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A year later, Trayvon Martin tragedy still stings

By Benjamin Todd Jealous

One year later, the Trayvon Martin tragedy still stings — and some people are still throwing salt on the open wound. George Zimmerman’s brother, Robert Zimmerman, recently posted a tweet comparing Trayvon Martin to De’Marquis Elkins, 17-year-old Black teenager charged with fatally shooting a 1-year-old baby.

The tweet showed a photo of Elkins side by side with a photo of Martin, both making inappropriate gestures, with the caption, “A picture speaks a thousand words. Any questions?”

Zimmerman’s follow-up tweet read: “Lib(eral) media (should) ask if what these (two) Black teens did (to) a (woman and her baby) is the reason (people) think Blacks might (be) risky.” The implication was that Trayvon Martin’s actions on the night he was murdered were equivalent to the killing of an innocent child.

This would be worrisome enough if it were just the opportunistic cry of a family embroiled in racial controversy. But this belief — that Black male teens are inherently more likely to be criminals — is ingrained in our society. Too often it poisons the judgment of those who are supposed to protect us.

Last year, I visited Sanford, Fla., in the wake of the Trayvon Martin case. The NAACP hosted a forum where residents could report incidents of police abuse. A number of African American mothers alleged that their teenage sons had been profiled, abused or even assaulted by the police. Fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, racial bias still runs rampant among law enforcement in this country. And Zimmerman’s attitude infects an institution much more influential than the Sanford Police Department: the NYPD.

The New York Police Department is currently fighting a class-action lawsuit against their racially biased practice of “stop-and-frisk” policing. Stop-and-frisk allows officers to stop, question and physically search any individual they consider suspicious. In 2011, NYPD officers stopped nearly 800,000 people for alleged “suspicious activity.’ Nine out of 10 were innocent, 99 percent did not have a gun — and nine out of 10 were Black or Latino.

The most revealing tidbit to come out of the class-action trial is a secretly recorded conversation between a deputy inspector and a police officer. The inspector is discussing a high-crime neighborhood, and he can be heard telling his patrolman: “The problem was, what, male Blacks … And I told you at roll call, and I have no problem telling you this, male Blacks 14 to 20, 21.” In other words: stop more young Black boys.

Other evidence indicates that patrolmen may be encouraged to meet arrest quotas. A tape played at the trial reveals a supervising officer asking for “more 250s” — or more stop-and-frisk forms. One plaintiff, a police officer, testified about the pressure he felt from supervisors — “they were very clear, it’s non-negotiable, you’re gonna do it, or you’re gonna become a Pizza Hut delivery man.”

Racial profiling punishes innocent individuals for the past actions of those who look and sound like them. It misdirects crucial resources and undercuts the trust needed between law enforcement and the communities they serve. It has no place in our national discourse, and no place in our nation’s police departments.

Ben Jealous is president/CEO of the NAACP. Call 202.292.3386 or e-mail bwrobel@naacpnet.org.

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