You would never think a walk to the store would get you killed, right? Well, that was what happened to 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. As he was coming back home from the store carting an iced tea and Skittles, a neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman felt “intimidated” by the young man and decided to shoot him, killing him.
This brings up a lot of questions: When does an innocent high school student become “intimidating” or “threatening”? How intimidating can someone be with a few munchies in their hand, just walking down the street? If you’re a black kid with a hoodie, is it immediately assumed that you’re “bad” or a “troublemaker”? Would things have been different if Martin was a white kid strolling down the street or if he had been dressed differently?
In my own personal experience as a young black male I sometimes get the sense that other people judge me on my appearance: the fact that I’m a black kid in a hoodie is a mark against me (even though I don’t do anything “suspicious” at all). At times I feel self-conscious, wondering if people on the subway or street automatically wonder “Is he a troublemaker? Should I hold onto my phone tighter?” It makes me feel bad to think that these kinds of thoughts surface in people’s heads when they see a black person.
Part of the problem is that the media — including some black celebrities— depict black males as dangerous. In many music videos we’re the same people that talk about shooting, stealing people’s money, and being tough in the hood. That has an influence on both young men of color and perceptions of us: In my neighborhood a lot of guys sag their pants, wear hoodies, and walk with a distinct swagger and cold glares. However, there is a big difference between copying a “tough” look and actually being a real threat.
That is one reason Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which justifies bodily harm or death if the person feels intimidated or threatened, is so flawed: anyone can feel threatened if they are scared or paranoid about their safety. And it seems that Zimmerman was paranoid. A 2012 New York Times story said that Zimmerman “had placed 46 calls to 911 in eight years, for reports including open windows and suspicious people.” But simply “looking suspicious” in Zimmerman’s eyes shouldn’t give him the right to put his hands on you. Or shoot you in the chest.
Even if you are feeling threatened, it seems ridiculous to follow the person who is scaring you, which is what Zimmerman did. I have felt legitimately threatened before, and I didn’t “stand my ground.” For example, one time, I was walking around Atlantic mall, a popular shopping center in Brooklyn. A group of kids tried to rob me and my friend. My friend ran, but I went into a nearby store. To my surprise, the guys followed me. I asked the store manager for help and he was able to get a cab for me to avoid the guys. I was so scared I was shaking and my heart was pounding wildly. I felt betrayed that my own race would try to come after me, to rob me. But I never thought, “You know what would make New York a safer, more fair place to live? A law that would allow me to carry around a gun and shoot anyone who makes me feel intimidated.”
This story originally appeared in YCteen, a magazine written by New York City teens. YCteen is published by Youth Communication, a non-profit organization that helps marginalized youth develop their full potential through reading and writing.