Chris Ward, left, and Devon Slaughter, right.
Yesterday, after the Justice for Trayvon rally on the East Side, another gathering occurred at the Carver Library on East Commerce Street. Although it was much smaller, it seemed no less important than the 200-person-plus rally, mainly because this forum was exclusively for youths to voice their opinion about what happened to Trayvon Martin and the subsequent verdict acquitting George Zimmerman based on his self-defense claims. Fred Williams, whose editorial on the Trayvon Martin shooting and the verdict regarding George Zimmerman will run in this week's issue, organized the event with Black Men United for Reading and Writing. Williams was a teenager when Emmett Till was murdered in 1955 and remembered the highly publicized trial that also ended in acquittal. In retrospect, Williams longed for an opportunity to talk out his emotions, and wanted to provide that to today's youth, nearly 60 years later.
In total, 11 teens and pre-teens gathered in the meeting room, surrounded by portraits of black heroes. At first, it seemed the adults in the audience, many of whom are active in civil rights groups like the NAACP, would hijack the whole process by asking leading questions of the shy kids and veering into lecture zone on everything from the absence of black history in Texas' public high school history textbooks to avoiding saggy pants.
Quietly though, the teens began to talk more openly about how they felt.
"I feel like it's the government versus us," said Jasmine Blair, a young woman who had just returned from the NAACP conference, which coincidentally met in Orlando, Fla., not 30 miles from Sanford, on the same weekend the Zimmerman verdict was delivered. She was talking about the verdict itself, a topic that caused other members of the youth group to confess that they felt "unsafe" and "unprotected." Many of the kids explained that their parents and adults in their community had already stressed a specific set of rules for public interaction. While most children are taught, to some degree, about how to behave in public, these instructions to black children seemed geared toward avoiding conflict not just among their peers, but with law enforcement, and wannabe law enforcement as well.
"My parents always tell me what to do and what not to do in the streets, and how to be smart," said Devon Slaughter, a 14-year-old in a Garfield T-shirt. "You should act very kind, don't curse, don't act crazy," said Taylor Stiles, a young woman who attended the meeting with her friend Ashley Ray, about interacting with police, no matter what the charge (or if there was any charge at all, for that matter). [continued on next page]
Two of the group said they had felt racially profiled simply for walking or shopping, describing being followed around stores and down the street. One of them, a tall, muscular teen named Chris Ward, said off-handedly that he would have probably reacted similarly to Martin if he had been followed by Zimmerman. Pressed to explain by one of the adults in the crowd, Ward said "I wouldn't have fought him at first. I would have kept walking, but if he followed me for a couple of blocks, I would have stopped and asked him why he was following me." However, Ward doubted any reaction would have made much of a difference the night Zimmerman shot and killed Martin. "He had a plan about what he was going to do that night," opined Ward, noting that Zimmerman was carrying a gun and disobeyed police orders, "I guess he accomplished his plan." Other kids said to avoid the situation Martin should have gone to the store in the daytime, or arranged for a ride from his parents, anything, it seems, to avoid walking in a majority white neighborhood after dark.
Most members of the young group felt stereotyped, from Blair's experience as the only black woman in her Catholic school's grade level (on the rare occasion black history or topics do come up, Blair often feels singled-out by her teachers to answer questions, and can hear her fellow students making racist remarks behind her back) to Ward's younger brother Charles' depressingly straight-forward assessment that "everybody looks down on us like we're the worst people in the world."
Jada Wilson, standing, talks about the Zimmerman verdict with Jasmine Blair, third from right, and Taylor Stiles, second from right
From their discussion, it was clear to me that more than half a century after the civil rights movement began in full force black children must still grapple with stereotypes so pervasive it can seem dangerous to leave one's house, uncomfortable to attend one's school, suspicious to go to the mall. Blair said that just being a black woman "they expect me to fail, they expect me to be ignorant, the expect me to be illegitimate," that is, when they're not expecting to speak on behalf of her entire race in history class.
At the end of the meeting, Williams asked if the group would like to have more get-togethers of a similar nature, and the kids who had been so shy at first seemed eager for the opportunity. "Tragedies like this will always stay with you," said Charles Ward, "your whole life."