Letters to Trayvon

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Michael DeShield, 15, with his letter to Trayvon Martin. (ANDREW THAYER / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)

AS THE Feb. 26 anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death approached last year, Lawanda Horton was amazed that barely anyone had written about Trayvon on the Twittersphere.

Time had passed, but very little had changed for black males in America since Trayvon had been killed by a white Hispanic man who thought he looked suspicious, she said. So, she decided to act.

To amplify the voices of those most affected by racial profiling, Horton invited black men and boys to write letters to Trayvon about being stopped, watched and harassed in events driven by fear, prejudice and stereotypes.

Letters poured in from Philadelphia and surrounding counties.

Dear Trayvon:

* "Racial profiling is such a terrible reason to murder innocent black men," read one letter from Ebon Thomas Jr., 14. " I am deeply sorry because justice was not received by you and your family. Black men receive the wrong image by a large population. One day perception of our people will change."

* "Nowadays I can get shot or killed walking down the street or going to my house just because a white man or police officer wants to do that to me," read another letter from Samahd Laury, "and as a black youth we don't stand a chance."

*  Another letter from Michael Deshield, 15, read: "America has come a long way, but not long enough. There is still a strong sense of racism in this country. The only difference is that it is more discrete and most racist people are not as bold."

Tomorrow, the letter-writing campaign will culminate with "Letters to Trayvon," a panel discussion on racial profiling at Arcadia University, hosted by Daily News columnist Solomon Jones.

The featured guest for the sold-out forum is Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, who heads the Trayvon Martin Foundation, an organization he founded to promote awareness about racial, ethnic and gender profiling in the aftermath of his son's death. All proceeds from the event will benefit the foundation.

"What we want more than anything is a sense that people care and are trying to understand," said Horton, who heads Mission Incorporated, a nonprofit management organization in Germantown. "Denying our experience is hurtful and it incites anger in people to have their experience denied.

"This isn't just black America's problem," she said. "White America needs to own this issue, too."

Tomorrow's forum comes amid a report this week that there are lingering problems with the Philadelphia Police Department's use of stop-and-frisk, following a 2011 federal class-action lawsuit that accused the department of subjecting black and Latino men to unconstitutional searches.

It also comes as the Department of Justice this week closed its investigation into Trayvon Martin's death without filing charges against George Zimmerman, the man acquitted in 2013 of second-degree murder in the case by a Florida court.

Three years ago yesterday, Trayvon, 17, had been visiting his father who lived in a gated community of Sanford, Fla., where Zimmerman was a neighborhood-watch coordinator. While walking from a store, Trayvon encountered Zimmerman, who stopped the teen because he "looked like he was up to no good."

Zimmerman pursued Trayvon - even after a police dispatcher told him to stop. An altercation ensued and Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon before police arrived.

Zimmerman's lawyer argued that his client killed Trayvon in self-defense, fearing for his life after Trayvon knocked him down and pinned him to the ground. He won.

Trayvon's death resonated deeply with African-Americans and sparked massive nationwide protests among people all too familiar with being followed in stores, stopped by police or otherwise harassed because they look "suspicious" to those who view blacks as thieves, robbers, drug dealers, murderers and the like.

Not long after Trayvon's death, massive protest erupted again after the highly publicized deaths of unarmed black males Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.; Eric Garner in New York; and Brandon Tate-Brown in Philadelphia at the hands of police.

The root of the racial-profiling problem, observers say, is racism.

Chuck Williams, director of graduate studies at Lincoln University, explained that to understand the psychological effects of racism, we have to understand that racial profiling grew out of racism. "It is a way to put racist attitudes into policy, practices and laws," he said.

"It makes you feel unsafe, it makes you feel like your society isn't protecting you, if anything it is out to get you. So [some] folks see cops and go, 'Oh, my god, I feel safe.' Other folks see cops and go, 'I hope he doesn't kill me.' "

Michael Deshield, an Abington High School sophomore, understands profiling, but he said he believes blacks can defy negative stereotypes projected on them by becoming successful.

"We can show how productive we can be by rightfully using our capabilities," he said. "We can prove that we are just as human as any other race or nationality on this planet.

"Not only will we make the world a better place, but we will all become stronger! If we are all one and we live united, there is very little that can stop us."

Michael said he wrote to Trayvon because the letter was a unique way to express his feelings and relate to incidents of racial profiling.

"I have been racially profiled," he told the Daily News. "Three years ago, a woman was almost shielding her children from me as I was walking home from school. I really did not know how to feel at the time.

"I wasn't totally offended, but wondered why she did it. I did not see it as racial profiling at the time. Now, I am older and more aware, because I see all of the cases in the news with other African-American boys."

Williams said part of the solution to changing racist ideas and behavior is to tackle the problem from the ground up.

"It's a people-to-people, person-to-person campaign," he said.

"We need to take all the opportunities to have conversations about race that don't end in name calling. You have to challenge people's belief systems," he said. "Part of the problem about the discussion on race is that it focuses on blaming and not solutions, or ideas."

Horton agreed.

"If we want to reverse the way that black men and boys are perceived, the first thing we should do is show black men and boys for who they really are," she said. "I knew what it was like as a black woman to be followed around a store. I couldn't imagine what it would be like if someone thought that I was a murderer, drug dealer, or if someone thought that I was going to hurt them."