Leader’s Message – “I Am Trayvon Martin” – April 2012

“On February 26, our son Trayvon Martin was shot and killed as he walked to a family member’s home from a convenience store where he had just bought some candy. He was only 17 years-old.”

Thus begins the online plea from parents in Sanford, Florida to sign a petition to have Norman Wolfinger, Florida’s 18th District State’s Attorney, investigate this incident and arrest the perpetrator, George Zimmerman, a crime watch volunteer who called 911 and then, contrary to the dispatcher’s directions, pursued – and shot – Trayvon.

I listened to the 911 tapes posted online. They culminate with a faint voice crying and pleading for help. A gunshot is heard, and then silence. Trayvon’s parents are sure that the voice belonged to their son. Several witnesses who heard the encounter agree with them. It is a heartbreaking sound. Minutes earlier Trayvon had called a friend on his cell phone to tell her that a man was following him as he walked home. She heard him ask, “Why are you following me?” and a distant voice ask, “What are you doing around here?”

For weeks the Police Department in Sanford said that under the so-called “Stand Your Ground” law, one of 21 such laws around the country pushed heavily by the National Rifle Association, it had no call to bring charges. This controversial law, opposed vigorously by law enforcement, gives the benefit of the doubt to a person who claims self-defense, regardless of where the killing takes place: in one’s home, on a street, in a car or in a bar. In Florida, people who feel they are in imminent danger need not retreat, even if it would seem reasonable to do so; they have the right to “stand their ground” and protect themselves.

“Trayvon was our hero. At the age 9, Trayvon pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. He loved sports and horseback riding. At only 17 he had a bright future ahead of him with dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. Now that’s all gone.”

This is a story that changed quickly after Trayvon’s parents posted their petition on Change.org. As many as 50,000 people signed every hour. By March 18, the United States Justice Department announced that its civil rights division and the FBI would investigate the killing. These investigations will run parallel with one announced on March 19 by the state attorney in Florida’s Seminole County. On March 21, the Sanford City Commission voted that they had no confidence in the city’s police chief. In Miami and New York City on March 22, demonstrators chanted “I Am Trayvon Martin” in Million Hoodie rallies. Why “hoodie”? Because that’s what Trayvon, an African-American youth, wore that made him look so suspicious.

Here in New York City, the legal vehicle for racial profiling is the Police Department’s “stop, question and frisk” policy. Black and Hispanic people generally represent more than 85 percent of those stopped by the police, though their combined populations make up around half of citywide residency. About 10 percent of the stops led to arrests or summonses and 1 percent to the recovery of a weapon, according to the Center for Constitutional Rights which has examined police data and challenged the policy in court.

Early in February, an 18-year old was killed by a police officer in the Bronx. Ramarley Graham, like Trayvon, was returning home from a convenience store. When he failed to stop, the officer pursued him into his home and shot him in the bathroom.

We must not allow our children of color to be chased and killed. They have every right to walk the streets and enter their homes freely and safely. It is our responsibility to protect them and speak up for them. Raise your voices in protest against the racism that continues to plague law enforcement and ignorant people.

From “ A Litany For Children Slain By Violence” (Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference , 2012):
“A sound is heard in every city. Communities are weeping for their children. Children like Emmett Till and Trayvon Martin who go out to get candy, never again to return to the sweetness of home life.
“Let us rise up and interrupt these rushing waters of violence that leave children wounded and paralyzed. Let us rise up and demand abolishment of laws that are rooted in militarism, fueled by capitalism and justified by racism.”

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