Trayvon Martin, His Witness and What We Should Be Teaching Our Children About Racism

March 19, 2012  |  

I do not have the words to fully express the sadness, grief and flat out anger I am experiencing over the senseless death of Trayvon Martin.  But that only pales in comparison to what his family might be feeling.

Martin, a 17-year old Black teen, was gunned down by George Zimmerman, a 28-year old White Hispanic man in the Central Florida town of Sanford late last month. Zimmerman, who was the self-appointed neighborhood watch, claims that he’d shot and killed Martin after the teen allegedly started an “altercation.” But Martin’s real crime was being a suspicious black male in the wrong community at the wrong time.

If you haven’t listened to the 911 calls from Zimmerman and the various perspectives, which were revealed on Friday, you can listen to them here, but be warned, they are a hard listen. In one tape, Zimmerman, who had spotted Martin from inside his parked car, tells the dispatcher that there had been a few break-ins lately, and now there was another suspicious guy in his Twin Lakes gated community. He describes the SUS as a young black male wearing a hooded sweatshirt.  He looked like he might be on drugs and “up to no good,” he says to the dispatcher.  Later, he says that the SUS is retreating in the other direction from his vehicle. He then exits his car and follows the SUS. The dispatcher tells Zimmerman that it is not necessary to follow him. But Zimmerman, frustrated, had already lamented that: “These a**holes always get away.”

In another tape you can hear what appears to be a muted bang followed by a young man in the distance crying repeatedly for help and then a loud pop that silences the wailing completely. Other callers reported hearing the same thing as well and described for the police dispatchers the end result: Martin, lying on the ground, dead.  Later it would be revealed that Martin was far from a SUS  – just an unsuspecting teenager, who was visiting his father and just so happened to be walking back from the store with a can of sweet tea and a bag of Skittles to share with his younger sibling. For that, his life was silenced. And 28-year-old Zimmerman, who claims he was acting in self-defense, has yet to be arrested or charged with a crime.But as much as this story pains me, this post isn’t about the vicious murder, instead it’s about one of the witnesses: a 13-year old Black boy named Austin, who just so happened to be out walking the family pet and observed what happened. He and his family tells the Miami Herald:

“I don’t know that it was the person on the [ground] who was screaming, but to me it sounded like a kid who was crying. It was a yell for help, and I think it was Trayvon. Austin wasn’t sure if the person was in a fight or had slipped and gotten hurt. Austin’s boxer puppy got off the leash so the boy went chasing after the dog and lost sight of the scene for a moment. Then, he heard a gun go off. He ran home and told his sister to call the police. The boy, who is black, has been rattled ever since. He feels angry and disconcerted, and wonders whether he’s at risk too. That people can stereotype like that makes you scared, he said. Austin’s mom said he’s been acting out in school and seems mad all the time.”

As gut wrenching as it is to read about the death of Martin, it is equally as heartbreaking to think about what this witness must be going through. Not only did he see a murder in his front yard but has to live with the “what if” questions, the fears of his own safety and the confusions of how this, in the time of our first Black president, could happen? Prior to the murder, he probably was a normal teenager, close in age to the victim. He lived in a neighborhood that was overwhelmingly white (including Hispanics who classify themselves as white), therefore considered safe away from all the urban crime we hear about in inner city Black communities. He probably saw Zimmerman “patrolling” the neighborhood on a few occasions. He might have even had a conversation with him, maybe found himself too under the surveillance of his neighbor’s watchful eye.  He probably wondered if those interactions were just the result of an overzealous busy body or a precursor to the paranoia of a bigot.

He probably has those same questions about his friends he met within his diverse neighborhood.  And the teachers and staff at his school too. Prior to witnessing the murder of a kid close in age and hue to his, he probably believed in a colorblind society and was taught to respect every one of all races.  But watching the video of a bewildered little Austin as he speaks about how sometimes people get stereotyped and how he fits into this stereotype as the person who got shot, you can almost see the trepidation in his eyes, as if he is pondering what if that had been him. And maybe one day, it might be him.

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