Of course, I’m not actually talking about the Trayvon whose killing has dominated our airwaves and water cooler conversations for a few weeks now. I’m talking about the young, bright, complex, charismatic, imperfect, and hoodie-clad kids I work with each week who could have easily been Trayvon.
In truth, there is only one Trayvon Martin — at least, there is only one possessing his unmatched ability to spark outrage over the senseless killing of a black boy. And we will never completely understand what his loss means to those who knew and loved him for the young man he was, rather than the cause célèbre he has become.
But if you’re a Philadelphian, as I am, you needn’t travel the nearly 1,000 miles between City Hall and the Florida community where Trayvon was killed to find a story about a promising young life robbed of its potential. And if you’re an African American father, as I am, you needn’t look far beyond your own zip code to find a story that makes you want to go home and hug your children a little more tightly. You see, if I had a son, he, too, would look like Trayvon.
Based on the information available, I believe Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, should be behind bars. Fortunately for Trayvon’s family and those interested in the truth, at least seven 911 calls went out on the evening of the shooting, and there appears to be no shortage of witnesses willing to come forward. In Philadelphia, witnesses are often loath to do so, and murderers walk free more than a third of the time. Here, young black men are killed with such regularity — at least one every other day — that it would be impossible to commit their names to our cultural conscience as we have Trayvon Martin’s. This year alone, eight kids have been murdered in the city, and 35 have been shot, and we are still in the early days of spring. Yet beyond the victims’ friends and family, can any Philadelphian refer to them by name?
Maybe we’ve become so inured to the unpunished killing of young black men that we require something a little more exotic than the usual homegrown injustice to ignite our imagination. Maybe we’ve grown so numb that we require the specter of racism to pique our interest in their deaths one more time.
I refuse to take the bait this time, though. I refuse to pretend that George Zimmerman and his ilk are a greater threat to our children than they are to themselves. We live in a city where homicide is the leading cause of death for young black men, and where one in 13 black men between the ages of 15 and 29 was shot or killed during a recent five-year period. When a kid like Trayvon is murdered in Philadelphia, his killer is also black at least 95 percent of the time. Whether you are black or white, in Philadelphia or Sanford, wearing a hoodie or a cowboy hat, you are far more likely to be killed by someone within your tribe than by someone outside it.
By the time Zimmerman’s fate is decided a thousand miles from here — and long after our hoodies have been retired from the light duty of symbolic protest — scores more Trayvons will have lost their lives in this city. They will have died as violently. They will have died as young. And they will have died leaving their families as devastated.
Beyond the customary corner memorials, though, there will be no choreographed displays of collective grief for these young men. On the contrary, many who knew them, and who possess information that would help the police solve their murders, will sit mute as murderers remain free.
We should point out injustice wherever it exists. However, it is as perilous as it is dubious when we stand atop the trash heap in our own yard and, with smug satisfaction, point out the mess in our neighbor’s.
If we truly wish to pay tribute to Trayvon’s life, we will work to prevent the senseless deaths of the countless young men who look like him and who will die at the hands of young men who look like them. If we want to honor our own children, we will take off our hoodies — not because of the stigma attached to them, but because we owe it to our children to abandon the bromidic symbolism now serving as proxies for authentic outrage. We owe it to them to demonstrate commensurate passion for their well-being at all times, not just when the issue of race looms large. When we are done attending to the splinter in our brother’s eye, we owe it to them to address the wooden beam that has long been in our own.
Scott P. Charles is the trauma outreach coordinator for Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and a past winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Community Health Leaders Award. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.