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Trayvon Martin Was Afraid, Too

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Do you mind if I take a few minutes to tell you about my son? He has three beautiful sisters but right now I'll just tell you about him. He is 8 now and he loves anything that involves dirt, any ball, and running around. He still has deliciously long eyelashes and long musician's fingers; he is learning to play the guitar. He likes to act like he's older than he is — a couple days ago he asked me if I thought his Nerf basketball set was "old school" and if his next babysitter could be "hot"; whatever that means. (The answer to both is no, by the way.) But every so often, thankfully, my husband and I are reminded that he is still a little boy, like a few weeks ago when he was not feeling well and he came into our room at two in the morning clutching his green stuffed bunny. He came in because he was afraid, and I was reminded that, even at 2 a.m., one of the pleasures of being a parent is to be able to comfort your child when he is afraid.

Can I just tell you? That is why if you are a parent — and frankly even if you aren't — you should be able to understand why so many people are so shaken and so hurt about the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida. Shot to death (as we talked about previously on the program) while he was walking home from the store in a neighborhood outside Orlando that he was visiting. Shot because a neighbor, a self-appointed neighborhood watch guy named George Zimmerman, decided the teenager looked suspicious and took it upon himself to follow him.

Now I wasn't there but one thing I do know is that there is already a lot to digest in what we all do know. Like the fact that there had been a series of break-ins in the area, which tends to make people on edge; the fact that the police dispatcher told George Zimmerman to back off and he didn't; and the fact that witnesses have accused the local police of shaping their statements to fit the shooter's defense rather than objectively pursuing the facts.

But what I want to focus on today is something we don't ever seem to talk about: that fact that Trayvon Martin was afraid. Something we know because, according to his family's lawyer, he was on the phone and told the friend he was being followed by a strange man. That friend told him to run. And he did, toward the house where he was staying. But he never made it.

Why does it never seem to occur to anybody that young black men can be afraid? Let's face it — when we think about why crime frightens us, doesn't the person who comes to mind, the person whose victimization we most fear, is probably somebody who looks like our mother, our sister, your wife or girlfriend? But if you think about who is actually most likely to be killed, that victim is far more likely to be a man and far more likely to be a black or brown man.

In 2010, according to the FBI, some 1,800 black people under the age of 22 were murdered. That's 50 percent more than the total number of whites that age who were killed. But it's even more depressing when you consider that blacks are just 13 percent of the population. And yes it is true that the people bringing the pain are most likely to look exactly like the people they are hurting.

Case in point: over the weekend in Chicago at least 10 people were killed, at least half believed to be gang-related shootings, including a 6-year-old girl killed in a drive-by. But that is all the more reason why when the innocent suffer, attention must be paid. And also why attention must be paid when the many are forced to wear the cloak of suspicion caused by the acts of the few.

My son is so young now and so innocent, so happy that he can ride his scooter to the new playground down the street. His biggest worry is getting tally marks for forgetting to raise his hand and losing precious minutes of recess. How long will it be before my biggest fear will be having to wait with my heart in my chest every time he walks out the door?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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