NPR

From Education To Law: The Legacy Of Trayvon Martin

A year after teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed in Sanford, Fla., remembrances are being held around the country. We may never know the exact details of the events that led to his shooting, but his death shifted conversations on racial profiling and law enforcement.

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Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We may never find out exactly what happened a year ago today in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, but we do know that the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin led to outrage and to national controversy. Legal proceedings in the case continue. Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman faces a hearing on his stand your ground defense in April and a possible murder trial in June.

But in the year since the killing, some teachers talk with students differently about tolerance and racial profiling. Some kids talk with each other about what it means to feel safe in their neighborhood. Some Neighborhood Watch groups retrain to win back the trust of people they protect. And communities work to bring people together after a case that divided them once and may do so again when juries and judges make decisions.

Teachers, young people, law enforcement: What are you doing differently one year after the death of Trayvon Martin? 800-989-8255 is the phone number. The email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, we'll continue the conversation with Michele Norris, whose Race Card Project asks people to define race in just six words. Today, how has the discussion of this case changed your thinking about yourself and your community? Six words, remember. That email address again is talk@npr.org. Or you can send us a tweet @totn.

But we begin with Maureen Costello. She's director of Teaching Tolerance, a program at the Southern Poverty Law Center. She joins us by phone from Montgomery, Alabama. Good to have you on the program today.

MAUREEN COSTELLO: Hi. Thanks - good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Can you describe how conversations have changed? Can you give us an example?

COSTELLO: Well, I think what you're having is more explicit conversations about race and safety in classrooms. One of the things that happened after - immediately after the Trayvon Martin killing was that teachers wanted to talk to their students about safety, what their experiences were like, and if they had ever really experienced, you know, racial profiling themselves.

CONAN: And this is a subject - it's difficult even now, but taboo.

COSTELLO: It - it often is. And, in fact, we've - we heard from teachers who actually either had very good conversations, because they were supported by school principals who thought this was important, and we heard from teachers who were afraid to have those conversations in classrooms.

CONAN: And what's worked, and what hasn't?

COSTELLO: Well, generally, what's worked are frank ones that talk about - well, you know, there are a couple ways. One is with younger children, even just talking about stereotypes, because this is a complicated problem. And you can talk about it explicitly as what happened to Trayvon, or you could talk about it explicitly as what it's like to be a, say, 14-year-old black male.

But you can also talk to eight-year-olds about what it feels like when other people judge you because of how you look or because of another label they've applied to you. So depending on the age of students, we found that those kinds of things worked. But generally what teachers are telling us is that conversation works, you know, getting kids to talk about their real fears, their experiences, if you have a mixed racial class, even servicing the idea that, you know, depending on your race, you may not look at the police the same way.

CONAN: And, I wonder, you're sort of describing what African-American kids are reacting to. What about in those mixed-race classrooms? What about white kids? What about Latinos? What about Asians?

COSTELLO: Well, I think what's important is that teachers facilitate conversations, because what's important is that the white kids aren't dismissing the experiences or, you know, perceptions of other kids. And that's part of this thing about getting rid of stereotypes. We don't dismiss your experience because - just because it's yours, and I haven't had it.

So those are the kinds of conversations we're really looking at. And we have some explicit, you know, examples. Look at - you can problematize it, in a way, by saying OK, it's not what you think. Let's look at the messages media has. And so one of the popular things that classroom teachers do is they'll say let's spend, you know, three hours tonight watching television programs, and keep a log of how black men are portrayed, and then come in the next day and talk about it.

And so, you know, what are the messages that we've getting from media, that we've gotten from our families, that we're getting from community groups? And how - and maybe it's about teenagers, too. What are the messages you get about teenagers? And are those fair? How can you - how can you address them? How can you set them right?

CONAN: Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, which is a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center. We also want to hear from you, how you've changed your behavior since the Trayvon Martin death a year ago today. 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll start with Samantha, and Samantha's on the line with us from Columbia, South Carolina.

SAMANTHA: Hi. Thank you for having me on.

CONAN: Sure.

SAMANTHA: Hi. I was falsely arrested just shortly after - actually, shortly after the Trayvon Martin case. And I was wearing, you know, not surprisingly enough, a hoodie and a - a black hoodie and a black pair of pants. It was raining and cold outside. I was with two of my friends, and they were both male.

