As the story of Trayvon Martin, the black Florida teen slain as he was returning from a convenience store run, has gone national, it’s also become intensely local. And for many area parents, personal.
Attention to the case has exploded — and with it, anger. A rally led by the Rev. Al Sharpton was planned for Thursday night in a Sanford, Fla., church. A million people have reportedly signed an online petition by Martin’s parents calling for George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain, to be prosecuted in the shooting. There was a protest march in New York on Wednesday that was dubbed the Million Hoodie March because Martin was wearing a hoodie at the time of his death. Supporters in the District are holding a Saturday afternoon rally in Freedom Plaza and asking people to wear hoodies or all black.
Young black men in America die disproportionately and often without fanfare or media attention. But Martin’s death has traumatized parents who had convinced themselves that raising educated, respectful black children would keep them from getting shot.
Yvette Frye of Sterling says she has had extensive conversations with friends about the Martin killing.
“We all have boys,” she says. “We’re like, ‘This could have been our kids.’ ” She watches her 11-year-old son, Robby, playing basketball at the Dulles SportsPlex and recalls the conversations she and her husband have had with him about Martin’s death.
“This is one of the reasons we don’t want you to walk to school by yourself,” Frye says she told her son. He is one of two black kids in his fifth-grade class, she says. They want to go outside, and they want to put a hoodie on. It’s what all the kids wear, she says, but she wonders whether her neighbors might see him as a threat.
“People speak to you all the time,” she says, “but what are they really thinking?”
On 911 tapes, Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, tells the dispatcher that Martin is suspicious and implies that he might have a weapon. Martin was found with Skittles and iced tea on him when he died.
Part of the outpouring of anger and grief is that Martin seems to have been killed because he fit the profile of one of America’s most feared figures — a teenage black kid wearing a hoodie in a place where he was not known.
That fear crosses lines of race and class.
“Here’s what hurts my own heart,” says Gregory Taylor of Upper Marlboro. “Even in my own black community, we do the same thing. If I’m at the Bowie Town Center, and there’s a whole group of black men hanging out talking, my initial reaction is not one of fear, but suspicion. And that’s one of the things that cuts me if I had to be honest. Those of us who have achieved a level of success and moved out of the ’hood, we even have those suspicions. Some is real, and some is just the same stereotypes perpetrated on us relentlessly by the media. It just bombards us.”
Taylor, who heads his own anesthesia services company, has an 18-year-old son. As details emerged about Martin — an A and B student, who played sports and had no criminal record — Taylor wrote an e-mail to family and friends: “We have become so desensitized in this country, heck, even in our own communities to the killings of young black males. But this one hits you squarely in the heart and gut.”
He says he sent the e-mail to others who he thought would understand. Those of us “who raise these black men not to be like society expects, to be the anti-stereotype, and they can still get shot.”
The Rev. Tony Lee is pastor of Community of Hope AME church in Hillcrest Heights. The church shifted the focus of a Wednesday panel discussion on volunteerism and activism to talk about Martin and action that could be taken locally. Lee says it helps to give people concrete steps, particularly because there is so much outrage that Zimmerman has not been charged.
“Sick people do sick things, but the challenge with injustice is about when the system is sick,” Lee says. There’s a need for people to agitate “for the system to be held accountable.”
The other piece, he says, is counseling young people who are anxious. We’re just “trying to help work them through the challenges around their need for safety. Trying to walk them through the fear piece.”
Willie Diggs Jr., 51, runs a basketball academy in Reston. He remembers that some Virginia schools were slow to desegregate and counts his being able to teach kids of all backgrounds at Dulles SportsPlex as a sign of progress. But as the father of three African American sons, 17, 20 and 25, he’s also clear about the negotiations he has had to make with the culture.
His 17-year-old son had cornrows before he went away to prep school “and we had a rule,” Diggs says. “He had a Honda that seated five, but he could never have more than two passengers in his car because as an African American male with cornrows in Virginia, he fit any profile out there.”
At basketball camp, Diggs says, he teaches girls not to cry, and “my boys can’t give attitude, because you never know the kind of day the cop, teacher, judge might be having,” and the fates of black boys can rest on the slimmest of margins.
Wednesday night during Diggs’s practice, a parent, Susan Mitchell, a government contractor from Leesburg, says she has talked about Martin with friends on Facebook and via e-mail, and with her daughters, 13 and 18, who “live in a kind of bubble.”
“They were just like, ‘Really? Soda in one hand, candy in another, that could have been me. We go to Florida.’ ”
In his e-mail, Taylor wrote that he was fighting off tears. He is still coming to terms with his grief.
“You hear the tapes where [the dispatcher] says do not follow him,” he says. “I get chills right now even thinking about it.’’ That could have been his son that some guy was going after.
“We’ve raised our sons to be genteel,” he says. “We’ve tamped down on that super-macho aggressiveness. The world expects that of him, but we raised him not to be aggressive or angry or attitudinal.”
And now, Taylor and other parents are confronting the idea that that may not be nearly enough.
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