They came with signs bearing simple, direct messages: Justice 4 Trayvon. End racial oppression. I am human.
On Tuesday, just three days after the jury handed down a "not guilty" verdict in George Zimmerman's trial, more than sixty young people known as the Dream Defenders flooded into Florida Governor Rick Scott's office. Led by Phil Agnew -- an alumni of the youth leadership program I direct, Young People For -- the activists are pushing for a repeal of Florida's Stand Your Ground law and a special legislative session on racial profiling and the school-to-prison pipeline, among other demands. Pledging to stay put until the governor will meet with them, the group appears prepared for a long stay, with blankets and sleeping mats in tow.
"This is a reminder that our communities still find themselves profiled, targeted and oppressed each day," the Dream Defenders said in a statement. "The battle for true Justice in an unequal society is never simple."
While the fight for change is never simple, the facts about racial injustice and violence in our country remain disturbingly clear. The Children's Defense Fund reported earlier this year that black children and teenagers are 4.7 times more likely to die from gun violence than are white children and teenagers. In 2010 nearly half of all children and teens who died from guns were black (45 percent), though they represented only 15 percent of children and teens in our country overall that year.
Yet when cases enter the legal system, we know that the deck is stacked against people of color in everything from time spent in prison awaiting trial to average length of sentences. An analysis by the Urban Institute found that in states with Stand Your Ground laws, racial disparities in the justice system are even more pronounced. For example, in these states, shootings where the shooter is white and the victim is black are more likely to be determined justifiable homicides than in states without such laws. But when the races of the shooter and victim are reversed -- that is, a black shooter and a white victim - they are less likely to be ruled justified. In many ways, the momentum gathering now is drawing connections between a single trial and a system of justice that is, by and large, failing communities of color.
Young people are responding to these wrongs and speaking out against violence and racial injustice. Ky'Eisha Penn, who graduated from the Young People For program last year, has started a program in Florida called Sheltered, Not Shattered to serve as a safe haven for youth who have experienced violence and homelessness. In the same state, Phil Agnew (YP4 '05), Maria Villalobos (YP4 '12), and Jonel Edwards (YP4 '12) and the Dream Defenders are pushing for change on profiling, unjust laws, and systemic racism. Whether by taking to the streets in protest, bringing a list of demands to a governor's office, or simply by challenging friends and family - across the dinner table or on Facebook -- to think more critically about race, a generation of young people is speaking out in the wake of a trial that has shaken the country.