Since calls for the prosecution of George Zimmerman began over a year ago, and since George Zimmerman’s acquittal over the weekend, the slogan “We are all Trayvon Martin” has been a recurring rallying cry for justice. But to identify with the Miami teen is one thing. It is quite another to spend the last five days with 60 boys who could easily have been him.
Last week, the National Sigma Beta Club Foundation, a youth-mentoring auxiliary of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, gave its biennial Leadership Conference at Temple University and as an advisor to five Brooklyn kids involved in the program, I attended the event and brought them with me. Aged 10 to 18, the boys in the program came from cities all around the nation where all too often black males are the victims of violent crime, many times lethal. This program is our attempt to turn young men away from such a fate, while motivating them toward better options.
As we coached them on career choices, professional appearance, team-building, and college preparation, I continued to monitor the trial the entire time, having covered it for most of the past year.
Hanging over our heads was something that would affect us as black males, a verdict that would seemingly send a message: either Zimmerman would be convicted and we would be relieved that finally justice had come, or he would be acquitted and a jury would tell these kids once again that their lives are cheap.
To our disgust, the latter proved true. The same way juries in the past had done for Emmett Till three generations ago; the same way they did in the case of others from Amadou Diallo, to Sean Bell to Oscar Grant— whose death was chronicled in the new movie Fruitvale Station.
When the verdict was read, it felt as though Martin had been convicted for his own death instead of Zimmerman, and along with him, the boys in the group who sat silently and in shock over the news. Suddenly, they were no longer loud, rambunctious kids whose affinity for 2 Chainz and A$AP Rocky would color other people’s opinions of them. Instead, they were vulnerable, quiet, confused.
A few of the boys were from Miami and one had gone to the same high school as Trayvon Martin. He began to cry, lamenting that Trayvon did not deserve to die. The other kids circled him, and as he opened up to express his fears, the other followed as well. And these kids, all potential Barack Obamas, and all potential Trayvon Martins, became very scared. As advisors, we felt powerless to protect them.
In communities where murders of black men often go unprosecuted, police fail to get arrests because of lack of cooperation among potential witnesses—the infamous, unwritten “no snitching” rule. But why come forward and go to the police when your friend, your son, your brother isn’t likely to get justice? The George Zimmerman acquittal leaves these kids with no options, and continues to put them at terrible risk.
As the boys prepared to make their way back to their communities Sunday morning, the advisors, all of us Phi Beta Sigmas for at least 15 years, some working law enforcement, others educators, myself a journalist, herded them out of their dormitory.
I watched them as they left Temple’s campus, remembering that I was once them. I was once a black teen with murder victim statistics leaning against me. I remembered the days that I’d spent as Trayvon Martin myself.
Then I remembered that I’m still Trayvon Martin.