By Scott P. Charles, MAPP
Trauma Outreach Coordinator
Temple University Hospital
I first met Trayvon Martin in 2005 when I came to work at a busy trauma center in one of Philadelphia’s more violent neighborhoods. By my estimation, I have encountered him in the trauma bay or lying in a hospital bed – recently shot, precariously alive – a few hundred times since then. At last count, I had brought him through our hospital’s violence prevention program nearly 6,000 times in an effort to educate him about the physical, emotional, and social costs that come from finding oneself on the losing end of a handgun’s wrath. Of course I’m not actually talking about the Trayvon Martin whose killing has dominated our airwaves and water cooler conversations for several weeks now. Instead, I’m talking about the kind of young, bright, complex, charismatic, imperfect, and behooded kid with whom I interact each week, who could have easily been Trayvon.
In truth, there is only one Trayvon Martin – at least there has only been one possessing the unmatched ability to spark our outrage over the senseless killing of an unarmed 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’s become. But if you’re a Philadelphian, as I am, you needn’t travel the nearly 1,000 miles between City Hall and the Sanford, Florida community in which Trayvon was killed to find a story of a promising young life robbed of its potential. If you’re an African American father, as I am, you needn’t look much beyond your own zip code to find the kind of story of a well-loved Black teen being gunned down in the street that makes you go home and hug your children a little tighter. You see, if I had a son, he too would look like Trayvon.
Based on the information I’ve seen, I believe Trayvon’s admitted killer, George Zimmerman, should be behind bars. You simply cannot pursue someone in a hostile manner and then shoot him, claiming self-defense, when he responds to you in an equally hostile manner. You cannot randomly cast any young Black man as villain in your morality play and, with a single squeeze of the trigger, exorcise your demons of inadequacy or slay your dragons of underachievement. Heroism cannot come that cheaply, redemption that easily.
Fortunate for Trayvon’s family and those interested in the truth, at least seven 911 calls went out the evening of the shooting and there appears to be no shortage of witnesses willing to come forward to report what they saw and heard. Hopefully, justice will prevail. Fortunate for Trayvon’s family, their son was not killed in Philadelphia, where justice can be a much more elusive proposition. Where witnesses are loath to come forward. Where, as a result, murderers walk free more than a third of the time. Where young Black men are killed with such regularity, at least one every other day, it would be impossible to commit their names to our cultural conscience, as we have Trayvon Martin’s. Already this year 8 kids age eighteen and under have been murdered in the city; thirty-five have been shot. And we are still in the earliest days of spring. Yet, outside their immediate friends and families, can any Philadelphian refer to them by name?
So where is our outrage? Maybe we’ve become so inured to the killers of young Black men going unpunished that we require something a little more exotic than our usual homegrown injustice to ignite our imagination. Maybe we can’t see the forest for the trees that produce our coffins. Maybe we find it emotionally expedient to outsource our grief. Or maybe we’ve grown so numb to the plight of young Black men in this city that we require the specter of race to pique our interest and have us rejoin the conversation about their demise one last time.
I refuse to take the bait this time, though. I refuse to drink the racial mickey slipped me by the usual tragedy-exploiting suspects. It inevitably puts me in a compromising position and I always end up hating myself in the morning. I refuse to pretend that George Zimmerman and his ilk present a greater threat to our children than they present to themselves. We live in a city in which homicide is the leading cause of death for Black youth ages 15 to 24, where 40% of killers last year were between the ages of 18 and 24, where one in thirteen young 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% of the time. You see, regardless of whether you are Black or White – in Philadelphia or Sanford, Florida – wearing a hoodie or a cowboy hat – you are far more likely to be killed by someone within your tribe than someone outside it.
By the time George Zimmerman’s fate is decided a thousand miles from here – long after our hoodies have been retired from the light duty of symbolic protest – scores of Trayvon Martin’s will have lost their lives in this city. They will have died equally violently. They will have died equally young. They will have died leaving their families to similarly wonder what might have been. 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 these young men personally, who possess information that would help Philadelphia police solve their murders – acquaintances who had been the most vocal about the injustice in Florida – will sit mute as local murderers remain free to take more young lives.
The tragedy in Trayvon Martin’s case cannot be overstated. Depending on whom you believe, Trayvon either possessed the character and personality to match the telegenic face that has inspired legions to take up his cause, or he was an occasionally ill-behaved kid trying on various personas in search of an identity that best fit him, as is the case for many teenagers. I suspect the truth lies somewhere between. Or maybe the facts of his life are nowhere close to this. What cannot be disputed, though, is that Trayvon Martin left home that evening in search of snacks, not martyrdom. What cannot be disputed is that if only one Black boy lost his life in Philadelphia this year, regardless the color of the triggerman, the city would herald the singularity of this death as evidence of its victory in the war against youth violence.
Every one of us should be guided by a moral imperative to point out injustice where it exists. However, it is a position 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 yard. If we truly wish to pay tribute to Travyon’s life, we will work to prevent the senseless deaths of countless young men who look like him and who will die at the hands of young men who look like them. For in such hostile transactions, there is no real reward, only double the loss. We must teach this to our children early and often. If we want to honor our own children, we will take off our hoodies, not because of the stigma attached to them but because our children are not really dying over the absence of fleece in their lives. Ultimately, their fates have far more to do with the absence of Us in their lives. Demanding change is hard. Creating it is even harder. We owe it to our kids to abandon the bromidic symbolism that now serves as proxy for authentic outrage. We owe it to them to demonstrate a commensurate degree of passion for their wellbeing at all times, at all costs, not just when the issue of race looms large. We owe it to them that when we are done attending to the splinter in our brother’s eye, we will address the wooden beam that has long been in our own.
Scott P. Charles is Trauma Outreach Coordinator for Temple University Hospital in Philadelphia and is past winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Community Health Leaders Award.