The Michael Dunn trial and 2-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death lead young African-American men into the 21st century cynical of their justice system
By Corey Arvin
Contrary to popular belief, today’s young African-Americans are not more skeptical of their value in the eyes of the U.S. justice system compared with previous generations. There is no reignited understanding of civil rights inequities in modern society, nor any renewed sense of duty to overcome systematic failures.
According to Brenda Stevenson, Professor of History at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), recent high-profile judicial cases involving young black men underscored a disparity in the justice system that African-Americans have always been aware of—and never forgot.
Earlier this month, the parents of Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teen killed by neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman, organized a rally in memorial of his death two years ago. Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges. The case returned to the national spotlight on Feb. 15 when Michael Dunn, a white man facing first-degree murder charges in Florida after fatally shooting a young black teen, Jordan Davis, received a mistrial on the first-degree charges due to a hung jury. Dunn was found guilty on four lesser counts, including attempted second-degree murder.
“These aren’t just the opening of new wounds, it’s a combination of fresh and old wounds for African-Americans,” said Stevenson.
Stevenson, whose areas of research and publication include African American history, is also author of “The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins: Justice, Gender, and the Origins of the LA Riots”. Harlins, a 15-year-old black girl, who was fatally shot in the back of the head in 1991 by a Korean store owner in South Los Angeles. The owner was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter, yet sentenced to five years of probation, community service, and a $500 fine. Similarities to Harlins’ death and Martin were frequently recalled in the media during the Zimmerman trial.
While the Zimmerman and Dunn trials have inspired a national discourse on racial equality – a necessary conversation to improve race relations in America, according to civil rights advocates –it has also contributed to young African-Americans inheriting the attitudes and perceptions their families have always maintained about authority figures and the judicial system, said Stevenson.
“Younger African-Americans coming of age see what has happened with Trayvon Martin, they see what happened with [Jordan] Davis. They talk about it with their parents and their parents will say ‘that is what happened with Rodney King’, or ‘that is what happened with Latasha Harlins’, and their grandparents will say ‘that's what happened with Emmett Till’ and so on,” said Stevenson.
Young African-Americans, particularly men, are informed early in life that they are more susceptible to being regarded as guilty by nature – and the lessons are not necessarily learned in the home, but on the streets. A police officer can detain someone who is black and they witness the ordeal, wondering if it was because of their race. The also see the victimization of blacks at the hands of other races is largely disregarded compared to their white counterparts, she said.
‘I didn’t feel like any justice was served’
Devon Johnson never harbored any animosity to law enforcement or the justice system. He never stood subjectively in front of a judge before, nor found himself the target of police officers.
From first sight, Johnson may seem as harmless as the average young man. The 20-year-old college student maintains a virtually non-threatening demeanor, with a waify 5-foot, 10-inch frame and signature red bucket hat. Johnson is more inclined to smile at his peers and strangers in passing than to sneer or intimidate. But placing himself in “the wrong place at the wrong time” contributed to an unforgettable encounter with authorities.
Johnson didn’t realize that his innocuous stature could easily transform to a guilty target at night while idling with his friends last month. A typical party-hopping night that attracted Johnson and his friends to a Cal State University Northridge dormitory landed Johnson in jail after several young visitors were reported vandalizing one of the buildings. According to Johnson, he was unaware who exactly was to be blamed as the suspected individuals responsible had already fled. Johnson left the building and he saw five campus police officers “charging” at him and fled on foot into the street where a police officer detained him. According to Johnson, five girls, who he described as white, identified him from across the street to police as the vandal based on his clothes, not his face.
“They said they recognized my black jacket and red hat ... there were a lot of people wearing black and red,” said Johnson.
According to Johnson, he was the only person arrested for vandalism that night and was transported to jail in Van Nuys. His jail was occupied by others, but felt desolate as he worried his family would wonder about his whereabouts. Johnson was released on bond, but recalls being told before he left to not “plead not guilty” to avoid more trouble. His family advised him to follow his instincts and plead not guilty, but his public defender insisted he plead no contest to “avoid more court appearances”, he said. Johnson felt confused about his alternatives and pressured to plead “no contest”, which he did to move forward. He was sentenced to 2 years of probation.
