It was a conversation meant to end the uncomfortable silence on the subject of racial profiling by getting people of all races and all backgrounds involved.
In another sense, it also was to witness how the mother of a 17-year-old who was shot and killed walking home from the store two years ago is continuing her fight not only for her sons but for all children.
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin and Jahvaris Fulton, said she still has a lot of work to do.
[PHOTO: Sybrina Fulton spoke Monday to a large crowd on the Indiana University of Pennsylvania campus. She is pictured on the screen behind her with her sons, Jahvaris Fulton, left, and Trayvon Martin. (James J. Nestor/Gazette photo)]
Fulton, along with civil rights activist Michael Skolnik, was the guest speaker for Monday’s 6 O’Clock Series panel discussion of “He Has a Name: Trayvon Martin and the Fight to End Criminalization and Profiling of Black Youth.” The event kicked off the Martin Luther King Jr. Speaker and Cultural Arts series at Indiana University of Pennsylvania as part of the celebration of Black History Month.
The Ohio Room at the Hadley Union Building was filled to standing-room-only capacity.
Fulton said she originally was fighting only for Martin.
“Now, I’m fighting for children. I’m fighting for young men, young women, Asians, blacks, whites, fat, skinny — it does not matter,” she said. “Children. Young people. Youth. It’s important.”
One of the only reasons she was willing to put her life in the spotlight, she said, was to use what happened to her and her family as an example of “what you do not want to happen to you” and so that she could “try to help somebody else’s child.”
At first, Fulton said, “I thought it was about the hoodie. It’s not just about the hoodie.”
She pointed out that throughout the room. “It’s not just African Americans that wear hoodies.”
Fulton said she went on Anderson Cooper’s show sometime after her son’s death, and he told her that he wears a hoodie to work almost every day and no one ever thinks he’s suspicious.
“He planted that seed in my mind to think, ‘Maybe it’s not just the hoodie.’”
“What do you do when people look at you and judge you by the color of your skin?” she asked.
It can’t be peeled off, she said.
“You have to embrace who you are. You have to be proud of who you are.”
Fulton said we all have our good days and our bad days, and everyone makes mistakes as teenagers, “but is that a reason to shoot and kill someone? Is that a reason to follow someone? Is that a reason to look at someone and judge them, by the color of their skin? It is not. And a lot of times we have to search within at who we are, and who we are as an individual, and who we would like to be.”
Fulton said the “absolutely worst part” wasn’t that Martin was shot and killed, or knowing that she would never see the big moments in his life. It was the day she had to go to her son’s funeral. She said Martin looked “like an angel” in a white suit and powder blue shirt, like he was going to prom. “He looked like he was sleeping, but how many of you know he wasn’t?” she asked.
“Still (to) this day, I don’t think the person that shot and killed him understands what he has done not only to me, but to my family and also my friends,” she said, referring to George Zimmerman, the community’s neighborhood watch coordinator who contends he shot Martin in self-defense under Florida’s stand your ground law on Feb. 26, 2012, as the teen was walking through a gated community in Sanford, where he was visiting his father’s fianc￩e and her son. It took several weeks for an arrest to be made, and Zimmerman went on trial in June 2013. He was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges a little more than a month later.
“Now the good part is — he woke a nation up. He made people realize that ‘maybe this kid wasn’t doing anything.’”
Fulton said instead of doing nothing, people were angry at what was taking place in the days and weeks following Martin’s death and decided to speak up about it and do something, through the power of social media. She said she and her family “really didn’t know how many people were supporting us,” adding that they didn’t know people in Pennsylvania and New York even knew about the case. It wasn’t until the Million Hoodie rally that they got a better understanding of how much support they were receiving, which wasn’t their mission, she said.
“Our mission wasn’t to get people involved; we just needed an arrest, we wanted to make sure that the police department was exposed, and we just didn’t want them to sweep it under the rug and just try to clear everything out,” she said.
Responding to a question regarding whether she feels the stand-your-ground law is like “open season on one black man” to another, Fulton said she “absolutely” feels that way.
