Looking Under the Hoodie: Lessons from Trayvon Martin's Death

As tensions in Sanford, Fla., threaten to boil over in the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting, residents gathered in D.C.’s 7th Ward on Tuesday evening for a frank discussion about the problems faced by young men such as the 17-year-old shooting victim.

It was not, as sponsor Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) noted, a forum in which to try the Martin case, but a roundtable discussion that ranged from the problems of racial profiling to black-on-black violence. It showcased the pain of parents who had lost their children in shootings, earnest observations from men who are devoted to mentoring and counseling families in the District’s black neighborhoods, and testimony from students who felt they were being passed over at school because of the color of their skin.

The District’s congressional representative credited residents who have protested the Feb. 26 slaying of Martin for “producing results more quickly than I have ever seen in my life when an unarmed black man was shot.”

“Your protests have not sought to convict before trial,” Norton added. After the Sanford case has been settled, though, “we will still be left with racial profiling where we live in the District of Columbia.”

Norton’s D.C. Commission on Black Men and Boys convened at the D.C. Armory to hear from a panel of witnesses and about 200 residents who gathered in the bleachers.

The panel was helmed by Marvin Dickerson of 100 Black Men of America, a nonprofit that seeks to improve the quality of life within communities and enhance educational and economic opportunities for all African-Americans.

“My intent is that you come home safely,” Dickerson stressed to the young people in the crowd. “You can fight the battle about who’s right the next morning when you have an adult with you. … If you do the wrong thing, you may not live to the next day.”

He challenged parents to bring their boys to his program’s mentors, to join a PTA, to get involved. “We’re talking about our kids,” Dickerson said. “If we don’t make the sacrifices, no one else will.”

The name George Zimmerman was rarely mentioned. The hoodie wasn’t blamed or exonerated, but capped pointed discussion about how parents could teach kids about the impressions conveyed by their clothes. But the pain of the Martin shooting was palpable, especially for one father still grieving the loss of his son in a shooting by off-duty cops that still haunts D.C.

Charles Rawlings clutched a photo of his son, DeOnte, who was 14 years old when he was killed in 2007. Two off-duty police officers were looking for a stolen mini-bike, which had been taken from one of the officer’s garage, though there was no proof that DeOnte stole the bike and the boy’s fingerprints were not found on it. In a confrontation with the youth in an alley, DeOnte was shot once in the back of the head. The officers left the scene in their Chevy Tahoe, which bore one bullet hole though no gun was ever recovered from the teen and no gunpowder was on his hands.

No charges were brought against the officers after an investigation. The district settled with the Rawlings family before the wrongful death lawsuit went to trial. But DeOnte’s dad told the forum that things are far from settled in his daily life.

“Every day I think about him,” Rawlings said. “I miss his smile. … I miss sending him to school. When you lose a child and you’re alone, people don’t know what you’re going through.”

Two years after DeOnte was killed, another one of Rawlings’ sons, George, 19, was shot and killed while trying to board a bus after attending a friend’s funeral.

“I thank God for giving me strength,” Rawlings said, choking up with tears. “I didn’t want to come here today. … My pain will never go away. We need some justice in this world.”

D.C. Co-Youth Mayor Ryan Washington, a Ward 8 resident who plans on studying political science at either Berkeley or Stanford, told the roundtable that he felt disenfranchised at his private high school.

“The attention that I thought I should have been receiving — that wasn’t always the case,” he said. “There are teachers who will racially profile and do things to hold you back.”

The preppy teen said that he’s followed in stores until he reaches the cash register. “It’s sad that I’m racially profiled,” Ryan added.

Kyle Hudson, 14, gave his perspective as a D.C. public-school student. “I never really experienced racial profiling because the schools that I went to were all black,” he said.

“When I heard about Trayvon Martin I was upset but I definitely wasn’t surprised because I know that stuff like this happens all the time,” Kyle added.

At Kyle’s side was his father, Barry Hudson, a mentoring chairman for 100 Black Men.

