My oldest son is 17. Like Trayvon, he stands six feet tall. Like Trayvon, he's thin. Skinny even. And like Trayvon, he was stopped by a stranger while returning to his father's house. For him, the stranger was an actual policeman who, like Zimmerman, believed he looked, "suspicious" in spite of his lack of criminality. In spite of his deservedness to be in that space. But unlike Trayvon, my child survived his encounter. My child, lived.
After the tears. The outrage. The anger. Those of us who mother, father, love, a black child ache for answers to a verdict that at once seemingly renders meaningless the loss of a black boy's life. We seek refuge in knowing what lessons to convey, what things to say that could serve as a layer of protection for the children we love in case of another murderous encounter. At this time of raw grief, many are calling for justice from a higher power, discussing organizing strategies, and even signing a petition to get the Justice Department involved in federal prosecution. And while these actions are worthy, as a mother, my concerns are more immediate. What can be done now, today, to protect the tomorrows of my children and so many others. I don't pretend to know all the answers. But these few things, I know to be true.
1) Our children must know they will be viewed with undeserved suspicion. We do our children no favors by propagating the myth of colorblindness. The fact of the matter is, color consciousness is real, and as this case shows, potentially deadly. Like it or not, human beings make assumptions, reflexively linking similar things together, and then forming associations positive or negative based on conscious or even subconscious belief systems. This country's centuries long narrative linking black male bodies with inherent violence and criminality has stained our culture to its core and infected far too many of those who navigate within it. Knowing that others may see them as dangerous even without provocation at least provides our children with a contextual frame that they can then use to understand seemingly irrational reactions to their very presence.
2) Our children must know how to defend themselves. Certain skills are life-saving. Knowing how to swim, how to safely operate a car, are all rights of passage that could one day mean the difference between life and death. Added to that list of required knowledge should be a deep understanding of how to defend oneself. When Trayvon and Zimmerman stood toe to toe that evening, only one of them had 18 months of MMA training in addition to a gun. And though it appears Trayvon fought for his life, the gun which ultimately killed him was not the only disadvantage he faced that night. Arming our children with formal instruction, and thus, the knowledge of how to meet force with force and disarm an attacker if necessary, is an additional responsibility Black parents must assume to truly do all we can do to protect our children. Though we know that in the halls of "justice," our children will not likely get the same level of presumed innocence in the aftermath of any physical altercations that may occur, the first and ultimate priority must be that of survival. Live first. Face judgement later.
3) Our children need their own systems of protection, their own "watch." At the time of the Atlanta child murders, parents pulled together and literally organized neighborhood patrols and escorts to ensure children could safely navigate their way from one space to another. Perhaps similar systems are once again in order. How ironic, Trayvon met his fate at the hands of an adult who assumed the role of neighborhood protecter, though Zimmerman went far beyond the stated boundaries of any official neighborhood watch. Perhaps now is the time to once again organize our own internal systems of protection, to watch, escort, or accompany our children from place to place. Not just in gated, majority white communities like the one that sealed Trayvon's fate, but in each and every community where our children face an escalated risk of danger, including those communities that are largely our own. While the teenaged years are naturally ones of increased independence, this tragedy as well as countless others put in clear perspective how the rules of common sense just don't seem to apply the same way to Black children as they do to others. Stated simply, our children need us more.
4) Our children need us to show up and never give up. And when we have done all we can do in the immediate aftermath of this heartbreaking decision. When we have equipped our children with knowledge of the dangers they face, the necessary skills to protect themselves, and when parents have increased our own sense of responsibility and action to guard the lives of those we love, we must still do more. To push a little closer to this thing called justice, we must have greater representation among those in power. Absolutely everyone who is eligible to vote, must be registered in order to increase the proportion of African Americans in each and every jury pool in America. We need to run for office at greater levels and vote at high rates not only in Presidential elections, but at state and local levels where much of the legal groundwork is laid for travesties such as this.
And finally, we need to be loud and unrelenting in our demands for change. We need to come to the cruel realization that in America, at each and every level, while allies exist, at the end of the day, no one will protect us, but us. We must show up, show out, and never give up in our efforts to change the systems of oppression, both formal and informal that result in travesties like the death of 17 year old boy on one hand, and on the other, the 20-year imprisonment of a Black woman who merely fired a warning shot in an act of true self defense against her documented abuser. For our sons and our daughters, we must come to the realization that enough is truly enough. A change will only come when we make it so.