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April 25, 2024

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Begging for their Lives

POSTED: March 20, 2012, 12:00 am

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By now, the events surrounding the killing of Florida youth Trayvon Martin might be familiar to you. The unarmed teenager was gunned down by an overzealous neighborhood watch fanatic empowered by the state’s Stand Your Ground law, a statute pushed and backed by the National Rifle Association. The law expanded the right of citizens to claim self-defense in using deadly force to kill. Audio tapes released of the incident suggest the assailant, George Zimmerman, may have pursued Trayvon as the youth begged for his life. Zimmerman has not been arrested by police, who claim they have no authority to apprehend the shooter. The U.S. Department of Justice has announced it will open a full investigation into the case.

Trayvon Martin is not the only recent casualty at the hands of local police. In Garfield, New Jersey Malik Williams ended up dead after being pursued by police. Williams voluntarily turned himself in to the Garfield police on a warrant for an alleged assault. Police video shows a cooperative Williams calmly completing paperwork, being frisked, and talking to officers while being processed. For whatever reason, Williams, who was not handcuffed after previously being restrained while sitting, bolts from the room with officers in pursuit. Minutes later Malik ended up dead, with police claiming he was a threat. The idea that Williams was a threat to three officers is inconceivable given that he was frisked in the police station and officers clearly had other options to bring him into custody; including simply letting him go and pursuing him later. After all, Garfield is a small community and Malik’s whereabouts could have easily been discovered had the police invested just a smidgen of real policing. Reason never seems to come into play when police confront young Black men. This was evident in the October 2010 police shooting of Pace University student and football player Danroy “D.J.” Henry in Pleasantville New York. Henry had been celebrating his college homecoming at a local bar when he had a confrontation with police. In an act of sheer arrogance and ignorance the Police Benevolent Association just months later named Aaron Henry, the officer who shot D.J., its Officer of the Year.

Young Black men don’t stand a chance. The cries of Trayvon Williams, pleading for his life, are the same pleas of his brethren who rightly feel under assault in their own communities. I saw it firsthand in the suburban community of Teaneck, New Jersey in 1990 when 15 year-old Phillip Pannell was shot in the back, with his arms raised by a local police officer. The officer was indicted, after an unprecedented second grand jury convened when the state Attorney General was presented evidence of a botched autopsy, but later walked out of a courtroom when freed by an all-white jury in Bergen County. The Pannell case still haunts me because I was directly involved as an NAACP officer and saw the degree to which young Black men are considered disposable.

The detachment of young Black men from school, their fascination with gangs and violence, and their descent into criminal behavior can be attributed to their sense of nobodyness in society. Young Black men are aware at an early age that they are “marked,” and that they are living on the margins. They also realize that the formal structures of society – the school system, government and law enforcement – are predisposed to their marginalization. It is why - shoot first, ask questions later if they are still alive - has become the modus operandi of law enforcement and citizens like George Zimmerman toward young Black men. Zimmerman who is reported to have been particularly suspicious of young Black men saw no need to think before gunning down Trayvon because in his eyes the Black teenager had no value as a human being.

We have danced around this truth for too long, and have avoided confronting the hellish environment in which young Black men seek to survive. And yes, it is a matter of survival. Popular culture – music, movies and books - paints young Black men as natural born criminals and sociopaths, the media sensationalizes the worst extremes of anti-social behavior by young Black men but fails to attribute motive and discuss causality, elected officials use Black boys as props and policy types spew out research that is meaningless in the context of creating an alternative reality, and law enforcement, and private citizens, simply play God and decide if the lives of young Black men are worth sparing.

We can’t finesse this away or try to rationalize this insanity. We must confront it forcefully by taking on law enforcement, challenging elected officials, taking the entertainment industry and gangs to task and making life politically miserable for the National Rifle Association. No one should feel comfortable so long as the bodies of young Black men are piling up in morgues.

Walter Fields is Executive Editor of

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