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Trayvon Martin discussion promotes campus dialogue on race and profiling

At a photoshoot, many community members including students and staff members wear items intended to mimic the hooded sweatshirt, bottle of tea and Skittles candy Trayvon Martin had with him when he was killed in February. The Association of Black Students hosted a discussion about Martin’s death Tuesday.Justin Nicks & Camille Young

At a photoshoot, many community members including students and staff members wear items intended to mimic the hooded sweatshirt, bottle of tea and Skittles candy Trayvon Martin had with him when he was killed in February. The Association of Black Students hosted a discussion about Martin’s death Tuesday.

“He was suspicious because he was black. I am suspicious because I am black. He had to die because he was black. I am not dead yet. But every day, every evening, I’m suspicious.”

These words spoken by one student, an immigrant from Somalia, were the beginning to the discussion held Tuesday night regarding the Trayvon Martin controversy, which has received significant media attention in recent weeks.

Martin, a 17-year-old boy, was shot dead in February while walking to his dad’s house on the way back from a store carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea. He was killed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, who claims to have shot the boy in self-defense and was not arrested.

The exact details of the incident remain unknown, but, since the 911 tapes of Zimmerman’s call and a witness’ call were released, there has been speculation as to whether the act was out of self-defense or if Zimmerman should be charged with manslaughter or murder.

The incident has brought questions of racial profiling and racism into the national dialogue, reaching Wash. U.’s campus and culminating in the Monday night event.

The event was co-sponsored by the African Students Association, Black Law Students Association, Black Pre-Law Society, Pre-Law Society, Society of Black Student Social Workers, Association of Black Students, Social Justice Center, and the Alpha Eta Chapter of the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity.

The organizers started the event by randomly choosing audience members to stand up and read from cards. Each card named a person and how they had died. Some of the people included Emmett Till, the 14-year old boy who was brutally beaten and killed in 1955 for flirting with a white woman; Amadou Diallo, whom four police officers killed in 1999 on the basis of his race; Anna Brown, the woman who was arrested for refusing to leave St. Mary’s Hospital and died in police custody in September 2011; and Shaima Alawadi, an Iraqi immigrant and mother of five who was beaten to death in her home on March 24, 2012.

They were meant to demonstrate the role of racial profiling in these incidents.

Zimmerman is trying to defend himself by calling on Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which says that if a person feels reasonably threatened, he can use deadly force to protect himself from death or bodily harm. He is also invoking the Castle Doctrine, which says that if a person fears death or bodily harm to himself or another in his own abode, he may use deadly force against an intruder without becoming liable to prosecution. In this case, the street on which the incident occurred could be seen as Zimmerman’s “abode.”

The speakers asked the audience to define what it means to feel threatened. One student pointed out that the irony in this case is that it appears Martin was the one who would have felt threatened.

“If I’m walking down the street and someone’s following me, well, I feel like my life is in danger,” the audience member said. “I don’t know this person; it’s this random guy following me, pursuing me. Man, my life might be in danger. That automatically makes [Zimmerman’s] claim invalid because he’s the one who made the effort to follow Trayvon.”

“My main issue is that you can’t quantify what it means to feel threatened,” one of the organizers of the discussion, sophomore Kelsey Times, said. “I could be walking down a dark street and feel scared, whereas someone else might not feel threatened at all. How can you determine, ‘Well, this person wasn’t threatening enough; this person’s definitely threatening?’”

The discussion then moved onto the issue of stereotypes that surround black males. The organizers said that pictures of Martin and Zimmerman have been manipulated by the media, which at first used out-of-date pictures that portray Martin as a young and innocent child and Zimmerman as a menacing criminal. They noted that after a more recent photo of Martin surfaced, the picture was brightened to make Martin seem lighter-skinned, and perhaps less threatening.

“I feel like a lot of the images are used to dissipate the racial issue that’s been surrounding this. Can a Hispanic man be racist to a black man?” asked one audience member. “Or, if [Martin] was light-skinned, it’s not really racism because he could have been perceived as not black. …The media is changing these pictures to give whatever representation they want of the face.”

The discussion then moved towards the focus on the hoodie that Martin was wearing and the idea of having to alter who you are in order to avoid being stereotyped.

“It’s ridiculous that the hoodie has anything to do with it, but how many crime alerts have we gotten at Wash. U. saying ‘a black male wearing a hoodie’?” sophomore Michele Hall, another of the event’s organizers, said. “It’s about being somewhere where you’re not supposed to be while black.”

“It’s like blaming a rape victim—you dress slutty, that’s why you got raped,” Times said. “How can we say how you dress was the reason your life was taken away?”

One student pointed out that profiling doesn’t always occur to black males, and that he himself has experienced profiling based on the way he looks.

“With a white kid with bleached hair and studs in his face, you ask, ‘What’s this kid up to?’” the student said. “I spent years with bleached hair and no one wanted to get to know me. I look different now and people have a different appreciation of my personality. That’s not a racial thing.”

But other students responded saying that these were two separate issues that could not be compared.

“People of color have had [to deal with making] people feel comfortable since the beginning of time. There’s no point to where I can make people feel comfortable to where I can change my skin color. I can’t take off my black skin. It’s the responsibility of the other person to accept it,” one student said.