And it was all thrown out, you know, the whole case was thrown out and everything. But I was put in jail overnight and everything while they figured it out. And, you know, it was a long process. But, you know, it was cited that one of the reasons that we were stopped and arrested was because of, you know, the way we appeared, that we, you know, were dressing, you know, suspiciously, I guess because of my hood. My friend also had a hoodie on.

And that was honestly written down as one of the reasons, that we looked suspicious. You know, we both had our hands in our pockets, and I guess it wasn't conducive to, I don't know, the way we were supposed to look at the time and in the area we were in. So now I don't dress like that. It was, you know, about 12 o'clock at night, and, you know, I do specifically avoid wearing a hoodie.

And, you know, I'm a young, white female, and I have that fear myself. So, you know, it's kind of silly, in my opinion, but I don't want to be profiled. I don't want to, you know, (technical difficulties) wearing a hoodie does that, then, you know.

CONAN: That first night in jail can be a very long night.

SAMANTHA: Yeah, it was 14 hours, and it was awful, you know, just awful. It was a tiny cell, by myself, and I was separated from my friends, you know, and it was - it was detention where anybody could be put in there with me. And nobody was, you know, and I'm glad for that, but that was a big fear, you know.

CONAN: I understand. Do you think that's fair?

SAMANTHA: Do I think it's fair?

CONAN: That you decided not to wear a hoodie after that?

SAMANTHA: No. I think it's ridiculous that I have to fear what I look like, and that somehow, that's going to be stigmatized, and I'll be put in prison for it and my freedom taken away from me very quickly. I mean, it's something that has just sat with me and stayed with me, and I wish it would go away. You know, it's really sad.

CONAN: All right. Samantha, thanks very much for the phone call.

SAMANTHA: Thank you.

CONAN: And I wonder, Maureen Costello, is that an experience that you've heard repeated?

COSTELLO: I've heard similar things. And that kind of experience, though, if I were in a classroom, would be such a teachable moment. And I know that that's an overused phrase, but Samantha, who is not the kind of person who would normally be racially profiled, got profiled because of what she was wearing. And she's in that privileged position of being able to decide not to wear it.

And so then you ask the question: Well, what about the things you can't just take off? And the color of your skin and being a black male is one of those things you can't take off.

CONAN: Edward Shohat is an attorney in Miami, a member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. He's on the line with us now from member station WLRN in Miami. Nice to have you on the program with us today.

EDWARD SHOHAT: Thank you for having us.

CONAN: And I wonder, you're there in Florida, not far from ground zero, as it were. Are you getting ready for what happens at the stand your ground hearing in April, and then the trial in June?

SHOHAT: The Community Relations Board is being very proactive in addressing the potential outcomes of both the stand your ground hearing, and if the case survives the stand your ground hearing, the trial. We have planned a youth summit on March 28th, which follows a number of proactive programs that we've put together in partnership with the Miami-Dade County Youth Commission in an effort to promote nonviolence, regardless of the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case.

CONAN: Do you fear that if the case got thrown out at the stand your ground hearing, do you fear violence?

SHOHAT: I don't know whether it is fair to say that we fear it. I think we're trying to be mature as a community, having learned from past experiences here in Miami-Dade County, that there are all kinds of reactions which may occur. And we're trying to stay ahead of the curve by engaging the youth of our community in a partnership to promote nonviolence, regardless of the outcome.

CONAN: How do you do that? How do you convince people...

SHOHAT: Well, I guess there are limited ways that you can do it, and about the only way to go about it is to roll up your sleeves, engage the young people in our community in the process, which we have already done, and the whole - we're going to begin the next phase by holding a youth summit in partnership with the Miami-Dade County Youth Commission, as I said, on March 28th at the Board of County commissioner chambers.

It's going to be televised community-wide, and we're going to hear from young people in the community what their ideas are about how to avoid problems, how to avoid violence if the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case is one that creates an atmosphere of violence.

CONAN: I wonder, Maureen Costello, would you have any advice for Edward Shohat?

COSTELLO: Well, I encourage them to really go - really act positively on that, listening to youth and letting youth speak, because the best way to avoid violence is to be able to service - to get people talking to each other. And, you know, it's not simply - the Trayvon Martin case was this outward, you know, very public example of something that is for many people a daily part of their existence.

You know, when they see a cop, they don't necessarily have the message: Here is the friendly guy who's going to help me cross the street. It might be more: This is the guy who's going to hassle me. And, you know, there may be any other number of experiences, perhaps not so much Miami-Dade, but think about across the country. There are places where neighborhoods are not safe, where kids are going to school, and, you know, they've witnessed violence in their own lives and they've witnessed gun violence, and it's a part of their lives.

