things could become. Outings to the local movie theater, fast-food joints and strip malls could be too often dampered by self-appointed overseers. Neighboring towns where our faces were unfamiliar were worse, and trips into them were often formulated by way of incentive and patience divided by stop risk. East Haven, a neighboring town whose police chief resigned earlier this year in the midst of a scandal involving long-demonstrated harassment and abuse of Latino residents, was a place we generally avoided. Police showed up often. On one occasion, guns were drawn. I should note that this particular incident, in which a group of five were walking down a well-lit street to a house party, unfolded before anyone in tow had the chance to say word one. And these were police. Our police, and the police of the people who’d summoned them.

George Zimmerman was not a cop. By all accounts, he fancied himself something of a protector, but his encounter encompasses some of the worst things about America and humanity on the whole, including murder, racial profiling and police negligence. It raises a number of questions baffling to most anyone who trades in common sense. What right did Zimmerman have to be suspicious of Martin? Why would an armed adult feel threatened by a teenager walking away from him? How does following someone who is minding their own business beget self defense? Why was Zimmerman excused so immediately of his transgression? Do these a**holes always get away?

As many on social networking sites have noted, it is extremely difficult to imagine police handling things in a similar manner if the roles, and more specifically the races, were reversed. Keystone police neglected to test Zimmerman for alcohol or drugs, standard procedure in the instance of murder. The officer in charge of the crime scene was involved in some more controversial dealings in 2010 when he initially failed to arrest a lieutenant’s son who was videotaped attacking a homeless black man.

For people like me, and our parents and grandparents especially, the aunts and uncles and older friends who warned us continuously to “be careful” even when just going to hang out, the ones who spoke to us with the gravity only years of institutionalized racism can sear into a person’s soul, Zimmerman represents a very specific kind of boogie man. The kind history would tell us may get you, but also who you won’t get back. For the people who must account for this terror, young men of color, and their loved ones by proxy, the Trayvon Martin case is another reminder of the futility of grace. You can give your children every advantage you know, teach them manners and etiquette, good from bad and right from wrong, but you cannot protect them. You can give them the world and with it, instruction. But beyond that, you can pray.

Felipe Delerme is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor whose work has appeared in the FADER, Complex, SPIN, and Pitchfork.
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