“There are countless Trayvons that have gone down that nobody knew about, that nobody said anything about,” Hudson said.

What’s making a difference in this case is it’s “not just African-Americans speaking out,” he said.

Hudson traced the roots of intolerance in D.C. to a segmented city where there’s little interaction between neighborhoods.

He drew upon his experience as a marketing professional in educating his kids about how to carry themselves in the world.

“My sons are wearing the brand of an African-American man every time they walk out into the street,” Hudson said. If their pants are sagging, “pull them up,” he said, stressing that it’s a parent’s responsibility to teach youths “to carry themselves in a manner to show the world that they are productive individuals.”

“Make sure that all young men see what they can be… then the rest of the world will see what’s under the hood,” Hudson added.

When the floor opened for questions or brief statements, a sizable chunk of the crowd quickly jumped into line. Youths were urged to get at the front of the line so they could get home early on a school night. Those who stepped to the mike one by one were like a microcosm representation of D.C.’s African-American community.

You had the college students who had found a way forward and wanted to help others from their neighborhoods do the same. You had a couple guys urging “black nationalism,” with one calling blacks in Congress “Uncle Toms.” You had deacons and activists encouraging community members to get involved and “become a part of the city, not just your street,” in Hudson’s words.

One question asked of the panel was what life skill would give youths the best chance of coming home alive each evening.

“Love ’em. Teach them right and wrong,” Rawlings said. “We’ve just got to keep on loving them.”

Hudson added that kids need to be taught the law and their rights. “They also have to be able to trust the police,” he added, and call upon them when trouble arises. “Make those calls quickly and not take matters into their own hands… you need to quickly get yourself out of that situation.”

Audience members had advice to add that included having the phone numbers of your kids’ friends to not shying away from the “tough conversations.”

“Father, be fathers,” one said. “Teach our young men how to present themselves in the community.”

“When you get to college, you must stay involved,” one Brown University graduate said. “You must look out for each other.”

Another college student, studying for his PhD at Columbia University, told the crowd that he was a high school dropout who had spent time in jail.

“Tell people they have value,” he passionately stressed. “Get up tomorrow and make a difference in your life!”

While one audience member chided blacks for not speaking openly because of the smattering of whites in the crowd, another countered that “there are more than just black people who are going to make a difference in this area.”

Norton noted the lively discussion as the forum drew to a close as a sign that the event had “lived up to its expectations.”

“You know you’ve had a good forum when everybody speaks what’s on their mind,” she said. “…There were comments that were critical and there were comments that were self-critical.”

“There’s no excuse for profiling, but there’s no excuse for inviting it, either,” Norton added.

She also stressed that the “more difficult” issue of black-on-black violence must be confronted. “Most of it’s not cops shooting us,” the representative said. “There are lots of issues for us to work on in our community.”

That includes dealing with “the last remaining, most serious form of discrimination in this country.”

In an effort to do that, Norton is introducing a racial profiling bill when Congress returns Monday.

“It’s a bill that would give grants to local jurisdictions in order to help them develop laws and programs that can combat racial profiling. I have tried in the past to get a national law against racial profiling but have been unable to do that, so this is my fallback,” she told PJM after the event.

“And I don’t see how anybody could be against this,” she added. “You don’t have to take the grant, you don’t have to participate, but if you want help, and some cities need help, they don’t know what to do, then you can get help through this grant funding.”

Norton hopes Republicans will see that the bill is “benign and it’s something that I think some jurisdictions would like to see.” She’ll be circulating a Dear Colleague letter on Monday to collect co-sponsors. “I think I’ll get a lot,” she said.

One woman at the forum expressed frustration that through the discussion there was “no one point made that we can all pick up on.”

But a deacon who stepped up to the microphone seemed to reflect the most unifying sentiment in the crowd and on the panel. Expressing that he was “tired of going to forums like this,” he advocated that more youth programs be made available to help parents.

“When are we going to get out there and grab these young people and teach them?” he said.

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