“What it does is it justifies someone to kill you and get away with it,” she said, adding that Pennsylvania also has a stand-your-ground law “that will give the killer a way out, so … if they shoot and kill you for no reason, it’s a 50 percent chance that they’ll get away with it because of that law.”
Activist Skolnik said he sees public sentiment changing about such laws.
“We don’t need to lose children like this for a light bulb to go off,” Skolnik said, adding that in the two years since Martin’s death, not one stand-your-ground law has passed, though he has seen some amendments, because of people joining Fulton and saying the law is unnecessary. When the law was passed in Florida eight years ago, 25 states followed suit, he said.
Fulton said it’s important to be mindful of your surroundings at all times because “just because you see yourself a certain way doesn’t mean other people see you a certain way,” something she said she’s told her sons.
“It goes back to respect, and respecting one another, regardless of the color of their skin,” she said.
She also said it’s important to know and understand what laws are on the books, what laws “are coming up next” and what laws are being amended and “how those laws are going to affect you.” Fulton said she knew nothing about the stand-your-ground law Florida has in place, and she was born and raised there.
She said it’s also important to become a registered voter to elect people “who are addressing issues that affect you,” and to report for jury duty when selected. She said that jury pool for blacks on the Zimmerman jury was “slim,” and that it was hard to watch the jury selection process. She said she didn’t feel people were being honest during the process because, “who didn’t form an opinion about what happened?”
“Whether you were for or against, you had an opinion,” Fulton said. “A lot of people sat there and said, ‘Oh, well, I don’t have an opinion.’ And we know that was not the truth.”
Fulton also said if it was the other way around and it had been her son who shot and killed Zimmerman, “he would have been arrested Day 1 at the scene, he would never have been allowed to go home, he would not have had a bond hearing, and we went through two bond hearings. And I think Trayvon would have been found guilty and he would have been underneath the jail right now.”
Through the Trayvon Martin Foundation she co-founded, Fulton said, “we just want to make sure that we’re addressing those issues that are not so comfortable, like profiling, like racial profiling … pre-judging a person without even knowing them.”
“We have to educate more people. People need to be more aware of what’s going on,” she said.
Fulton said she thinks racial profiling “is all about mindset and perception.”
“I think how people perceive you to be is different from who you are,” she said. Her attorneys, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and even the pastor of Fulton’s church, have been racially profiled, she said, suggesting that it doesn’t have anything to do with education, income or where you live, but rather skin color.
“You can’t peel it off, but people have to learn to respect us,” she said. “You might not agree with who we are, but there’s nothing we can do to change the color of our skin. That’s why it’s so important that we respect one another.”
In addition to the Trayvon Martin Foundation, Fulton is launching curriculum in conjunction with Miami-Dade Public Schools that teach children how to deal with everyday issues like stress management, losing a job, losing a family member, problem solving and conflict resolution, in order to groom leaders and mentors.
Skolnik, editor in chief of globalgrind.com and political director for hip-hop business magnate Russell Simmons, and who also is on the board of directors for the Trayvon Martin Foundation, said that as a society, when white children, such as Natalee Holloway, JonBen￩t Ramsey and Etan Patz, are abducted or killed, they become household names, making front-page news, while when black kids and teens are killed, they become a number or a statistic. He wanted to change that.
Skolnik was contacted by the family of Derrion Albert, who was killed in 2009, his death captured on video. They asked Skolnik if he could bring some humanity, some dignity to Albert’s name.
Skolnik, who has ties to the entertainment industry, said that at that time hip-hop artists such as Jay-Z, Beyonc￩, Kanye West and Rhianna weren’t present on Twitter to really get the word out.
“But we had folks in 2009 who necessarily couldn’t move America but could move the conversation,” he said. So he reached out to those people, who included hip-hop artists Fabolous and Jim Jones.
“Could you just put on Twitter, ‘He Has a Name: Derrion Albert’? Just so we know his name,’” Skolnik asked them. “And they did.”
