For many black men, being racially profiled is a sad reality
- July 17, 2013
By Mark Emmons and Matt O'Brien
Staff Writers, San Jose Mercury News and Bay Area News Group
Wayne Gulledge didn't join a protest or vigil this week. But like so many African-American men, Gulledge views the acquittal of a Florida neighborhood watch volunteer for killing an unarmed black teenager through the prism of injustices experienced in his own life.
He is left with this unsettling thought: Trayvon Martin could have been me.
"At one point, every black male -- whether you're from the hood, whether you're from the middle class -- has been profiled," said Gulledge, 33, of San Leandro. "It's just the way it is. It's sad, but you have to expect it, no matter what you do."
The acquittal of George Zimmerman continues to reverberate around the country, and nowhere has the conversation and outrage been louder than in the Bay Area. Nearly 3,000 miles away from the trial in Sanford, Fla., the symbolism of the case has far overshadowed the courtroom proceedings that resulted in a not-guilty verdict.
The reaction is not just playing out in the streets of downtown Oakland, where peaceful daylight protests have descended into nighttime chaos and vandalism. Across the region, people continue to wrestle with the stark reality that a 17-year-old African-American who was walking home from a store is dead, and they see no one being held accountable for his lost life.
"We are just so very hurt," said Pastor Oscar Dace, whose Bible Way Christian Center held a town hall Tuesday night so San Jose congregation members could vent. "It feels like in our country, where there is supposed to be justice for all, there's really only justice for some. This is just another example of a black life not being valued like a white life."
For youths angered by the verdicts, several Oakland community centers, art studios and churches have opened their doors. On the Cal State East Bay campus in Hayward, the school's diversity center has a forum planned for Thursday so students and faculty can sort through their feelings about a trial that has provoked such disparate perspectives, many of them falling on racial, generational or ideological lines.
"This is one of those stories like the O.J. Simpson trial, where everybody was paying attention," said Jonathan Stoll, the diversity center manager. "Maybe people were surprised at the verdict, but when they began to look at the larger picture, they realized that it fits a pattern that leaves us with a feeling of hopelessness."
On Saturday, a Florida jury found Zimmerman, 29, not guilty on murder charges in the Feb. 26, 2012, shooting death of Martin, who was returning home from a convenience store where he had bought candy and an ice tea drink. Defense attorneys argued Martin provoked the attack, inciting Zimmerman, the only surviving eyewitness, to shoot him in self-defense.
An unnamed juror who was a member of the six-woman panel told CNN that "all of us thought race did not play a role" in the case. But that statement has been met with the same kind of widespread disbelief among African-Americans and many others as the verdict itself.
Watching the news Saturday was Andre V. Chapman, founder and CEO of the Unity Care Group, a San Jose-based nonprofit that helps guide foster youth into adulthood. With him were his 18-year-old son and five friends, who quickly took to Twitter to comment on the verdict.
"It was a rainbow coalition of kids of all ethnicities, and they were all asking, 'How is this even possible?'" said Chapman, a father of three. "These kids watch this and then draw the parallels in their own lives."
The verdict only reinforces societal perceptions that do little to help how Americans view each other, said Margalynne Armstrong, a Santa Clara University associate professor of law.
For instance, she said, there is the idea that there are places where you're not supposed to be if you're an African-American. Another is that young black males must carefully "toe the line" in how they dress and act, or they risk being viewed as a threat by others.
"They can't walk with their hood up or be aggressive in any way," added Armstrong, who teaches a course on race and the law. "Well, that's a heavy burden to carry that other teenagers don't have to deal with just because they're not African-American."
The specter of urban violence and "all these images of black-on-black crime" in the media only feed into stereotypes, she said.
"But it's complicated," Armstrong added. "Those often are in neighborhoods of low income, low services and low opportunity. People move from those places for a better life for their families. But clearly they aren't always moving to places safer for young black males."
The demonstrations have been particularly tense in Oakland, where Oscar Grant was shot and killed by a BART officer in 2009. While many protesters are young white activists with no firsthand experience at the brunt of racism, for others, the experience was more personal. One 16-year-old black teen, wearing a symbolic white hoodie such as the one Martin was pictured wearing, told the crowd Tuesday night near Oakland's Lake Merritt he had to sneak out of his house to join the march.
"My mama is fearful for my life because I'm out here at night," he said.
Last weekend -- only adding to the resonance -- marked the national premiere of "Fruitvale Station," the film that recounts the final day in Grant's life.
It was at the cinema that Gulledge found a place to reflect, joining crowds that lined up Monday at Oakland's Grand Lake Theater even as protesters were beginning to gather downtown for the third consecutive night.
What bothered Gulledge most about the shooting trials of Zimmerman and the BART officer, Johannes Mehserle, was how the character of each victim was tarnished in order to justify why they were shot.
"It was more like Trayvon was on trial," he said.
Growing up in a middle-class family, Gulledge remembers how he and his dad were pulled over after a soccer game just for driving through the affluent Oakland hills, and that the profiling continued when he moved to Danville in his 20s. He even went to the town's police station to announce his presence, saying, "Hey, this is who I am, I'm a black man living in this neighborhood."
Dace's congregation in San Jose is about half African-American. And when kids had a discussion Sunday of their feelings about the Martin case, there was emotion and some fear.
"These are good kids here," Dace said. "Some wear baggy jeans and hoodies. But they are our children. They are loved. And it's hurtful that other people don't see them that way."