And so I think that the dialogue that goes on has to be wider than that, and you have to be willing to hear some pain on the part of people, that this is something that has affected their whole lives.

CONAN: We'll hear more about that when we come back after a short break. We're talking about what's changed since Trayvon Martin's death. Teachers, young people, members of law enforcement, call, tell us: What do you do differently after a year since Trayvon Martin died? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. One year ago today, February 26, 2012, George Zimmerman fatally shot teenager Trayvon Martin. His mother, Sybrina Fulton, spoke with NPR's TELL ME MORE and remembered her son.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

SYBRINA FULTON: I had people to die in my family, but there's just nothing like losing a child. It's just nothing like losing a minor to senseless violence. And I don't know how long I'm going to hurt, but I do hurt, and although it's been a year, the pain is still there, you know, because I know that my son is not coming home.

So as a mother, as a parent, I'm fighting for two sons. I'm fighting for my son that's on Earth, and I'm fighting for my son that's in heaven.

CONAN: What happened before Zimmerman pulled the trigger is unclear. His brother Robert also spoke with our colleagues at TELL ME MORE. He told host Michel Martin the truth will be revealed in court.

ROBERT ZIMMERMAN: I think that there were some things that had to do, very little, with truth in the events of that night that kind of gave the story the impetus it needed to be spun and misdirected into this racial narrative that happened, unfortunately, because in my opinion people were not patient with getting the results of an investigation that was going on at the time.

CONAN: You can find the full audio from both those interviews at our website. Go to npr.org. Whatever happened that night in Sanford, Florida, the case prompted a national conversation. So teachers, young people, members of law enforcement, what are you doing differently a year after Trayvon Martin's death? 800-989-8255. Send us an email, talk@npr.org. You can also share your story on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance; and attorney Edward Shohat, a member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. Let's see if we can get another caller in on the conversation. This is Sean(ph), and Sean's with us from Wassaic - is that...?

SEAN: Wassaic, New York.

CONAN: OK, go ahead, please.

SEAN: How are you?

CONAN: I'm well, thank you.

SEAN: I've had to teach my son a little bit more in tolerance, and also to be xenophobic at the same time. As unfortunate as it is, I think that the conversation really needs to dwell in the household of those people who are unable to avoid stigmatizing people with darker skin. It's really not for someone whose skin is dark - household.

We have to take precautionary measures, but I think it's really important for the people who have the issues. I think that we're glossing over a lot of what we - it's like I was just explaining, when you teach someone that all they have to do is work hard in life, and they can achieve anything that they want. And then you see all these men on the evening news who are being dragged out of police stations or shot dead for, you know, buying a pack of Skittles and soda.

And, you know, even if you're not teaching your children, by default they automatically think there's something wrong with those people with darker skin. So I think for me, it starts at my home, what I'm reinforcing in my son. But the real conversation needs to take place in the homes of those people who don't have darker skin.

CONAN: And when you said xenophobia, Sean, I assume you're telling your son to be careful around people who are not like him?

SEAN: Well, I'm telling him he has to be careful of people and situations around him because he's not going to be perceive the same way as someone who doesn't have skin that looks like his.

CONAN: I wonder, Edward Shohat, as you work there in Miami-Dade, this is part of the conversation you must be having, as well.

SHOHAT: Absolutely. We've already met extensively with groups of young people in our community, and we've heard the message, loud and clear, that there are serious issues among them of racial profiling and of experiences with the community that doesn't necessarily recognize them as being equals, and that there is a potential for very negative reactions should the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial or the stand-your-ground proceedings not be viewed as acceptable to them should the case get dismissed, for example, on a stand-your-ground motion.

And the message that we're promoting is a message that all of that is important and well and good, so long as it is couched in a nonviolent, dialogue-oriented response, rather than in a response of violence. We know, for example, that we can reach a large segment of young people by partnering with young people who are of like mind and who agree with the message of nonviolence, regardless of the outcome of the Trayvon Martin case, of the George Zimmerman case.

CONAN: I don't know...

SHOHAT: However, there is a segment of the community which will promote violence and seek violence regardless of anything we say, and we are interested in hearing - and that's why we're convening a youth summit, to focus on how to reach a broader segment of that community.

CONAN: And I hear that broader address, but I don't know if you have children. If you do, have you had what - the talk that Sean has had with his son?