In six hours, he said, Derrion Albert was trending.
Skolnik attended Albert’s funeral in Chicago with U.S. Attorney Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and documented the funeral. Later that night, after returning home and about to write a blog about Albert, Skolnik said he got a phone call about 13-year-old Kevin Miller, who was shot and killed in Skolnik’s hometown of Queens, N.Y. Miller’s mother had seen what Skolnik had done with Albert and asked if he could do the same for her son. And he did.
And he did the same for 7-year-old Aiyana Jones, who was shot and killed by police in 2010 as she slept on a couch with her grandmother nearby. And for hundreds and hundreds more over the years.
But with Martin’s death in 2012, Skolnik said, “something in this story just didn’t feel right.”
“It was different. Although we incurred hundreds and hundreds of these stories, this one just didn’t feel right,” he said. A conversation was beginning to happen, he said, but “it was just among black people, and just among black members of the media … and white people weren’t even getting in the conversation.”
Skolnik, who is white, wrote an article a few weeks after Martin’s death about white privilege and racial profiling. He was asked to come to Sanford and march with Martin’s family, whom he didn’t know at the time but wanted to offer support and show solidarity. And he’ll be in Jacksonville, Fla., on Wednesday showing support for the family of 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was shot and killed in a dispute over loud music in November 2012. Michael Dunn, 47, is on trial for first-degree murder in a case that is being compared to Martin’s. It is set to go to the jury Wednesday.
Skolnik said he’s spent the past five years trying to talk about the perception of young black men and women and young Latino men and young Latina women.
He mentioned the death of 15-year-old Hadiya Pendleton, who was shot and killed in Chicago in January 2013, shortly after the Sandy Hook shooting in Newtown, Conn. President Obama invited Pendleton’s parents to his State of the Union address last year “and recognized their pain and their suffering as being equal to the parents and families of Newtown,” Skolnik said.
“That moment, as little as it was, for the president … no matter who the president was at the time, but that the president of the United States of America brought a family of color who had lost their child and put them in the first lady’s box, sitting next to the first lady, and recognizing their pain, was a monumental moment,” he said, urging audience members that the easiest thing they can do when a young child dies is to “just remember their name.”
Skolnik took a moment during the panel to survey the audience, asking how many of them had been profiled based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, weight, height, clothing, where they live, economic status and religion. Almost everyone raised their hand at least once.
“It’s not a good feeling,” he said, suggesting that “maybe that’s a place to open discussion with your peers who you may not think have felt that way in the past.”
“Everyone’s journey and struggle shouldn’t be judged against each other; it should be judged against ourselves,” Skolnik added.
The issue of profiling goes two ways, Skolnik said.
“We’re all guilty of profiling people, all of us in this room,” he said.
“If we are to change this nation, and if we are to allow that spark that Sybrina talked about to become a long, everlasting flame, it’s not going to be the work of just black people, it’s not going to be the work of just white people. It’s going to be the work of everybody in this room,” Skolnik said.
“This generation that built Twitter, that built Instagram, that built Pinterest, that built Facebook, that built YouTube — this generation that put the first black president in the White House, this generation that is that incredible, it will be the people in this room who will change this country.”
“We have to be at the table because so many of us have been the profilers for far too long and we have to talk about why, and we have to be vulnerable, and we have to say the wrong things once in awhile.”
“I won’t judge you by the hand you were dealt, because none of us has that control. The cards came out the way they came out. Some of us hit jackpots, some of us are still struggling to play that hand. But it’s how you play that hand that you should be judged.”
Skolnik told the audience that, being in college, they all have some level of privilege, and to not go home “thinking you can’t change this problem” and that they can’t be part of the work that Fulton and so many others are doing “because you haven’t felt profiled the way that Trayvon felt profiled.”
“Go home and say, ‘How can I have a conversation with that one person who might listen to me, who might hear me out, who might allow me to be vulnerable?’” he said.
“There’s nothing better than being in a room and being the one person who’s the most vulnerable because you learned the most.”