Within the span of a night, in a small jail cell where he slept to kill time, Johnson found himself a part of a distressing statistic for African-American men. African-Americans represent 26 percent of juvenile arrests, 44 percent of youths who are detained, 46 percent of the youths who are judicially sent to criminal court, and 58 percent of the youth admitted to state prisons, according to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice.
“I have no court smarts whatsoever. I was looking for help and I thought that's what the public defender was there for,” said Johnson.
“I didn’t feel like any type of justice was served. I don't feel angry towards it or sad, I just felt like I got the bottom part of the stick this time.”
Johnson tried to preserve an indifferent attitude toward the justice system, but said he understands first-hand the cliché of being “unfairly” treated.
“I always knew the law was kind of a mess. You hear all of these stories of people being wrongfully convicted for what they haven't done and you are aware of what the cops can do. It just reassures you. It's nothing we don't already know,” he said.
Intervening Before the Problems Begin
There’s little doubt young African-American men are at-risk youth, susceptible to violence as both perpetrators and victims. This week, President Obama planned to introduce his executive program “My Brother’s Keeper” in attempt to intervene with at-risk African-American men.
According to the American Community Survey, nearly one in every three African-American men between 20 to 29 years of age are under some form of criminal justice supervision whether prison, jail, parole, or probation. In addition, according to the Justice Policy Institute, more black males are in prison than enrolled in colleges or universities. In 2000, there were 791,600 black men in prison and 603,032 enrolled in college compared with 1980, when there were 143,000 black men in prison and 463,700 enrolled in college.
Reaching at-risk youth early is integral to their future success, deterring crime, and sustaining healthy communities, according to Sgt. Barry Montgomery, a spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD).
LAPD is actively involved in community programs throughout Southern California aimed at juvenile men who could find themselves the victims or perpetrators of crime, said Montgomery. The programs, which include juveniles and parents, are even designed to address some of the nuances in approaching African-American at-risk youth compared to Hispanic youth, for example, he said.
The “Jeopardy Program” is one LAPD gang prevention and intervention program that targets children and teens from 8 to 17 years of age. The program is active in several communities that have high African-American populations, Montgomery said.
Montgomery, an African-American, credits the LAPD Cadets program, previously known as the Explorers, for inspiring him to become a police officer. He credits older African-American officers already employed with the department with motivating him to be directly involved with improving Los Angeles communities as a police officer.
I was taught “If you want to make change, you don't make change on the outside, it’s on the inside,” said Montgomery.
Faith-based organizations, such as churches, have been a bedrock for African-Americans throughout U.S. history, used as an outlet to galvanize communities and educate congregations on civil rights issues. By-in-large, churches commitment to African-American social issues remains, but has expanded into educating and shaping young African-Americans.
West Angeles Church of God in Christ, founded in 1943, is one of the most prominent African-American churches in Los Angeles. The church’s outreach division, West Angeles Community Development Corporation (WACDC), hosts programs for at-risk, such as “Young N LA” and Manhood 101. LAPD has also worked in conjunction with the WACDC’s programs, said Irvin Shannon, program manager.
“Our calling is to ‘develop the beloved community’. As such, investing resources in our youth, specifically young men, is a part of developing our community. The vitality of South Los Angeles rests in the future success of our youth and it is our role to actively prepare them for success,” said Shannon.
“Historically, the church provided the African-American community with hope, a voice, and platform to advocate for social change. The opportunity is immense for other faith-based organizations to continue to engender change within our community.”
Johnson, who doesn’t believe he fits into the category of an “at-risk” youth, says his eyes are wide open to how “easy” it is for someone who shares his background to find himself in trouble with the law, even if it was inadvertent. He plans to avoid seeing history repeat itself.
“It was the realest scenario I’ve ever been in.”
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