Stand Your Ground

Growing up in the 1960s, if you were black there was a “conversation.” This discussion came before “the birds and the bees” and “stranger danger.” We were told how to carry ourselves as young black men.

The lesson hasn’t been altered in 50 years. We were taught to always get a bag when you go to the store. It was not uncommon for young black males to be accused of stealing; therefore, it was clear – be mindful that you are a target in any store in our own once grand downtown Syracuse.

I was taught how to shop, because you are a suspect the moment you enter a store. It was common to be followed and harassed. “Can I help you find something?” “No, but you can help the white lady over there waving her arms for your attention.”

Living in a neighborhood branded “Uncle Tom,” I had white friends. There was one incident when we walked out of a store. Once outside they emptied their pockets of candy. Unknown to me, I was asked to come along since they knew the “Five and Dime” owners would follow me and make sure I was being monitored while the white kids stuffed their pockets.

“Always look for the price on a product and never tell a proprietor how much money you have to spend.” It was not uncommon at Jay’s Bargain downtown that when you reached the counter and asked the price of the product, he’d ask, “How much you got?”

“If stopped by the police be respectful and say ‘yes’ and ‘no.'” We were never allowed to say “yes ma’am” or “no ma’am” to anyone. It was clear, be polite and respectful, and know that one wrong move could cost you your life. As a youth here in Syracuse, the Jeremiah Mitchell case was fresh on our minds – he was shot and killed by police. Regardless of investigations and vindication for police officers, there was always the belief in the back of your head that as a black kid you could be shot and killed.

I lived on Harrison Street growing up on the strip that straddled Syracuse University and the ensuing progress of negro removal… er, um… I mean urban renewal. I lived on campus. Our home was actually on the campus map, and I remember countless times when the students and campus security would tell kids coming up from the South side to “go home.” Or call us “townies.” As a black male growing up in Syracuse, it was not uncommon to be asked by law enforcement, “What are you doing here?”

Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who claims he was out on Neighborhood Watch patrol, saw a suspicious youth and followed the boy. Zimmerman ignored police advice not to confront the unarmed teen on Feb. 26. The shooter claimed he was “standing his ground,” specifically Florida Statute 776.013 (3): “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground …”

There are more than a dozen states that have those “Stand Your Ground” laws, which are an updated version of the Wild Wild West, when men were men and you just shot the guy. According to published reports Zimmerman was obsessed with African-American males as he performed his “watch duties.”

Trayvon Martin has become this generation’s Rosa Parks in a case that will force the Florida Legislature and hopefully state legislatures across America to stop this insidious practice called “stand your ground.”

A neighbor made a statement that caused me to re-think race. “Ken, maybe the reason you run into racism is due to perception. I never met, a you.” I responded, “A me?” “Yeah, you’re not like the black people I’ve met… you’re different. You’re articulate and educated and I’ve not run into that here in Syracuse.” As CNN’s Peirce Morgan would say, I was gob smacked. I know many “me’s,” black men and women who’ve gone to school or have been successful in their jobs, raising fine children and sending them to the best schools. After spending a small fortune on an education, learning how to speak “the King’s English” and winning multiple awards for writing, I came to the realization that I was Trayvon Martin, as is every black man in America.

Originally posted March 27, 2012