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Not a threat, but threatened

On the anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, Al Jazeera America asks, Can young black men feel safe?

Trayvon Martin
Race & Ethnicity
Images from Jordan Davis' Facebook RIP page.
Jordan Davis Facebook

Frederick Douglass Hall is situated between four freshman dormitories on Morehouse College’s campus. The building doubles as the home of the historically black college’s archives and a resource center for its students. On any given day, young men, most of them black or brown, can be found, books and laptops open, seated at the tables throughout Douglass’ central, circular room. So it was on a February afternoon two years ago as Corey Hardiman, now a graduating senior, sat studying for an exam. 

From where he was sitting, Hardiman could see a television as he took notes. He looked from his book to his notepaper to the television and back. Suddenly a breaking news ticker flashed on the screen. The room went silent, and Hardiman dropped his pen in disbelief.

Stunned students watched as a slide show of Trayvon Martin photos cycled and details of his death scrolled along the bottom of the screen. Hardiman immediately remembered his own childhood, on Chicago’s South Side, where he often visited a local corner store, bought snacks and wore a hoodie — just as Martin had the night he was killed in Sanford, Fla., by a neighborhood-watch volunteer named George Zimmerman.

“I thought, ‘Wow, this can’t be real. How do I look like a threat?’” Hardiman said. “Then I thought, ‘It could have been me. It could have been anyone in that study hall.’”

Hardiman is one of many young black men who contend that, contrary to the notion that the United States entered a “post-racial” era in the wake of President Barack Obama’s election, the lives of black Americans are devalued by society, and that, in particular, young black men are under constant threat.

The contention comes into particular focus for many African-Americans when they consider the deaths of two black boys, Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, and the subsequent trials of the men who fatally shot them. Both Martin and Davis were 17 years old when they were shot; both were killed in Florida in 2012, Martin on Feb. 26 and Davis on Nov. 23; both would have celebrated birthdays this month, Martin on Feb. 5 and Davis on Feb. 16; both were shot by white men (though Zimmerman is of Hispanic descent); and both of their assailants claimed to have feared for their lives and argued that they acted in self-defense under Florida’s version of the now notorious “stand your ground” law. 

And, perhaps most painful for African-Americans, neither of the men who took Martin’s and Davis’ lives was convicted of murder. Zimmerman, who pursued Martin as the boy walked back to his father’s home carrying Skittles and iced tea, was acquitted of second-degree murder as well as manslaughter, a lesser charge. And although Michael Dunn was convicted of three counts of attempted murder (there were three other teens listening to rap music in the vehicle with Davis when he was shot) and one count of firing into a vehicle, the jury deadlocked on the first-degree-murder charge.

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College student Jajuan Kelley covers his mouth with a Skittles wrapper as he stands in a crowd of thousands rallying last March in memory of Trayvon Martin.
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For Hardiman and many others, the outcomes of these cases are indicative of societal attitudes in general that personal safety is often treated like a luxury that is not available to black men.

“You have young black, educated men who are from Morehouse, from Stanford, from Harvard, and we can be killed just because we’re wearing a hoodie or playing music?” Hardiman asked. “We have to get past the fear of the young black man and realize that he’s no different than anybody else.”

Sadique Cottle, 17, of Crown Heights, Brooklyn, is looking forward to graduating from Williamsburg Preparatory High School this fall. Like Hardiman, he recognizes himself in the lives of both Martin and Davis.

“I think that it’s a wake-up call for young black males,” Cottle said. “A lot of people think that racism and discrimination are gone, but they’re not. I kind of have to watch the way I walk, watch my posture, watch how I carry myself. There’s already a strike against you.”

Cottle’s classmate Jonathan Wilson, 17, of Brownsville, Brooklyn, feels that the lives of young black men and boys like him are disposable. Even if he accepted Zimmerman’s argument that he acted in self-defense, the fact that Martin was a child and his adult assailant walked free showed that the “justice system doesn’t work,” Wilson said.

“It kind of feels like if anything were to happen to me, no one would really care,” he added. “There wouldn’t be action. There’d just be talk. Anybody can do anything to me and nothing would happen to them.”

Jordan Hadley, 24, is similarly concerned. As a boy growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., Hadley dreamed of becoming a lawyer and protecting the rights of others. But now he’s not so sure that the same law he wants to help defend will be there to protect him.

He first learned of Martin’s death when he was interning at the Florida-based Parks and Crump law firm — the firm of Benjamin Crump, the attorney who represented Martin’s family.

An attorney pulled him aside and said they had a case coming in. Hadley was tasked to conduct research.

“Once I started doing the research, yes, it was about Trayvon, but it was also about how ‘stand your ground’ laws will affect many people in the future, and a lot of times, those people will end up being minorities,” he said.

Shortly thereafter, Hadley joined fellow students from Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Florida State University College of Law to organize a rally in Sanford, Fla., in protest of law enforcement’s initial decision not to proceed with a case against Zimmerman.

A protester at a rally in Washington, D.C., on March 28, 2012.
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What followed was a "We Are Trayvon Martin" movement, said Hadley, who is now the president of the Black Law Students Association at the University of Miami School of Law.

“After the Martin verdict,” he explained, “there was definitely a period when I felt like the structure of the law would not necessarily protect me the way others — my white counterparts — would be protected.”

And in a society where black men are portrayed as dangerous aggressors, the truth is that they have a right to feel uneasy about their safety, said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African and African-American studies at Duke University. Since many black men feel they belong to a group that is consistently under surveillance, Neal contends, all Americans must be prepared to continue the examination of how this affects their mental health.

“Young black men feel an incredible vulnerability in a culture that asks them to suppress their concerns and fears ... They simply don’t have a way to articulate that,” he said. “Going forward, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of interest on behalf of politicians and elected officials in addressing how black men feel about their safety.”

