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Child Watch® Column: "Walking While Black"

Release Date: March 21, 2012

Every parent raising Black sons knows the dilemma: deciding how soon to have the talk. Choosing the words to explain to your beautiful child that there are some people who will never like or trust him just because of who he is—including some who should be there to protect him, but will instead have the power to hurt him. Training him how to walk, what to say, and how to act so he won’t seem like a threat. Teaching him that the burden of deflating stereotypes and reassuring other people’s ignorance will always fall on him, and while that isn’t fair, in some cases it may be the only way to keep him safe and alive.

But sometimes it isn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to protect Trayvon Martin. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon’s English teacher said he was “an A and B student who majored in cheerfulness.” Trayvon loved building models and taking things apart, his favorite subject was math, and he dreamed of becoming a pilot and an engineer. Instead, he was gunned down by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain vigilante who profiled him, followed him, and shot him in the chest. His killer, George Zimmerman, saw the teenager on the street and called the police to report he looked “like he’s up to no good.” At the time Trayvon was walking home from the nearby 7-11 carrying a bottle of Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles for his younger stepbrother, leaving many people to guess that the main thing he was doing that made him look “no good” was wearing a hooded sweatshirt in the rain and walking while Black. George Zimmerman’s decisions made that suspicious enough to be a death sentence.

Now there is widespread outrage over the senseless killing of a young Black man who was doing nothing wrong and the fact that the man who killed him has not been arrested. People are trying to make sense of the series of gun laws that allowed George Zimmerman to act as he did—starting with the Florida laws that allowed someone like Zimmerman, who had previously been charged for resisting arrest with violence and battery on a police officer, to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon in the first place. Many more questions are being raised about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which also has been described as the “shoot first, ask questions later” law, and gives the benefit of the doubt to Zimmerman and others claiming “self-defense” by allowing people who say they are in imminent danger to defend themselves. Some states limit this defense to people’s own homes, but others, like Florida, allow it anywhere.

As Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, says, this law “has turned common law—and common sense—on its head by enabling vigilantes to provoke conflicts, resolve them with deadly force, and avoid ever having to set foot in a courtroom.” The fear in Trayvon’s death is that this is exactly what has happened so far: that the story told by witnesses, phone records, and Zimmerman’s violent past and earlier complaints during his neighborhood patrols shows an overzealous armed aggressor who followed Trayvon even after police told him to stop, chased Trayvon down when the frightened boy tried to walk away from the stranger following him, and then shot the unarmed, 100-pounds-lighter teenager while neighbors said they heard a child crying for help. The prospect now that Zimmerman might never set foot in a courtroom for the shooting has caused widespread frustration and fury.

Just as sadly, Trayvon’s death was not unique. In 2008 and 2009, 2,582 Black children and teens were killed by gunfire. Black children and teens were only 15 percent of the child population, but 45 percent of the 5,740 child and teen gun deaths in those two years. Black males 15 to 19 years-old were eight times as likely as White males to be gun homicide victims. The outcry over Trayvon’s death is absolutely right and just. We need the same sense of outrage over every one of these child deaths. Above all, we need a nation where these senseless deaths no longer happen. But we won’t get it until we have common-sense gun laws that protect children instead of guns and don’t allow people like George Zimmerman to take the law into their own hands. We won’t get it until we have a culture that sees every child as a child of God and sacred, instead of seeing some as expendable statistics, and others as threats and “no good” because of the color of their skin or because they chose to walk home wearing a hood in the rain. And we won’t get it until enough of us—parents and grandparents—stand up and tell our political leaders that the National Rifle Association should not be in charge of our neighborhoods, streets, gun laws, and values. In Trayvon’s case, his father Tracy speaks for what his family needs: “The family is calling for justice. We don’t want our son’s death to be in vain.” I hope that enough voices will ensure that it is not.

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Submitted by kstep at: September 10, 2013
Vlpate, it's called free speech.

Submitted by REA L. GOOD at: July 18, 2013

Submitted by Vlpate at: March 12, 2013
It is unbelievable to me that this organization allowed a contributor to defame George Zimmerman. Trayvon Martin was shot while attacking a man, not for innocently walking or being black - the FBI AGREES. It would be a mistake to leave this article up. I, for one, will no longer support a foundation so gullible and irresponsible with information.

Submitted by Anonymous at: February 19, 2013
Diangelo Beasley was watching TV last month in a day room in the Cook County Jail. He was locked up on a serious drug charge — and he was full of despair. There on the screen were the three Schaumburg Police officers who arrested Beasley. And they were accused of being dirty cops. A 15-year-old who allegedly pointed a gun at officers was shot in the head by police last week in the South Side’s Greater Grand Crossing Man servicing life sentence for a crime he didnt commit do false confession in 1992.Attack on black males Who selling guns to our children? THE WATCHDOGS: It’s been nearly three years since the Chicago Police Department seized a small arsenal of weapons — including four assault rifles — from the River North mansion of James B. Finkl, a steel company heir who owned a security business with two Chicago cops. Finkl wasn’t charged. The case remained in limbo. Now, City Hall is ordering a police internal affairs investigation. Come on do believe there going to police themselves. For the 22 years he was mayor, Richard M. Daley relied upon a select group of police officers to ensure his safety and that of his family. The security detail’s members routinely traveled with Daley and his family. They drove his kids to school. They ran errands for the family. Now, members of the police security detail that served Daley are being questioned by Dan K. Webb, the special prosecutor appointed to reinvestigate the 2004 death of David Koschman and also to determine whether criminal charges should be filed regarding the handling of the Koschman case by police and prosecutors. THE WATCHDOGS: There’s a mystery in the David Koschman case that the Chicago Police Department has never explained: Why did detectives open what they labeled a “non-criminal” investigation into Koschman’s death on the same day they reclassified what originally was a battery case as a homicide? Law enforcement sources say it’s unusual for the police department to open two separate files on the same case.

