Looking at the Trayvon Martin Case from an African-American Perspective

By Ken Jones | Pastor, Glendale Baptist Church (Miami, FL) and Co-Host, White Horse Inn

On Tuesday, May 8, 2012, I was looking out of my office window at approximately 3:30, in the afternoon. Our church sits on a busy street just above an on-and-off ramp for the turnpike. So I was not surprised to see a car turn into our driveway (this often happens when a driver has missed the on ramp or has gone the wrong direction when getting off of the turnpike). What caught my attention about this car is that it was actually being directed into our lot by a police car. Apparently there was some sort of traffic violation and the police officer pulled the violator out of the busy traffic into our parking lot to write him up.

I went back to my desk and after about twenty minutes I peeked out the window and there was a young African-American male with hands spread on the hood of his car as he was being patted down by the officer. Most traffic violations don’t require a body search or pat down, so I headed out to the parking lot for a closer look.

Not wanting to jump to a conclusion, and doing the best that I could to suppress the familiar anger that accompanies the conclusion that I was trying not to jump to, I first went to my car that was parked several feet away from the incident but still in view. By the time I reached my car the young man was seated on the ground as the officer proceeded to search both the trunk and glove box of his car. At this point I walked towards the scene and from a distance I informed the officer that I was the pastor of the church and asked if everything was alright, to which he replied “yes”, just a routine traffic stop. I stood by the door of the building for a few minutes before returning to my office. When I looked back outside, the officer was handing the young man a ticket and within a few minutes they were both gone.

The words resonated in my mind “routine traffic stop.” I had received a traffic ticket a few weeks earlier, a procedure that took all of ten minutes, with my glove box being opened by me to get out my registration. I never got out of my vehicle, was not searched or patted down and my trunk was not opened. I thought my experience which also ended with a citation was a routine traffic stop. But then I thought about the conclusion that I had tried to avoid jumping to, and I understood the truthfulness of the officer’s words.

In far too many instances when young black males are involved this is “the routine.” I recalled incidents from my youth in South Central Los Angeles, where standing on the street with two or three friends would prompt a U-turn from law enforcement passing by. We would be told by these officers of the law that we were gang members (when we weren’t); that we matched the description of perpetrators of some crime in the area, or they were sure we were on our way to no good. That was “routine.” It was also routine, when I started driving, to be pulled over and detained for up to an hour. When my son came of age it was also routine for him to be detained on his way home from his university job for similar periods of time. There seems to be something suspicious about young African males that warrants re-defining “routine” when dealing with them.

Whatever else is associated with the Trayvon Martin case; what gnaws on me is the suspicion that he was deemed a suspicious character and therefore a threat. In the incident that occurred in our church parking lot, I intentionally did not mention the race of the police officer because this not wholly a race issue. Many of the officers who gave out the harshest treatment in our South Central neighborhood were themselves African-American. This is about prejudice in the name of prevention and the subjects of this prejudicial action in far too many cases are young African-American males who seem to be perceived as a threat. Geraldo Rivera suggested that the hoodie worn by Trayvon Martin made him suspicious, and that Hispanic and African-American parents should not allow their teens to wear them.

Last summer, I spoke at the Legacy Conference in Chicago where there were braids, tattoos and hoodies galore, adorned by young people who devoted three days to the study of God’s word and taking it to the streets. Whether we like the fashion of our young people or not, is beside the point. Fashion has always been a part of youth rebellion. After all, suburban youth of different ethnicities who often share the fashion of urban youth are not subject to the same “routine” as young African-American males.

In the past, this prejudice in the name of prevention has come from law enforcement. In the Trayvon Martin case, it was from a neighborhood watch person. I pray that the judicial process will render a just ruling. But here is my greater desire that young men of color will become subjects of actual “routine” traffic stops and not suspicious characters because of their age, color or attire.