Annette John-Hall: Case sheds light on mistreatment of black males - still

Neighborhood residents sign petition for Trayvon Martin at New Fellowship Baptist Church in Southwest Philadelphia April 4, 2012. ( TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer )

I was approached the other day by six young black males wearing hoodies.

No, I didn't frantically clutch my purse or make a screaming beeline to the other side of the street. I didn't automatically view them as suspicious or assume they were "up to no good," as George Zimmerman said he did when he profiled Trayvon Martin.

Maybe it's me, but I tend not to profile a child who looks like my own.

As it turned out, the teens - their hoods turned up to ward off the spring breeze - had come to New Fellowship Baptist Church in Southwest Philly to sign a petition demanding justice for Martin, the Sanford, Fla., youth gunned down by Zimmerman, a town watch volunteer who claimed self-defense behind the state's "Stand Your Ground" law.

It has been 39 days since Zimmerman killed Martin. No arrest. No charge.

And now it looks like an investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice may take months, while Zimmerman is free to come and go as he pleases.

Heck, folks do hard time at Graterford for less.

Anger turns on itself

The idea that an innocent child like Martin could be racially profiled and become the victim of state-sanctioned killing has fair-minded people outraged.

A Pew Research Center poll shows that 56 percent of Republicans and 43 percent of whites complain that the media have offered too much Trayvon coverage. Well, guess what. I hope, for the sake of Martin's family, that we never let up.

Because the case also helps shed light on the mistreatment - yes, still, today, in 2012 - of black males by those in authority.

"Everybody's angry about something," says Christina Williams, who did grief counseling for 12 years as executive director of the city's Grief Assistance Program. "The Trayvon situation gives them permission to say, 'We're angry at how we're being treated. Period.' "

In Philadelphia, as in other cities, the anger has turned on itself: 92 homicides in 96 days, most of the victims and perpetrators being black males.

Violence that causes a ripple effect of anger and grief - not unlike post-traumatic stress syndrome - throughout communities.

I could cite a list as long as a gated subdivision of community organizations - the dedicated community-development corporations in Southwest Philly and Strawberry Mansion, the Father's Day Rally Committee, Mothers in Charge, Anti-Drug Anti-Violence Network, Philadelphia Safety Net, to name a few - that have fought for years to stem the violence in this city.

But perception always trumps reality.

And the perception is that when it comes to black-on-black crime, nobody cares.

Survival, not ambition

That perception is aided in part by the images that bombard us, of black males as uneducated slackers. Deadbeat baby daddies. Sinister, coldhearted criminals.

People to fear.

Hardly ever do we publicly acknowledge men like my son, a college-educated, gainfully employed member of society with no criminal record.

Yet, put him in a hoodie, and a Zimmerman might still view him as a threat because everything he has seen tells him not to trust or value anybody who looks like my son.

"It makes me feel bad," said Asandu Akbar, 17, one of the hoodie-wearers, when I asked him if he thought society valued black males. "My friend got killed two days before his birthday, and nobody said nothing about him."

The teens, students at Philadelphia Electrical and Technology Charter High School, cited a whole host of reasons for the killings: neighborhood wars, money, drugs.

They worry for their safety every day.

"You always have to watch your surroundings," said Michael Hennigan, 15. "Watch out for people who look like they hatin' on you."

When I asked them about their career aspirations, it was pretty clear that survival, more than ambition, topped their lists.

Three of them said they wanted to be police officers.

Why a cop? I asked Amir Dunston. The 16-year-old's answer gave me chills.

"That way," he said, "we won't get killed."

 


Contact Annette John-Hall

at 215-854-4986 or Ajohnhall@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Annettejh.