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But not everyone agrees. Some African-Americans argue that because young black men are perceived as threatening, it is their responsibility to govern themselves accordingly.

Abraham Staten, a teacher and father of two from Columbia, S.C., believes Zimmerman should have been found guilty of murdering Martin, but his own experiences of being racially profiled have caused him to re-evaluate how he carries himself in public.

“Now, nine times out of 10, when you see me I’ll have a bow tie on (and) slacks,” Staten said. “I probably own one pair of tennis shoes. Don’t be phony or fake, but present yourself. You already have strikes against you, but you have to compete.”

Zimmerman’s acquittal was especially jarring to Staten because it came only months after the birth of his son. This reminded him that he has hard lessons to impart as his boy grows up.

“Make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be, be respectful, carry yourself in a way so that you won’t be racially stereotyped,” he said.

The question of what to teach black children so they can protect themselves is one that countless parents are confronting on an almost daily basis across the country. After the verdicts were handed down in the Zimmerman and Dunn trials, that angst became palpable as one parent after another took to the Web and posted, “I’m just afraid to raise a black son.”

Kimberly Loadholt Poole, an Atlanta-area attorney and mother of two black sons, said that she and her husband struggled with defining the lessons to take from Martin’s death.

“The sad part is that I don’t really know how to prepare my sons,” Poole said.  “My husband and I talk about how would we have advised our son to react in the situation that Trayvon was in. And I couldn’t come up with anything that would have changed the result.”

Poole’s advice to all young people is to get involved in their communities. While many look to national leaders like Obama to step in after these tragedies, the real key to change lies in voting for local officials, including sheriffs, city council members and state representatives, Poole said.

The fact that Zimmerman was not acting in an official capacity as a police officer when he fatally shot Martin is particularly disconcerting for her.

“Do you tell your child to never wear a hoodie?” she said. “Do you tell your child never to walk alone? I don’t want them to live in fear, but I don’t know what to tell them so they don’t end up like Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.”

Like Poole, Wayne Martin, a father of two and a mentor to a number of black teenagers in his Atlanta community, struggles with the proper balance to strike. He realized that he must confront these issues with both of his children after speaking with a Spelman College alumna who had been questioned and frisked without explanation along with other African-American women during a traffic stop.  

“I have a 10-year-old daughter, and she’ll be driving soon,” Wayne Martin said. “The conversation needs to go beyond gender. It has to come back to race.”

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For some parents, the controversial “stand your ground” laws further complicate the discussions they have with their children.

A fatal consequence of these laws is that some interpret them as providing a license to kill, explained Tamara Rice Lave, an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Law.

Florida, the birthplace of what is now “stand your ground,” has been a catalyst for the passing of similar laws throughout the nation, she said. Today 27 states, including Florida, have “shoot first” laws, according to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Even though proponents of “stand your ground” say these laws lead to safer communities, recent studies suggest they do not deter crimes such as burglary, robbery or assault. In fact, some research indicates these laws lead to an 8 percent increase in the number of reported murders and nonnegligent manslaughters, according to the September 2013 University of Miami Law Review.

“The kind of hypotheticals and the kind of scare tactics that they use to try to justify ‘stand your ground’ undermine the rule of law,” Lave said. “Traditional law already protects the people that they say need protection under ‘stand your ground.’”

Another issue is that the law demands that jurors determine whether a person was “reasonable” in the belief that he needed to use deadly force to protect himself or others. But in the battle of what’s reasonable, implicit bias — the belief that actions can be influenced by unacknowledged or unknown prejudice — may play a significant role, Lave said.

An image of Jordan Davis from his Facebook RIP page
Jordan Davis Facebook

“What teenager has never played loud music before? Because you’re a black teenager you can’t be a kid like a white teenager can be?” Lave asked. “I don’t think the problem is with young black men. I think the problem is with other people who view young black men as threatening. Why should the onus be on black men?”

The targeting of young black men, some believe, is directly linked to racial profiling. Both law enforcement and private security, some argue, focus disproportionately on people of color for investigation and enforcement because of the belief that black people are more likely to be criminals, said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program.

“There’s this perception that most crime, particularly crime that is drug-related, is committed by black people, particularly young black men, but the evidence shows that the rate of drug use is pretty much consistent across racial lines,” Parker said. “This perception is what drives law enforcement to stop and frisk black and Latino men. It’s what drives store security to detain African-American shoppers for shoplifting when they haven’t committed any offense.”

Further, evidence shows that in regions like the New York City metro area, law enforcement is more likely to target certain neighborhoods. This type of behavior affects the type of people who are more likely to be arrested. The result is a culture of resentment.

“There’s an idea that regardless of that, people shouldn’t be upset if they are continually met with suspicion, if they are subjected to being stopped and frisked and interrogated,” Parker said. “The belief is that’s an acceptable price to pay in our society. I think it’s not necessary and it’s not acceptable.”

Shaquille Williams, 17, of East New York, Brooklyn, has had a number of encounters with NYPD officers. Although Williams, who will graduate from Williamsburg Preparatory this fall, was stopped at least three times last year, he has never been charged with a crime, he said. Because of his “skin color” and “mannerisms,” even routine activities like running an errand for his great-aunt or skating with a group of friends carry the constant threat of undue suspicion and harassment, he said. Additionally, Williams’ own experiences, combined with the lesson of Martin’s and Davis’ deaths, have put into question his faith in those who are sworn to protect him. While he “respect(s) police officers,” that doesn’t mean he trusts them, he said. 

“I feel unsafe walking past an officer who’s on duty, because I don’t know what to expect,” he said. “The majority are doing what they have to do to keep people safe, but you have others who feel a lot of power behind that badge, and they abuse that power.”