SHOHAT: Yes, I have two children, one who's in law school right now, and one who's about to start. And we've had these conversations in the last year and, in fact, in other contexts prior to that with our son and daughter. And I like the messages that I hear back from them. The reality is, as Sean pointed out a few minutes ago, my children are not in the community, the specific community or in the specific peer group, of Trayvon Martin.

And we need to listen to that community very closely as to the messages that they're hearing and the important points that they feel need to be made in order to promote a message of nonviolence.

The Miami community, Miami-Dade County at large, knows only too well what it's like to be reactive rather than proactive in similar situations. Our town has burnt a couple of times...

CONAN: Yeah, Liberty City, I think...

SHOHAT: And we've learned those messages.

CONAN: Yeah, yeah. Sean, thank you very much for the call.

SEAN: Thank you, have a wonderful day.

CONAN: And I hope there's never a need for follow-up.

SEAN: Thank you.

CONAN: Maureen Costello, I wanted to follow up with you, though. This - where do you put the conversation? You can't not have this conversation with African-American kids, but everybody else needs to be part of it, too.

COSTELLO: I agree completely. You know, classrooms are the place to talk about these things, and you have to have a lot of courage to be a teacher. We - right after this, in fact I think it was in the spring, we collaborated with the NAACP and several other organizations to actually put out some curriculum materials on racial profiling, on violence reduction and other issues like that.

But you're absolutely right. The conversation has to be two-way. It has to examine all the perspectives. And one of the goals of teachers is to get kids, get people to see the world through other people's lenses. That's the essence here.

So the white students, the privileged kids, the kids you are not likely to experience this and who may, in fact, be holding the kinds of stereotypes that will translate into the fears that Zimmerman had, which was, you know, he saw somebody, and he immediately said, you know, drugs, up to no good, dangerous, that they have to really examine those. Do they hold those kinds of beliefs?

And how do they - how did they acquire them and test them? Are they truth? They have to have exposure to people who are unlike them and understand - and that's probably the best way to learn that those beliefs, those stereotypes, aren't true.

The other thing that we saw happening right after the killing last year and which I think continues, this is a generation that is a real activist generation. They want to make social change. And I think that's true of students who are black, white and brown, that they want to do something.

And right after the Trayvon Martin incident, what you saw was rallies of kids wearing hoodies, for instance, standing in solidarity. We heard of so many schools that were raising money to send to the family to help offset funeral costs. Those kinds of things may not be directly addressing the underlying issues, but they're collaborative activities that bring community together and build community, and when you build community, you reduce violence.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get Robert on the line, Robert with us from Indianapolis.

ROBERT: Hi. Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

ROBERT: When Trayvon - the whole situation with Trayvon happened, me as a black man - I'm 28 from Indianapolis - I just told myself I have to be more vigilant. I have a son, and the conversation that I feel like I would have to have is, you know, when you're at night, you know, take your hood off if you have a hood. You keep your hands out your pocket. Don't put your hands in your pocket. Stay alert because being a black man, you constantly have to be on alert because somebody's watching you or seeing what you're going to do, and you always felt like you're the suspect.

And I think that our children need to really try to get out of that feeling. You know, I don't want my son have to walk down the street like, OK, here come the police. Here we go. You know, let me look like I'm normal and I'm not going to bother nobody. And it's just really hard, and it's a really sad situation that we're - after all these years, we're still going through this.

CONAN: You're 28. How old is your son?

ROBERT: My son just turned one-and-a-half.

CONAN: This may be a while before he has to put this into operation.

ROBERT: Yeah, but I got to prepare myself for that conversation because, I mean, the way things are going, it's changing, but it's slowly changing.

CONAN: Did your father have that talk with you?

ROBERT: Oh, yeah. My father, my mother, my - all my older black males, we've all had that conversation, even people I don't know. They tell you, when you leave at night, be careful. You know, watch out. The police is out, you know? What kind of conversation - I mean, that's just (unintelligible). Watch out. Police driving up and down the street, like - you're treated like a suspect. You walk in stores, everybody's watching you, you know, and that's not even in bad neighborhoods. Everywhere you go, you always have that feeling. And I really wish - I hope my son doesn't have to feel like that, but at the rate that it's going, unfortunately that may not change.

CONAN: And it sounds like, from what you're saying, this is a conversation that's been going on long before Trayvon Martin.

ROBERT: Long before that. And it's a lot of - and that one, that's just a public situation that's national. This stuff happens every day where you're stopped. I've got an old 1995 Cadillac de Ville. Every time I'm driving down the street when I had that car, I will get pulled over. Oh, you fit the description of somebody we're looking for. You know, you're always profiled, and that's what I'm - exhausting. It's just exhausting, you know, and it's - I just hope it changes.

