Trayvon Martin and the 'Code'

It’s hard to look at the photo of Trayvon Martin that’s coursing around the Internet and see a threat. The 140-pound, 17-year-old is more boy than man, his big cheeks rounding out his young face. He’s got the kind of patient, slightly forced smile my kids always get when I tell them to pose for the camera. He looks every bit the happy, well-liked boy his parents say he was.

And yet, last month George Zimmerman, a 200-pound, white Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla., saw fit to shoot him in the chest as he was walking home from the store with an Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles. After Zimmerman reported a “suspicious” person to a 911 operator, the operator told him to leave the boy alone until the actual police showed up. Zimmerman responded, “They always get away,” and continued pursuit. A subsequent 911 call from a neighbor captured screams, then a gunshot ending Martin’s life. Now, on the tail of the Department of Justice announcing its investigation and President Obama saying, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon,” Zimmerman is claiming through a lawyer that Martin attacked him.

One can’t help but wonder why this news is coming out a month after the fact — and where the details, photographs, and eyewitnesses are. It’s also easy to see a scenario in which Martin felt threatened as he was being followed; perhaps the teen was the one who felt, in essence, that he had to “stand his ground.” Time — and the courts — may answer these questions. But one thing is clear: A black teen is dead at the hands of someone who was charged with protecting people. A family has lost a beloved son and brother. There’s a reason people are outraged; Trayvon Martin’s story, of a black male tagged as suspicious because of his race, is a story we are tired of hearing.

We talk a lot these days about our modern-day helicopter parenting culture, teasing out questions like how old your kid should be before you let him walk to the store alone. But if your child is African-American, you bear a level of worry that many white parents can’t fathom. Since Martin was killed, many black parents have written about teaching their children the unofficial code of conduct they must follow in order to protect themselves from tragedies like this one. You can read these heartbreaking tales here, here, and here.

Last year, when I wrote about the death of another young African-American man — DJ Henry — at the hands of a white police officer, a close friend of the Henry family, Cambridge police officer Douglas Murrell, recalled his instructions to DJ if he ever got pulled over by the cops. “I always told him you just sit there, answer the questions, and you ‘Yes, sir’ them to death,” he said. “You just be polite. Because that’s the kind of situation you can run into, especially being a black child.”

On the night DJ Henry died, a police officer tapped on the window of his car as he sat waiting for friends in the fire lane of a shopping plaza. DJ Henry did not “Yes, sir” that officer — or the one who killed him — to death. Instead, he began moving his car from the fire lane, as he presumably thought the officer wanted him to do. It was then that another officer fired four shots through the windshield, wounding DJ’s friend and killing DJ.

DJ’s mother, Angella, once told me that one of the things she misses most about her son is that he would let her “groom him and pick at him.” I knew instantly what she meant. What mother doesn’t revel in physical connection to her children — in holding their small, soft bodies as babies, taking their hands as toddlers and their embraces through grade school, then marveling as they emerge in adolescence on their own strong legs. Sometimes, while holding my own two-year-old daughter, I close my eyes, dip my nose into her soft blond hair and inhale. She smells of earth and soap and something I can only describe as animal, and I want to hold her there, safe and small, forever. I know I can’t do that, but I also know that I don’t have to teach my white children a code of conduct for survival because of their race. Imagine the difference between a life that bears that burden and one that doesn’t.

Angella Henry told me that since she lost her son, every part of her hurts. She wrote, “Everyday is a struggle for us and often we ask, ‘How did we get here?’ DJ was a wonderful, loving, respectable, giving, faithful, obedient young man and someone took all of that from us. You can’t describe the pain.”

I wish for the Henry’s, for Trayvon Martin’s family — for all of us — that she didn’t have to try.