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.