Four years ago today, an unforeseen incident became the catalyst to start a national movement. On the evening of February 26, in Sanford, Fla., a 28-year-old man with a gun got out of his truck, confronted, chased, and shot and then killed a 17-year-old unarmed Black teenage boy. Young Trayvon Martin was merely walking home from a convenience store with a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea.
We watched in agony as the nation sought to digest the death of this young man. It exposed elements of a grim reality for young, Black boys that American society has been conditioned to see them as greater threats, as more violent, and regards them as more dangerous. In effect, blackness has become weaponized in a way that elevates a normal boy into a suspicious character and then transforms that suspicion into a menacing or threatening force. This affects how authority figures from schools to law enforcement all choose to engage young African American men. More alarmingly, this carries with it real consequences for those young men who find themselves at the mercy of a flawed criminal justice system that sets little to no value on their lives.
In the years that have followed Trayvon’s tragic death, a national conversation about racial profiling and the role race played in his death and those of other young, Black men has emerged. It has ignited the revelation of a new generation of activists that seek to dismantle the structures that target and criminalize Black youth. New organizations have been formed, new leaders have stepped forward, the spirit of resistance has rebooted, and a new modern day Civil Rights Movement has materialized.
The question at the center of this movement is, “What does the world look like when Black Lives Matter?” Not just in terms of policing, which has become a major focus in the wake of the senseless killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York City, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, or Freddie Gray in Baltimore, but in all areas of our society. What does education look like when Black lives matter? What does economic opportunity look like when Black lives matter? What does the criminal justice look like when Black lives really matter?
It is a question those of us that advocate for equality and criminal justice reform, particularly at the juvenile level, ask ourselves daily. The racial and ethnic disparities that exist in our criminal justice system do not measure up to the standard of treating everyone equitably. In fact, according to a report issued by the American Psychological Association and published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, researchers reviewed police officers’ personnel records to determine how they use force while on duty. The report indicates that those officers who dehumanized Blacks were more likely to have used force against a Black child in custody than officers who did not dehumanize Blacks. Degrading another human being stems from a belief that a certain group should be treated as less than human. The study described “use of force” as a takedown or wrist lock; kicking or punching; striking with a blunt object; using a police dog, restraints or hobbling; using tear gas, electric shock or killing. It should be noted that dehumanization and not just police officers’ prejudices against Blacks— conscious or not— was linked to violent encounters with Black children while in police custody.
The same study also found Black boys as young as 10 may not be viewed in the same light of childhood innocence as their White peers, but are instead more likely to be mistaken as older, perceived as guilty and face police violence if accused of a crime. There is a national crisis across the country. Our justice system is marked by disparate, racial outcomes at every stage of the judicial process, especially for those that are most vulnerable like Black boys. This is exemplified by more frequent arrests for youth of color and ending with increased secure placement for youth offenders.
The anniversary of young Trayvon’s death and the other tragedies, which have unfolded over the last several years should serve as a clarion call for anyone committed to justice reform. Our youngsters of color are more likely to be profiled and subsequently prosecuted, sentenced and incarcerated as adults than their White counterparts. Young African American men who experience similar profiling by their local police, prosecutors and judges are not seen for what they are…just children. It’s just a shame that Trayvon and so many others had to lose their lives in order for America to finally pay attention.
We remember Trayvon on this day because his death serves as a daily reminder of the work left undone. His memory serves as our invitation to help fix a broken system. It will become better when we all become more involved and begin to think about what each of us can do that is different than what has already been done to create a more equitable system for Black men and boys and therefore a system that is inevitably more just for all young people.
Aprill O. Turner is the Director of Communications & Media Relations for the Campaign For Youth Justice, a national initiative focused entirely on ending the practice of prosecuting, sentencing, and incarcerating youth under the age of 18 in the adult criminal justice system. For additional information please visit, www.cfyj.org.