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What Does Trayvon Martin and Sanford, Fla. Say About Our Nation Today?

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Sometimes an event occurs that speaks so simply, clearly, powerfully and eloquently of what it means to be a human being living in a democratic society. So it is with Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. There are other instances, like Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia when he set himself on fire out of frustration and anguish to protest his treatment by Tunisian authorities after his repeated efforts to simply get a job.

The death of Mohammed Bouazizi triggered the Arab Spring. The killing of Trayvon Martin ignited nationwide outrage that in 2012, in America, a young man could be killed for apparently being black and wearing a hoodie, while walking peacefully at night on a public street near a gated community.

The Sanford, Fla. police chief has "temporarily stepped aside;" a state grand jury is being empanelled; Florida's Republican Governor Rick Scott is convening a "task force" to "study" the situation, and the civil rights division of the Dept. of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder is "looking into the matter."

When President Obama was questioned by a reporter about events in Sanford, Fla. during a White House press conference to announce his selection of the new president of the World Bank, he said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

Republican presidential candidates have also commented about the killing of Trayvon Martin. (Their statements can be found online.)

President Obama's comments, as the 44th and first African-American president of the United States may be the most poignant and eloquent response to date on the issue of race in America since his election. Every parent with the love and protective instinct that most have for their children, no matter what color or ethnicity, can identify with the pain and anguish of Trayvon Martin's parents.

A course I designed and taught for two years in the graduate school of continuing education for students enrolled in Stanford's master degree of liberal arts program, captioned "FROM SLAVERY TO OBAMA," may now have to be amended to "FROM SLAVERY TO OBAMA AND TRAYVON MARTIN." This may be a more timely presentation of the reality of where we are on issue of race in America than our election of the first African-American as president. It may, in fact, be THE enduring "teachable moment" from the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The nationwide and international response to the incident reminds us again of the power of the Internet and social media networks in this our 21st century. Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, the mobile phone and Internet ignited the spark that inflamed the protest of the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt. Now, Trayvon Martin has done the same.

More importantly, what does this say about us as a nation?

Among other things, it reminds us that we are nation awash in violence, in general, and gun violence, in particular, as our pre-eminent form of conflict resolution.

In 1963, Hannah Arendt wrote of the "banality of evil", whereby people tend to conform rather than question the consequences of their actions:

If any single factor can be identified as essential to the propagate terrorism it is redefinition of the "morality" of killing. Modern democratic leaders can convince their citizens of the validity of a just war; they sanitize killings with euphemisms such as "collateral damage" and "friendly fire." Particularly potent venom of religious terrorism is to convince its followers that they are pursuing some higher purpose while dehumanizing their enemies as godless heathens.

"It is no longer a choice between violence and non-violence in this world; it's non-violence or non-existence." -- (Martin Luther King, Jr's., Speech in Memphis, Tenn., April 3, 1968.) We have the fierce urgency of now to make an investment into improving the quality of life through non-violence conflict resolution for this generation.

The time is at hand for an unflinching look at the present potential of Black American youth to move from where they now to where they want, and ought to be. What we see and what the world gives our youth -- is violence. It lies like molten lava beneath the surface of our society waiting for the opportunity to erupt.

The world of violence has many faces. We have violence in our homes. We have violence in our schools. We have violence against loved ones. We have violence against strangers. Youth violence is the harmful behavior that can start early and continue into young adulthood. The young person can be a victim, an offender, or a witness to the violence. Violence, from injury and death, disproportionately affect adolescents and young adults in the United States and violence does not have to be fatal to greatly affect individuals and communities.

In 1992, a landmark issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) addressed violence as a public health issue. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the Surgeon General has long recognized violence as a social disease. The disease of violence does not just present a social cost -- violence extracts an economic impact as well. In the public health approach to prevention, one of the first questions to be answered concerns the burden of suffering--the economic costs to society. Youth violence is a relatively new field, so comprehensive cost estimates are not readily available. Measures of violence in the home and the costs of treatment for victims of violence are among the missing data.