CONAN: Well, Robert, thank you very much for letting us see a little bit through your eyes.

ROBERT: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the phone call. We're talking about how we've changed a year after the death of Trayvon Martin back in Sanford, Florida. Our guests are Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, which is a project at the Southern Poverty Law Center, and Edward Shohat, criminal defense attorney, member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. And you're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

Melody's(ph) on the line with us from Cincinnati.

MELODY: Hi.

CONAN: Hi.

MELODY: I'm an eighth grade teacher, and I just, in listening to all of this, was thinking about some of the things I do a little bit differently. And one of the things I've been trying since some of this happened is just when looking at stereotypes with my eighth-graders, not even getting into the violence of it, but talking about how we can use humor and do things to sort of defy those stereotypes.

And one of the things we've done in classes, you know, we looked at, like, for example, Bill Cosby. And then my - the community where I teach is predominantly white, but we, you know, we read this article about how, when he first became a comedian, he talked about things that were really only familiar to those in the black community, but then how he wanted to be a positive influence and to relate to a broader audience, and then, you know, with "The Cosby Show," the idea of bringing in a successful black family into prime time.

And so, you know, I know the comment was made earlier about how, you know, some teachers have given students assignments, like let's look at how black men are portrayed on TV, but looking, too, at the positive. And so rather than go, you know, some of the negative route, what I've tried to do is be more positive with that instead of talking about the violence, but just how can we all relate to stereotyping and how can we stop that.

CONAN: Maureen Costello, I wonder if you had a thought about that and about how the conversation changes in a predominantly white class.

COSTELLO: Well, it does change very much, and I think that's fine that it does because there are two distinct problems that have to be addressed. What I'm hearing - I think it's marvelous to, you know, to go to a predominantly white class and show positive images of people of color. That's incredibly important because these are kids who may not have any daily interactions.

So we get to, you know, kind of what people talk about as contact theory, which is I'm going to be less afraid of somebody if I know them. So if it's not an integrated school, then you're going to have to do that by proxy. And so you do it by Bill Cosby or by popular sports heroes, people, musicians, whatever. That is one way to do it.

My concern about that is that it kind of only scratches the surface. And until those students who may be living middle-class lives and who have never encountered any of the things that your last guest talked about when he was driving his Cadillac and gets, you know, stopped constantly is that they don't understand how the system works against certain people because of their color, and I think it's important to expose them to that.

So it's two-pronged. It's, one, you know, let's humanize and become familiar and give you windows into the lives of other people. But secondly, let's also kind of examine the circumstances that create the circumstances those folks live in and that they have to deal with every day.

CONAN: Melody, do you think - is there a way to do that that you try to do?

MELODY: You know, I think so. And I have a - I teach eighth-graders, so some of them, just from a maturity standpoint, are not ready to deal with that conversation. But, you know, as we talk about stereotypes, there are a lot of them that can identify with just, you know, I'm alone without a parent in the mall. And so the store clerks watch me a little bit more closely because I'm a teenager, and they think I'm going to shoplift, you know, or do something like that.

So we definitely do examine some of those, but I think some of it is just their maturity level. They aren't quite there to have the conversation to about - from the other side. You know, something that, you know, in eighth grade, we do maybe only scratch the surface but it's something that I hope, it gets them to think a little bit more deeply as their thought processes mature.

CONAN: Melody, thanks very much for the call.

MELODY: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Edward Shohat, we just have a few seconds left but I wanted to ask you, as you prepare for this, and I know you're talking about your summit and, you know, you're going to broadcast it, I presume on some sort of cable-access program, how do you reach the number of people you need to reach?

SHOHAT: Well, it's not an easily answered question. I think by creating a broad base segment of the community that participates in our program, we have a broad base of both law enforcement and non-law enforcement and community-based organizations that are going to participate in the youth summit and we have a broad-based youth participation countywide. The schools and the school system is assisting us and working with us. And we just are going to do the best we can under limited circumstances with limited abilities to get our message out to the broadest base population that we can.

CONAN: Well, thanks very much for being with us today.

SHOHAT: Thank you.

CONAN: Edward Shohat, member of the Miami-Dade County Community Relations Board. We spoke with him from member station WLRN. Maureen Costello, our thanks to her as well, director of Teaching Tolerance, joined us from Montgomery, Alabama. Stay with us. The Race Card Project. This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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