How Do We Protect Our Trayvon Martins?

We have to protect all the other Trayvon's out there better than we protected Trayvon Martin.

I woke up this morning with a deep pain in my heart when I discovered that George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Trayvon Martin. We will find out in the next days and weeks just how much pain the jury's decision inflicts on America. All I can think of is how I would feel if my black granddaughter Avery, the light of my life, was a boy. A grandfather should never have to think such thoughts.

What makes the verdict all the more more painful is that the situation that led to Trayvon Martin's death is one that is very familiar to me. I have walked in George Zimmerman's shoes. I have been on block patrol in my Brooklyn neighborhood. I've escorted very tough kids off my block when they've come to cause trouble. I've run basketball leagues in tough neighborhoods where I've had to make peace with neighborhood drug dealers.

If that were me on patrol, nothing would have happened to Trayvon Martin. There would have been no reason for me to approach him because he was doing nothing wrong. However, let's say that I decided to do so anyway. I would have approached him politely with an air of confidence and concern, as one physically confident person to another, showing him respect. And Trayvon, like the hundreds of the young people I have dealt with from comparable backgrounds, would have shown me respect back—because he was merely an innocent teenager walking home from the corner store with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea.

But this incident took a different turn because of what George Zimmerman brought to the table, with the result that a young life of promise was snuffed out. Why? Zimmerman was a scared, insecure man who needed a gun to establish his authority. If he were a strong confident person who knew how to speak to young people, there would have been no conflict and no need for a gun. This is the basis of good police work as well as good youth work. The best police officers command authority without ever having to use their guns.

For those who say Trayvon Martin was a "wannabe thug," I grew up in a neighborhood where many young people were "wannabe thugs"—including me. I survived that phase and went on to be a college professor. So when I run into "wannabe thugs" during my teaching and coaching, I relate to them well, since I was once one of them. We understand one another.

There was no mutual understanding on that fateful night in Florida. If George Zimmerman had been more respectful, and more tolerant, and more secure, Trayvon Martin would have survived that encounter and lived a productive life. Who knows, he might have even ended up being a college professor like me.

Because of George Zimmerman, Trayvon will never get that chance. Now we owe it to all the other Trayvons coming up to protect them better than we protected Trayvon Martin. The question that arises, of course, is how do we do that?

While there is much work to be done regarding race relations and ensuring that our justice system actually represents justice, as an educator, I believe we also have to create schools that are round-the-clock community centers. That way, young people will have activities that build on their talents and creativity and mentors who will look out for them, protect them, and help them steer clear of danger.

That is something we can all work towards. Changing gun laws and changing hearts will be a much steeper challenge, but we can't afford to do nothing.

Click here to add asking the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against George Zimmerman to your GOOD "to-do" list.

Image via Ira Bostic /

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