However, the Surgeon General's report provides the best estimate but it is based on data nearly a decade old (2000): Violence costs the United States an estimated $425 billion in direct and indirect costs each year. Of these costs, approximately $90 billion is spent on the criminal justice system, $65 billion on security, $5 billion on the treatment of victims and $170 billion on lost productivity and quality of life.

America's solution to this social disease of violence? Incarceration. Juveniles account for 16 percent of all violent crime arrests and 26 percent of all property crime arrests in 2008.

A recent report of the NAACP "Misplaced Priorities: Under Educate, Over Incarcerate," tracks the steady shift of state funds away from education and toward the criminal justice system. This report uncovers a disturbing connection between high incarceration rates and poorly performing schools. As recognized by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, "We can't arrest our way out of is this problem (of youth violence). Prevention is the key to long term success."

Disturbing new statistics from the NYPD in 2010 revealed that:

* The murder rate involving African-American victims increased by 31 percent. At the same time the percentage of white murder victims decreased by 27 percent.
*Black victims made up 60 percent of the murders reported.
*Further, a third of all of the 536 murder victims in 2010 were black males between the ages of 15 and 29 (a group that represents only 3 percent of the city's total population).
*The number for men murdered was 74 percent. For blacks, men between 16 and 21, the figure was nearly 90 percent!

*More than 75 percent of all murder victims had prior arrests (with half of them having drug charges against them and a quarter of them either on parole or probation at the time of their death).

Why has there been such a national outcry over the killing of Trayvon Martin, admittedly, on the "facts" so far available, justified, but not a similar national outrage over the almost weekly killings of young black men being killed by each other in communities like Oakland, Chicago, New York City, Los Angeles, Detroit, etc.?

Yes, today, we may all be Trayvon Martin. But by our silence and inaction we may also be complicit in the continued wanton gun violence that kills so many other Trayvon Martins.

Killings not by motivated by racial animus, but by a drug deal gone wrong, or because some young black man thought another looked "the wrong way" at/or "disrespected his woman" or stepped on his newly purchased sneakers.

I cannot think of the killing Trayvon Martin without also thinking about our failure as a nation to address wanton gun violence in our respective communities.

Gun violence in the United States today reminds me of words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he spoke in a eulogy in Selma, Ala., March of 1965, at the funeral of Reverend James Reeb. He was a Unitarian white minister who had come to Alabama to work with us in the Civil Rights Movement:

James Reeb was murdered by the indifference of every minister of the gospel who has remained silent behind the safe security of stained glass windows. He was murdered by the irrelevancy of a church that will stand amid social evil and serve as a taillight rather than a headlight, an echo rather than a voice. He was murdered by the irresponsibility of every politician who has moved down the path of demagoguery, who has fed his constituents the stale bread of hatred and the spoiled meat of racism. He was murdered by the brutality of every sheriff and law enforcement agent who practices lawlessness in the name of law. He was murdered by the timidity of a federal government that can spend millions of dollars a day to keep troops in South Vietnam, yet cannot protect the lives of its own citizens seeking constitutional rights. Yes, he was even murdered by the cowardice of every Negro who tacitly accepts the evil system of segregation, who stands on the sidelines in the midst of a mighty struggle for justice...

(The discussion in this blog about the implication and affect of violence in our nation and several communities was prompted by colleagues of mine in Silicon Valley: Dr. Joseph Marshall, author of "Street Soldier" and executive director of the Omega Boys Club in San Francisco, Ms. Debra Gore-Mann, MBA, Stanford, Scholar and Roy Clay, Sr., a technology pioneer in Silicon Valley, as part of our joint effort to focus attention on the urgency of "Non-Violent Conflict Resolution to Improve The Quality of Life" as an alternative to the epidemic of gun violence).