Submitted by Haseem at: September 13, 2012
This is a very good article that gets to the heart of the problem in this caes; but what about the larger probleem that causes young black men to be seen as threats. Trayvon Martin is the innocent victim of what has over the last few generations become the face of black manhood in too many of our communities. We as black men young and old are now defined by those among us who by language & deed disrespect ourselves, our women, our children, our communities, our senior citizens and others. We see them everyday all about us yet we do nothing to corrects the or check them, those who can only speak to each other only if every other word out of thier mouths is a swear word, those who can only speak about our black women by calling them out of thier names. The young men who walk around with thier behinds showing because of sagging pants, the ones who shoot guns in our communities everynight, sell drugs, break & enter, rob, rape, write on the garages and sides of other peoples homes, make the parks, school grounds & play grounds un safe. Trayvon is as much a victim of these types as he is of George Zimmerman, it saddens my heart that the black communities around this country won't realize that until we take control of and define ourselves as decent, law abidding, respectful citizens, others will see a need to allow the George Zimmermans of the world to do it for us!!!

Submitted by Achangeisgoingtocome at: July 27, 2012
Taking away the guns will prevent another Trayvon Martin situation.

Submitted by Oriley at: April 19, 2012
It's not The Hoodies . . . The problem is its the fact and the sentiments of "The Hoods and robes" of the Klu Klux Klan so viperously alive in this Nation as has always been the case!!!!!

Submitted by Marcia at: April 19, 2012
Wonderful Op-Ed..Should be read by Rev. Land of The Southern Baptists Convention

Submitted by cm at: April 18, 2012
i am profoundly moved by this my heart is broken by a society addicted to violence my heart goes out to the parents of trayvon

Submitted by judy at: April 12, 2012
Thank you for speaking on behalf of children!! I long for the day that "we have a culture that sees every child as a child of God and sacred!" Every day we live toward that day when all God's children are safe and fed, and loved.

Submitted by Mommy Bear at: April 11, 2012
Since my two African-American boys were born, I have spent just as much time teaching them how to behave as I have teaching them to become engineers.

Submitted by YoyoCaprice at: April 9, 2012
This is great. This is all true, and understaniding.

Submitted by Rufaro at: April 7, 2012
How many more? Greetings Mrs Edelman. We met many many years ago in NY when you interviewed me for a job with the children's defense fund. Sadly so little has changed, and most change reflect worsening situations 'ina babilan'.

Submitted by Tanya at: April 6, 2012
Thank you for this insightful article. A good follow up article would be about the content of and the reasons for the "Black Man Talk" parents must have with Black boys. The article should be helpful for non-Black parents raising Black boys. It's a shame that coming-of-age for Black boys is this horrific reality. I believe this rude awaking begins in grade school. Sometimes educators, regardless of their ethnicity, are the first ones to expose Black boys to unwarranted ill treatment. Suggested reading, Jawanza Kunjufu's books, "Black Students Middle-Class Teachers" and "Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys (1995)".

Submitted by LibForPeace at: April 5, 2012
It is still a sad day in which we live. You would think that as time passes and people become more educated, that we would get away from racism, prejudices and injustice. I cannot understand for the life of me why people have so much hatred in their hearts against others just because they are different. I continue to pray for peace and that God will change the hearts of evil men and women who have hatred in their hearts for other human beings. Some people have more compassion for cats and dogs than some humans. Oddly, some of these same people attend church every Sunday and confess being saved, born again Christians. I pray for Trayvon's family and that god will give them the strength and peace they need to survive this ordeal. I am a victim of society also because I lost my son when he was only twenty years old in a tragic way. He was only five months away from being deployed into the U.S. Air Force. He also dreamed of being a pilot. One thing I think we need to do as African -Americans or individuals who want to see change in our society is call for a nationwide rally to stop the senseless violence against African American males. We need our prominent actors, actresses, athletes, etc... to invest resources to help us end this madness!

Submitted by Kathie at: April 4, 2012
Thank you for bringing forth the information in your column.It is imperative that we keep these facts before the community and work toward justice.

Submitted by Dragonflylvr1 at: April 2, 2012
We can never become complacent just because we think things are better than they were 20 years ago. The assault on young black boys has been raging for as long as I can remember and I'm 47. I've lost male cousins & uncles to drugs & guns and it has practically destroyed my large and happy family that 'was' 90% male. This story is not new, it's just spreading like the plague!

Submitted by Hoodwinked at: April 2, 2012
I fear for my young black men.

Submitted by Pastor Paul at: March 31, 2012
This article is right on target. Hill calling for justice in Trayvon's case, we also need to remember the thousands of other cases where our children are the victims of senseless violence, and we need to work for an environment and culture where our children are protected and prepared for e bright futures they deserved. I am grateful for Mrs. Edelman's leadership and fight for justice.

Submitted by Tamar Diana at: March 30, 2012
A very inspiring article, pointing out the violence perpetuated because of US gun laws I totally agree with Estella's comment below. Do you have any information on how many Hispanic children are killed by gun violence? I am sure the numbers are high for Hispanics as well. And meanwhile, since the closed border programs were put into effect beginning under Clinton in 1994, about 5,000 people have died attempting to find work or reunite with their families in the US.