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On April 11, in the wake of news that George Zimmerman was being arrested for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a diverse group gathered at Little Rock AME Zion Church to discuss the events leading up to it and its rippling affect on communities all around America.
Coordinated by The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, Community Building Initiative and Mecklenburg Ministries, the topic for the night was "Can We Talk About Trayvon Martin: Why Is What Happened So Disturbing?"
Willie Ratchford, Executive Director of the Community Relations Committee, set the stage. He stated that what was needed was a "safe place to come together to have civil dialogue to discuss difficult situations."
Rick Thames, Editor of the Charlotte Observer, recounted the events, mostly taken from articles written by journalist Frances Robles for the Miami Herald. Trayvon, a 17-year-old high school student, was staying with his father and his father's fiancée in a gated community in Sanford, Fla. After returning from a store to purchase candy and a drink, Martin was followed by Zimmerman, a 28-year-old who volunteered with Neighborhood Watch, who according to the 911 phone call he made, felt Martin looked "suspicious." Zimmerman pursued Martin. And not long after, Trayvon was dead.
Moira Quinn, Senior Vice President of Charlotte City Partners, served as moderator and introduced the panel consisting of Brett Loftis, Executive Director of the Council for Children's Rights; Jelani Haskins, a student at Philip O. Berry Academy of Technology; Jose Hernandez-Paris, Diversity and Multicultural Education Specialist at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools; Brian Heslin, an attorney with Moore & Van Allen; and Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning journalist.
Loftis, who is Caucasian, began the commentary by pointing into the audience to the son of a friend who was African-American. "My boys look like me. Trayvon looked like [his friend's son] and Trayvon is dead."
Hernandez-Paris also mentioned fears for his children, mentioning how his son has been stopped by police officers in the past and how he himself was stopped as a youth. "You find yourself having to evaluate these interactions constantly... and it's sad that my children are experiencing these same things 34 years later."
Heslin reminded the audience that North Carolina has a similar law, the "no duty to retreat law," which allows for use of force if a person believes he or she is in imminent danger. "But what is a reasonable belief?" Heslin asked, "When beliefs are colored by our own prejudices and biases."
Curtis, who wrote a piece for the Washington Post’s blog entitled "Trayvon Martin Should Be Every Mother's Son," discussed how it took a month before reports of the case reached mainstream media. "Colorchange.org and other minority reporters brought the case to the forefront."
Curtis spoke of how racial issues continue to dominate our society. "A white person is judged by the worst act by that person. An African American is judged by the worst act committed by any African American... Trayvon was taken in as a John Doe and tested for drugs before being identified. He was profiled even in death."
After the panel discussion, the audience divided into groups to discuss two questions: What does what happened mean to you? Could this happen here?
One audience member, now in her 70s, told of her younger brother's death in 1967, shot to death in the back in head by a white man because he was one of few African Americans attending an all-white school. "I don't know if much has changed," she said.
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