Chicago Youth Talk Trayvon

Teens reflect on the killing and the controversial acquittal of George Zimmerman

by Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean, July 22, 2013



For young people in Chicago—a city that readily brings to mind thoughts of Black pain and Black death—the killing of Trayvon Martin and the events following the tragedy  have created a number of mixed reactions.

Nate Jones, a 16-year-old high school student from the Austin neighborhood sums it all up as “expected, surprising, believable, and unbelievable, all at the same time." 

“You can never have a 100% faith in the legal system, so the Zimmerman trial reinforced my understanding of that,” said 14-year-old Menerik Barberousse during a recent "Christmas in July" birthday celebration in the Pill Hill neighborhood on the city's South Side. "I was quite certain that Trayvon was going to get justice, and Zimmerman would be prosecuted, but after watching the cases with the prosecution and defense, it was more a debate of 'he said, she said'… whoever was giving information with a better story…. In the back of my mind, I was thinking that Zimmerman would go free,” said the home-schooled, aspiring computer engineer.

With his thin frame and long dreadlocks, Barberousse is a striking young man. It's hard to imagine that anyone would ever see him as some sort of threat, though the trial and national reaction has reminded us just how many people would see him as nothing but.

“After the verdict, I was quite shocked, I was with a couple friends, and we were sure that Zimmerman was going to go to jail, but when it happened, we sat there for about 10 seconds in shock. We all knew kind of in the back of our head that there is a possibility but we did not really believe it was going to happen.”

Barberousse, whose father is a physician, and mother is the family's home school teacher, considers himself “very multicultural when it comes to friends.” He stated that his active participation in theater exposes him to “Europeans, Asians, Indians, and people of different backgrounds where even if I am the only Black person, it does not feel too out of place.”

As a result, he agrees with President Obama's claim regarding how the younger American generation handles matters of race in his statement about the killing of Trayvon Martin: “[T]hey’re better than we are. They’re better than we were on these issues.” Menerik stated in response when it comes to racial understandings, “I feel as if the younger generation has more opportunity and is more willing than the older generations.”

His biggest lesson from the entire Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman situation is that, “People do care, there are other people who feel the same way that you feel about certain things, in this racial era, and they do care about it, such as the President of the United States… you are not exactly alone in this.

Menelik’s older sister, Nzinga Barberousse had a similar reaction: “I could not believe that things like that still happened, based on how I grew up, it is unheard of; the profiling like you are going to following a person toward their home, and killing them.. even if the police told you not to follow him?” 

The aspiring neurosurgeon continued, “I thought that [Zimmerman] was going to be guilty, [but] my cousin and I talked about it and there was not enough evidence to find that he was guilty…But the verdict was still shocking. There was disbelief.” Nzinga's confidence in the justice system is not affected because, like President Obama, she believes that the decision was made based on presented and deliberated facts; but to her something is still wrong, “when such actions can be taken to lead to the loss of a life in this way, and the legal outcome can be as it is.”

The home-schooled piano player also sees little differences between Black and White Americans, “There is a difference with hanging out with European homeschoolers and African American friends… I think the difference is mostly the way that we talk….I feel like people in my generation are a lot more open minded about a lot of things, and because there are a lot of people who were open minded more than my parents' generation, and before them, that might be better for society.”

Seventeen-year-old Fred Linnear—affectionately known as "Lil' Fred"—of Englewood “ thought [Zimmerman] would be guilty because he was still pursuing Trayvon even after he was told by the [911 dispatcher] to stop following him.” To Linnear, who was expelled from school in 2012, but is working to continue his education and become a computer engineer, this case has taught him a difficult lesson, as has the killing of Jordan Davis earlier this year. 

“I can't walk around, even go to the park really. A person was killed in [Florida], shot in the gas station, for playing loud music…You never know what a racist White or Hispanic man in Chicago can do, seeing what happened to Trayvon and [Jordan.]”

However, the teen sees little difference between the races: “The same way I feel about a Black person, is the same way I feel about a White person…I think the violence is all wrong, especially the Black-on-Black, and that is not a reason to kill innocent Black people among us, and get away with it.”

Fifteen-year-old Anna Charles, is a 10th grader at the Young Women Leadership Charter School in Bronzeville, Chicago. “In a way I was considering kind of both guilty and not guilty for Zimmerman. We live in a society where someone like Zimmerman would get away with what he did. I was hoping he would be found guilty. I was just surprised that he was not found guilty,” she said.

Zimmerman's verdict has increased Charles' skepticism towards the American justice system: “I feel like [the criminal justice system] is extremely biased. If someone is Black, mostly they will not find justice. If a person is White or of European descent, they find a reason or excuse for why they did what they did, whether mentally or so on, but [if they are] Black or African American it is just that they are criminal, or it is just another Black on Black crime… with no excuse.”

For Charles, who lives just minutes from President Obama's home in Hyde Park, she feels that the killing of Martin and acquittal of Zimmerman is a wake-up call “for Black children of my age, be more aware of the people in society, because racism is still alive and well, even though people say it is not. Be aware of what is going on. At least, unite together, I think if it were not for Trayvon's situation, some children would not get to see that so clearly, and the situation of race would not get heard the way we are discussing it today."

Donnie Harris, a 14-year-old aspiring basketball player and rising high school freshman from Englewood, says the message he has received is very clear:  White people can just try to kill Black people and they get away with it. I do not trust the criminal justice system, at all." He now has a plan for what to do if he's followed by a suspicious person like Zimmerman.

"If I see somebody following me—I don't think Trayvon ran, I think he just stood there at first—I'm a run, and I'm a make some noise.”

Dr. Peter K. B. St. Jean is the Executive Director and Founder of Peaceful World Movement, an adjunct professor in the Department of Criminal Justice at Governors State University and University at Buffalo Department of Sociology, and CEO of Quality of Life Solutions, Chicago. He is also the author of Pockets of Crime: Broken Windows, Collective Efficacy and the Criminal Point of View.

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