It was a parent’s worst nightmare: a child trying to get home on a rainy night, “minding his own business,” walking from the store with Skittles candy, when a stranger stalks him and then kills him.
“That child had every right to be where he was,” John Guy, a prosecutor in the case against George Zimmerman, had argued to the jury. “That child had every right to do what he was doing, walking home. That child had every right to be afraid of a strange man following him, first in his car and then on foot.
“And did that child not have the right to defend himself from that strange man?”
It was a question many parents wrestled with Sunday, the day after a jury in Sanford, Fla., acquitted Zimmerman of killing Trayvon Martin.
“I’m numb,” said Walter Kirkland, president of 100 Black Men of Prince George’s County, a nonprofit mentorship organization. “Who knows what happened that night? I have two sons, 17 and 12. Martin was just 17, and this is a grown man with a gun, trying to be more than what he is, a want-to-be cop. He took the law into his hands, and he should not have done that. If he had stayed in the car, maybe the boy would be alive.”
The verdict fueled an emotional response in the Washington area. Some parents clicked off the television, unable to listen to more of the chatter. Some mothers choked up, saying Martin looked like their own child. Others compared the killing to other cases in the country’s history in which a young black boy goes out at night and is slain. They wondered why the case had been highlighted when the number of black boys killed by black boys has escalated. People sat at dining room tables, talked late into the night, wrestling with the verdict and what it means in a broader society.
“It was a hard morning,” said Jessica Care Moore, 41, who has a 6-year-old son and an 18-year-old stepson. “I didn’t sleep last night. I cried. I cried. I was physically sick about it. In my head I had somehow figured they [the jurors] would at least give him manslaughter.”
Moore, a poet and author who works as a youth advocate, said the verdict was debilitating. She tried to figure out what to tell her students. “To do this work, to get youth to think their voice matters, that they can wear what they want to and they don’t have to be afraid to be who they are,” Moore said. “How do you go back and explain to them their life has worth and that the judicial system believes their lives are important?
“We have young black boys thinking they cannot walk through their neighborhoods with hoodies on, walking the way they want to walk, listening to their music — that they can’t exert that energy without being murdered and the person gets to go home after that? I’m devastated.”
E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, wondered what the verdict says about the value of a black boy’s life.
“I think it is very important to think about the loss of life,” Miller said. “There is outrage this could happen to so many other young people. And the loss of life means nothing. He got nothing. That is where you have the anger.
“I think anybody who has a child and your child is out somewhere, you want your child to come home safe. Trayvon did not come home safe. There is a loss of life, and nobody will pay for this.”
Mazi Mutafa, 35, a nonprofit manager, was at home in Columbia Heights when he heard the verdict. He said his immediate reaction was to recall a line of poetry he had recently heard in a conference: “The length of black life is treated with short worth.”
Mutafa said he felt a sense of frustration and disbelief. “The idea that a child would come to visit you and go to the store to get a snack and not come home,” Mutafa said, “if I was a parent, that would be the worst nightmare. . . . That is pretty horrible.”
Part of the challenge, Mutafa said, is many people in this country cannot empathize with the pain of Martin’s parents. “All they see is someone who looks like someone on the news, and not someone who could be a co-worker, a neighbor or a friend,” Mutafa said. “People are upset that people couldn’t put themselves in the shoes of a parent and couldn’t see the humanity and know what it is like to be a mother who lost a son.”
The case raised questions about the legal system, social justice and racial profiling of young black men who are often considered suspect, who don’t get the benefit of the doubt because of the way they look or dress. “For some people, a black man late at night is suspicious. You could go in a store and shop in a three-piece suit and still be considered suspicious. But you can’t leave your skin,” Miller said.
Miller said black parents often try to instruct their children to avoid danger. “I raised my kid that you must know how to carry yourself.”
This case, Miller said, may be another teachable moment. “Racism will not disappear. You struggle with it. There will be victories and setbacks. How you live your life every day will determine your character. That is what life is about. It is not easy. If you are blessed to have children take care of you at an old age, you are blessed. “
Chase Kirkland, 17 a junior at Bowie High School, said he believes the case should not have been about race. “It should’ve been about an innocent boy being killed,” Chase said, “You can’t make it all about race because Zimmerman is a minority, too.” Zimmerman’s mother is Peruvian. His father is white.
The image of a black boy in a hoodie may become a defining image for a younger generation.
At a conference in Northwest Washington focusing on the art of social change, the poet Moore spoke on a panel with the poet Sonia Sanchez.
“We had a moment of silence,” Moore said. “There was a lot of crying during our talk. There was pain. People talked about Trayvon, they talked about being moms. Moms love their babies hard. When someone loses a child, we feel it. . . . Everyone was devastated at the same time. If you could hear the sound of thousands of hearts falling at the same time . . . when we got the news, you could feel it. It is like someone took the breath away.”