Now that Florida special prosecutor Angela B. Corey has brought second-degree murder charges against neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin, court and cable television will be dissecting every nuance of the case for weeks, providing heat, light and everything in between.
Now that Zimmerman’s former lawyers — who didn’t seem to know their client very well — have removed themselves in a bizarre public news conference, his actual attorney Mark O'Mara can seriously begin working on a “Stand Your Ground” self-defense case.
Now that Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, have what they have long requested, an arrest, they remain in mourning for the son who will never get to tell his side of a story that after many twists and turns remains a tragedy.
And in cities across the country, the marchers — some wearing hoodies and carrying Skittles — that protested racial profiling and a criminal justice system they judged unfair as well as others who just observed and wondered what all the fuss was about ask, “Now what?” What does the Trayvon Martin case mean to them, to their relationships with friends, co-workers and strangers they pass on the street? In Florida, a 17-year-old boy died and a 28-year-old man is in jail.
In Charlotte, N.C., which prides itself on a progressive New South profile, one city leaders are anxious to show off to visitors to September’s Democratic National Convention, community groups organized a conversation Wednesday night that began not long after charges were announced.
“Can We Talk about Trayvon Martin: Why is what happened so disturbing?” was pulled together in the last two weeks by three groups with a history of good intentions and good work: Mecklenburg Ministries, Community Building Initiative and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee. About 200 came to Little Rock AME Zion Church Wednesday night, a diverse, though mostly black, mostly female crowd. A smattering of politicians and public officials blended in, but their voices didn’t lead or dominate.
Setting the tone, senior pastor Dwayne Walker held up a bag of Skittles: “All these colors come together in one bag. We are all in this together." It was very Charlotte, a tad corny yet sincere. Willie Ratchford, executive director of the community relations committee, said it was about creating a “safe space” for divergent points of view.
But many didn’t feel safe. Just questioning the events in Sanford, Fla., meant many had been accused of being hypersensitive or playing the race card. “Could this happen here?” was on the list of conversation starters. And in large and small groups in Charlotte on Wednesday, the answer was, “Yes.”
On a panel that ranged from legal to journalistic, I represented writer and mother, talking about my column on the case while I tried to do what no one does enough of, especially at times like these — listen.
Brett Loftis, executive director of the Council for Children’s Rights, is also a father of two boys. Loftis, who is white, said his sons will never be viewed the way their good friend, a tall, African-American young man, is. The hoodie-wearing young man — an awkward, living demonstration — stood, looking quite handsome and not at all threatening. “All of our actions are informed by what we believe,” Loftis said, “gut instinct.”
Maria Hanlin, executive director of Mecklenburg Ministries, is a mother of one black daughter, one white daughter and one white son. Only one, she said, is shadowed through store aisles.
“It’s really about fear and what fuels that fear,” said attorney Brian Heslin. He said the North Carolina statute is similar to Florida’s, allowing the use of deadly force with “no duty to retreat.”
Jose Hernandez-Paris, a diversity and multicultural educational specialist with Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, said, “I’ve been stopped for no reason”; now his sons know the feeling. When they’re being typical young men, playing their music loud, driving an old car, they’re afraid to look at a police officer driving alongside, he said. “You evaluate those interactions constantly,” he said. Is it because of race, he asked. Hernandez-Paris expressed the familiar silent wish of many in the room whenever something terrible happens. I hope the accused isn’t someone “who looks like me.” He got one of the few laughs of the night when he said, “No one wants to claim Mr. Zimmerman.”
Jelani Haskins, an 11th-grader, attends the Males Place — a program of the Mecklenburg County Health Department that offers guidance and life-skills coaching to boys becoming men. He cautioned all in the crowd to “think critically” and “take all sides of the story.” He said he was taught “to fear no one but God.”
In a small group, Tosha Roberson, 38, a Charlotte social worker, said she is heartened that the case is being talked about in her diverse group of friends and acquaintances. “It’s hurting people of all races,” she said. In her work, she encourages parents to be active in their children’s lives. She was raised by a single mother in the projects, and said she was the first in her family to graduate from college. Roberson worries about her half-brother, the same age as Trayvon Martin. “He’s a good kid, and yes, he’s a boy,” with all the sometimes impulsive behavior that implies.
Would Sanford, Fla., have received the same spotlight if races or roles were reversed? Did the people who most needed to hear the evening’s message stay away? These were some of the questions asked on Wednesday night. Are these kinds of crisis conversations ever frank enough? Loftis talked about the raw data of racial disparities, in infant mortality and school dropout rates and arrests. It’s not, he said, because “some people are good and some people are bad.” How do we find solutions?
Dressed in dapper business wear, Lewis Steward, 33, a network analyst stood up. “I don’t always wear suspenders and a tie,” he said. In his baseball cap, jeans and Timberlands, he’s stopped, hassled, he said, “all the time,” though he’s the same person. “It’s racism.”
District attorney Andrew Murray told me having people with “different filters, different perspectives” in his office helps him do his job fairly.
Nursing supervisor Donna Jordan, 41, brought her 12-year-old son Zaire for “a small piece of what it was like to participate in the civil rights movement” that had passed her by, too. Some are trying to “sugar-coat” what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, she believes. When Zimmerman said on the tape, “they always get away,” was it boys like her son he was judging?
Jordan moved from Philadelphia to Charlotte and likes the city. Zaire is in the Males Place, learning “a lot of history” and “how to have a positive self-image.” She doesn’t think one night will solve anything. But she was glad she came.
“It’s a start,” she said.
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., is a contributor to The Root, Fox News Charlotte, NPR, Creative Loafing and Nieman Watchdog blog. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3