Students discussed how to respond to the stereotypes.

“[By avoiding the stereotype] we’re giving that stereotype the power that it doesn’t deserve,” one student said. “It’s by [Martin’s] actions that we judge whether or not he was innocent. We’re giving too much power to these stereotypes, and we’re not the ones actually creating them.”

Hall believes that the event was successful at fostering a dialogue.

“We had not just undergrads but also members of the grad community and students from other schools. And it wasn’t just students, but also professors,” Hall said. “We got a large cross section of people. The dialogue brought up a lot of tangible issues that are important to the case.”

Still, Hall acknowledged that the discussion tended to be one-sided in that there was no one to play devil’s advocate and speak from Zimmerman’s side of the argument.

“At a liberal university like Wash. U. it’s going to be difficult to find someone to be vocal on the other side of the case,” Hall said. “There was one student who was very active on the Facebook [event] page, but he didn’t speak up, and I wish he had.”

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  • orange says:

    nice job studlife. typo mid article… was it on monday or tuesday?

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  • media watchdog says:

    Fact: An enhanced version of the video appears to show an injury on the back of Zimmerman’s head. Source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/04/02/149855065/abc-news-enhanced-video-shows-injury-to-zimmermans-head

    Fact: Zimmerman is 5-foot-9 and 170 pounds, while Martin was 6-foot-1 and 150 pounds. Source: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/02/us/trayvon-martin-shooting-prompts-a-review-of-ideals.html?_r=3&hp=&pagewanted=all

    Fact: Two separate, independent eyewitnesses support Zimmerman’s account and say Trayvon was beating him: http://abcnews.go.com/m/story?id=16000239

    It’s important in cases like these to separate the emotions from the facts. Anyone remember the Duke lacrosse case? Dominique Strauss-Kahn?

    Shame on the media for taking on the role of judge, jury, and executioner without knowing all the facts of the case. Shame on the black community for making this a race issue even though the facts that are slowly coming out support Zimmerman’s account. And shame on the Obama administration for politicizing this issue.

    Oh, and Shaima Alawadi? Turns out it probably wasn’t a hate crime. Looks like the cause of her death was at the hands of her own family and antiquated traditions. Source: http://www.ocregister.com/news/police-347926-alawadi-family.html

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  • J_Mase says:

    “He had to die because he was black.” Well that’s not necessarily the case.

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  • Jerome Almon says:

    CNN story causes HUGE controversy in Black community on Trayvon Martin. http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/04/overheard-on-cnn-com-where-does-racism-start-and-what-can-be-done-about-it/

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  • sharpdressedman says:

    I wonder if the fact that for every 1 violent white on black crimes there are 18 violent black on white crimes. There are no facts to support Trayvon was racially profiled. It was only after directly asked by the 911 operator that Zimmerman said ‘he looks black.’ This whole ‘he was suspicious because he was black’ idea is false and its spread brews hatred on all sides.

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    • Anonymous1 says:

      I would agree with you, except that Zimmerman clearly calls Trayvon a “f***ing coon”, and no one directly asked him to say that. Those types of racial slurs clearly indicate that Trayvon was seen as suspicious because he was black. Also, black on black crime has nothing to do with this case. This case has to do about the murder of an innocent 17 year old boy because he was deemed as suspicious because of the color of his skin.

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      • M says:

        Do you have a source for your claim about what Zimmerman called Martin?

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      • sharpdressedman says:

        Actually it is not clear what Zimmerman said. The recording is very unclear and people hear what they want to hear. Today CNN just backed off of their claim that Zimmerman used a racial slur after further audio enhancements.

        Listen to Zimmerman’s 911 call. He listed off reasons why he felt Trayvon was suspicious. None of these reasons had to do with race. After establishing why Trayvon seemed to be a suspicious person, the operator asked for a description of race, and Zimmerman answered.

        I made no reference to black on black crime. I provided a statistic about black on white crime versus white on black crime.

        The evidence shows Trayvon attacked Zimmerman. Thus Trayvon was not innocent. Being followed does not give anyone the right to assault someone.

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  • kafantaris says:

    To get a feel of what went on the night Trayvon Martin was killed, you need to listen to the 911 call made by a neighbor. The fatal shot is heard in the background.
    Just listen to it.
    You need no experts.
    You need know nothing about this case.
    And you don’t even need an open mind.
    But you need to listen to that heart wrenching call.
    Then draw your own conclusions.
    Here it is: http://soundclick.com/share.cfm?id=11548279

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    • sharpdressedman says:

      How about we draw our conclusions from the facts rather than our emotions? The facts show that Zimmerman was attacked. There is an eye witness who has reported seeing Zimmerman pinned on the ground by Trayvon. The phone call which you speak of has a man screaming for help in the background. Trayvon’s father said the voice was not Trayvon. Zimmerman has head wounds which match his accounts of the evening.

      Everyone is twisting this story into something it isn’t. There is nothing to show that Zimmerman had racial motivations. It was only after the 911 operator asked if the person was white, black or Hispanic that Zimmerman said ‘he looks black.’ I don’t understand how providing a description to police makes someone a racist.

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