The newly formed Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys gathered on Wednesday afternoon and began to wrestle with these questions: What did they learn from the death of Trayvon Martin more than a year ago in Florida and this month’s acquittal of George Zimmerman on all charges related to the teen’s death? And, more importantly, what action do they need to take to avoid again reaching this point?
Five African-American men, including Martin’s father and the family’s attorney, spoke for more than an hour, detailing all of the challenges facing many young black men starting before they are even born. They discussed poverty, high unemployment, health care, early education, child-care costs, racial profiling, stiff penalties for nonviolent drug offenses, the cost of college, the need for mentors and misperceptions of black men that exist.
The hearing room was packed with dozens of people, including a handful of young men in hooded sweatshirts. More people sat in an overflow room. Sometimes this crowd would burst into applause or give verbal affirmations as the men passionately spoke. Dozens of cameras clicked away.
Martin was killed in February 2012, as he walked home from a convenience store with a can of iced tea and pack of Skittles. He was a African-American teenager wearing a hoodie and walking through a gated townhouse community that had recently suffered several break-ins. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, became suspicious, called the police and followed Martin. A confrontation ensued. Zimmerman fired his gun. Martin died. Earlier this month, a jury found Zimmerman not guilty.
Beyond the legal issues, this case set off heated discussions about the societal problems facing young black men like Martin. Last week, President Obama spoke about the context and emotion surrounding the ruling.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son,” Obama said. “Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me, 35 years ago.“
Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, told the caucus that Obama’s comments were “so important” in guiding the national conversation.
“It sparks the conversation in every household, over the dinner table, and that conversation is: What can we do as parents? What can we do as men? What can we do as fathers? What can we do as mentors to stop this from happening to your child,” Martin said. “And I think that’s where the conversation begins.”
Martin’s relatives have established a foundation in his memory and are speaking out on gun and race issues. Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, is expected to speak at the National Urban League’s annual conference in Philadelphia this week.
An attorney for the Martin family, Benjamin Crump, called upon the Department of Justice to get involved with this case and asked officials clarify stand-your-ground laws that allow individuals in some states to use force to defend themselves.
“Can a private citizen with a 9-millimeter gun profile our children, get out of his car and follow our children, and confront our children?” Crump said. “We need to have that question answered so that we know what to tell our children.”
Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) said that stand-your-ground laws are “a clear and present danger to every black man in America.” She pushed the men on the panel to share tangible lessons, objectives or suggestions that lawmakers could act upon before the energy generated by the verdict dissipates.
Martin said that he would like to see his son’s name attached to a “statute or amendment that says you can’t simply profile our children, you can’t shoot them in the heart and say you were defending yourself.” Crump said he would like to see an analysis of shootings that involve the stand-your-ground law to see if it is arbitrarily being used.
The other panelists took a mostly wider view of the issue. David J. Johns, executive director of the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, stressed the dire need for early access to education and a commitment to developing and mentoring black boys. That could be the difference between “a pathway that leads to the White House and one that leads to the jailhouse.”
Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University sociology professor and political pundit, also called for strides in education for black children, and said the country must confront the stereotypes it places on black boys and girls. He said the judicial system needs to reduce the penalties for nonviolent drug offenses, which can cut off opportunities for black teenagers who he said get busted more often for using drugs that white teenagers use at the same rates. And Dyson said that Obama should take a risk and talk about race more often.
“As we craft social and public policy, we ask the White House to once again be a bully pulpit,” Dyson said. “Mr. Obama wrote one of the most brilliant memoirs on race that we have. It would be like if Michael Jordan was in the White House but could not talk about basketball.”
Kweisi Mfume, a former Maryland congressman and former president of the NAACP, said that change must happen. He listed off previous incidents that prompted these same discussions in the past, including the murder of Emmett Till in 1955 after he reportedly flirted with a white woman and the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police in 1993.
“We can’t keep revisiting this,” he said. “We cannot do that.”