Five years ago, I attended the funeral of a 17-year-old boy who’d been murdered. His name was Jamiel Shaw. I didn’t know him, wasn’t acquainted with his parents. I have never gone to the homegoing ceremony of a total stranger. I’m not that nosy old lady who scans the local obituary column searching for a random burial to bumrush. I wanted to show my support for his family, to let them know their son’s life counted for something.
That day, I slunk into the sanctuary of West Angeles Church of God in Christ, worrying that my outfit was too bright for the somber occasion. Eric Clapton’s song “Tears in Heaven” played in the background as a montage of images — Jamiel as a baby being cradled by his grandfather, the chubby-cheeked toddler getting his first haircut, the preteen lovingly embracing his pops — rotated on the jumbo screens. Ushers shook tissue boxes at arriving mourners. Little boys strutted proudly in their too-big suits, blissfully unaware of the heartbreak ahead. I walked up to the altar to view the body, right behind men wearing yellow gang intervention jackets. A teen behind me muttered under his breath, “I hate this shit!” From his angry outburst, I knew it wasn’t the first funeral he’d attended for a friend and probably wouldn’t be the last.
Jamiel’s death haunted me, as the senseless killings of black youth do. He was studious and churchgoing, a football star courted by Stanford and Rutgers. The teen was on his way home from the mall when he was gunned down three doors from the home he shared with his father Jamiel Sr. and his 9-year-old brother, Thomas. His dad was the one who found him bleeding on the sidewalk. His mother, Sgt. Anita Shaw, was in Iraq on her second tour of duty when she received the phone call that her son was dead, the alleged victim of a reputed gang member.
Parents should never have to bury their kids. They should never have to stand at a bier gazing down at the body of their beloved. I was reminded of this when I learned of another black teen felled by a bullet — Trayvon Martin. The youth was walking back to the home of his father’s fiancée, carrying a bottle of Arizona iced tea and skittles, when he was shot and killed by Neighborhood Watch captain George Zimmerman. The similarities between the slain young men are striking — they were the same age, shared a love of football, were doting older brothers and were both gunned down mere feet from their fathers.
Black boys are murdered every day across this nation — sometimes by the police, sometimes by each other. Critics use black male pathology to justify why these young lives are being snuffed out and to criminalize teens for their manner of dress, the music they listen to, the neighborhoods they inhabit. Black males are viewed as “suspicious,” as Zimmerman described Trayvon in his 911 call, and therefore culpable in their own demise. Yet, many times the only thing they’re guilty of is having black skin.
Trayvon was killed on February 26, 2012, and three weeks later, Zimmerman has yet to be arrested for the act. The Sanford Police Department, headed by police chief Bill Lee, believe they have conducted a fair and thorough investigation, despite hundreds of thousands of outraged citizens who have signed petitions, flooded the Sanford PD with angry emails and calls and have asked the Department of Justice to investigate the case. Lee insists that his department is “colorblind” and incapable of racial bias. In a recent article, the police chief says, “If someone asks you, ‘Hey do you live here?’ Is it OK for you to jump on them and beat the crap out of somebody?” His words show that he has aligned himself with an alleged murderer, believing Zimmerman’s story that he was attacked by Trayvon and defended himself accordingly. Lee has taken Zimmerman at his word that Trayvon was the aggressor and not vice versa. What about Trayvon Martin’s self defense? Unfortunately, he is no longer here to speak for himself.
Why are authorities so quick to believe the innocence of a 28-year-old man with a criminal history who confronted a 17-year-old with a clean record? If their races were reversed, would the shooter still be at large three weeks after the killing? How do they know the wounds Zimmerman says he sustained are not self-inflicted? According to reports, there was a scuffle, but no witnesses have come forward to say who initiated it. We have only the word of the gunman, a man who called the police 46 times in the past 14 months to report “suspicious” behavior. That says a lot about Zimmerman’s character, that he was a wannabe cop who was itching to be a hero. Zimmerman had a loaded 9 mm. Trayvon was carrying Skittles and iced tea. Are we to believe that Zimmerman so feared for his life that he calmly spoke to the dispatch officer for a minute and nine seconds as he observed Trayvon walking through the neighborhood, and then exited his car with a loaded weapon, against the advice of authorities? In the same article, a witness came forward to say that Trayvon was the one crying for help, not Zimmerman, but a Sanford police officer “corrected” her statement. Other witnesses have reported that police seemed cavalier about obtaining their statements, almost as if they believed the case to be open and shut. Trayvon was killed less than 100 feet from his father’s doorstep, and yet his dad had to file a missing person’s report because authorities neglected to canvas the neighborhood to see if the young man actually lived there. To them, he was an outsider, not someone who belonged within the gated community. He was listed down at the morgue as “John Doe.” Best-case scenario: the Sanford PD are guilty of shoddy police work and negligence. Worst-case scenario: the Sanford PD are guilty of covering up the death of an unarmed African-American kid because his life had about as much value to them as a dying rose, blackened with decay.
As is usually the case when a black teen is killed in a high-profile case, particularly when the alleged killer is non-black, folks descend on the social networking sites of the deceased, searching for incriminating status updates or pictures to justify the homicide. It saddens me that some commenters on the Huffington Post and the Orlando Sentinel are portraying Trayvon as a thug or suggesting that the young man isn’t as innocent as he seems. In the case of Jamiel Shaw, I remember several bloggers pointing to photos on Jamiel’s MySpace page as evidence that he was a member of the Bloods and therefore just another victim of gang violence. Yet, a police official stated that Jamiel had no gang affiliation. Trayvon’s parents maintain that he was a good kid who dreamed of becoming an aviation mechanic. So what if he wore hoodies or spoke slang or postured in pictures on social networking sites or walked slowly in the rain with his hands in his pockets? None of these behaviors warrants deadly force, unless of course, you live in a society that criminalizes black male bodies and views any gesture, no matter how innocent, as threatening.
The death of these two young men has deeply affected me, often to the point of tears. As I did with Jamiel, I scan the newspapers and blogs every day trying to learn new details of Trayvon’s shooting and searching for ways to get involved. I’ve signed petitions and contacted the Sanford mayor, city manager and police chief in an attempt to help bring his family justice. Nothing I do or anyone does can bring back their beloved son, can make them unhear the 911 tapes from that tragic night. I don’t know how fruitful the pushback against George Zimmerman and the Sanford Police Department will be, but I will continue to fight. I will remember Jamiel and Trayvon as brave young men who had a right to dream, to walk the streets in the rain. I refuse to let hope be sealed up in a baby blue casket and laid to rest.