Trayvon Martin case strikes deep chord with Baltimoreans
All too used to juvenile victims, city activists see a teenager who didn't deserve to be killed and an unjust legal response
There were no comparisons to Emmett Till, no columns in national newspapers about the anxieties of growing up black and male in a country still haunted by racial divides. Baltimore Ravens did not wear hoodies in solidarity.
On average, one juvenile a month has been the victim of homicide in Baltimore over the past three years. Many, like Edwards, were written about and discussed briefly, then forgotten by all but loved ones. None have generated the kind of fervor currently focused on Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old Florida resident killed at the end of February by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
"I've been an activist more than half my life, and I've never seen anything like that before," said Baltimore pastor Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon, reflecting on the rally this week for Martin, which brought thousands to the steps of City Hall. "At one point in time, I was able to take a breath and see the mass of humanity, the determination in people's faces. I try to be strong, but a tear came to my eye."
Witherspoon is one of a growing number of activists who compare Martin to Till, the black 14-year-old who was murdered in Mississippi in 1955, allegedly for whistling at a white woman. Martin, they say, could be the martyr who inspires a new civil rights movement.
But why is a case 900 miles away so resonant in a city that sees more than its share of juvenile tragedies?
Community activists, pastors and professors who study race agree on two key reasons.
First, they say, Martin is an empathetic figure for all kinds of people, from college students to inner-city pastors to upper-middle-class parents of black youths. Look at the photo of the sweet-faced boy in a Hollister T-shirt or picture the teenager, pulling his hood up and sipping an Arizona iced tea like so many of his peers.
President Barack Obama seemed to frame the way a lot of people feel about Martin, saying, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon. When I think about this boy, I think about my own kids."
The second unifying aspect is a sense of injustice, a feeling that Zimmerman remains free and charged with no crime because Martin was black and he is not. Zimmerman's family has defended him, saying he's not a racist and that he was forced to shoot as Martin assaulted him.
Former Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, said perceptions of the case are shaped by race. Imagine, he said, if a black neighborhood watch volunteer shot an unarmed white teenager in a gated subdivision and faced no criminal charges.
"That strikes many people, including myself, as incomprehensible," said Schmoke, now the dean at Howard University's School of Law. "There's a lot of pain for those of us who hoped that questions of race were starting to recede in public discourse."
Schmoke has offered to assist the Martin family with advice on a possible civil suit.
Baltimore has seen many cases with echoes of the same issues. In writing about the Martin case for The Miami Herald, former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon recalled a 1988 case in which elderly white homeowner Horace F. Biedermann shot and killed Brian K. Leonard, a black teenager who was allegedly stealing a motorcycle from the back of his Southwest Baltimore home.
More recently, activists questioned the way prosecutors handled a case against members of the Shomrim neighborhood patrol who allegedly beat a black teenager in a heavily Orthodox Jewish section of Northwest Baltimore.
But the Martin case, which built slowly from a local Florida crime story to the subject of weeks-long national debate, brings together a potent cocktail of images and issues that gnaw at all sectors of black America.
"He's not a kid who was standing on the street corner," said University of Maryland professor Sheri Parks in comparing Martin, a middle-class teen killed while walking to his father's fiancee's house in a gated community, to a more stereotypical homicide victim from Baltimore. "Is it right that the wider culture values his life more than that of a working-class kid? No, it's not right. But it is how the larger culture operates."
Parks was intrigued by the outrage of her College Park students, who saw themselves in Martin. They scoffed at Geraldo Rivera's comment that the teenager invited trouble by donning a hoodie, now a symbol of protest.
"That's what we do," the students told Parks. "We don't use umbrellas; that's what old people do."