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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 2012, Pages 34-35, 37

Special Report

Trayvon Martin and "The Talk" No American Child Should Have to Hear

By Delinda C. Hanley

altOn the House floor, Congressman Bobby Rush (D-IL) removed his suit jacket to reveal a hoodie, saying, “Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker. Just because someone wears a hoodie doesn’t make him a hoodlum.” The lawmaker, whose son was shot to death in 1999 by men posing as police, was escorted off the floor for violating the House dress code. (Photo Anonymous/AP)

The shocking killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on Feb. 26 in Sanford, FL has reopened a discussion about race and racial profiling in America. Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, 28, a neighborhood watch/wanna-be cop who thought Martin looked suspicious—the young African American was wearing a hoodie and carrying a bag of Skittles along with a can of iced tea. Race undoubtedly played a role in local police accepting Zimmerman's version of events and not arresting him on the spot.

"This case has reignited a furor about vigilante justice, racial-profiling and equitable treatment under the law, and it has stirred the pot of racial strife," New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow wrote in his thought-provoking March 16 article,"The Curious Case of Trayvon Martin."

Americans couldn't help but recall the brutal 1955 murder of Emmett Till, 14, in Mississippi—also killed after buying candy—for reportedly whistling at a white woman shopkeeper. Till's slaying and the release of his killers mobilized the civil rights movement. People realized that even children were not safe from racist violence.

Martin's death reminded others of the killing in 2009 of Husien Shehada, 29, a Palestinian American from Woodbridge, VA. (See Sept./Oct. 2009 Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, p. 30.) On the last day of their Miami vacation, Shehada and his brother were surrounded by eight police officers responding to a 911 call about suspicious men. As Shehada put his hands in the air, police officer Adam Tavss shot him three times. Tavss was cleared of any wrongdoing amid outrage from the Arab-American community, especially when they learned officers asked witnesses if the men were speaking Arabic.

Concerned citizens have also drawn parallels to the rise in hate crimes against Muslims and Arabs. In August 2010, after Ahmed H. Sharif, a 43-year-old Bangladeshi immigrant cab driver in Manhattan, confirmed he was Muslim, his passenger—a student who had worked on a film documenting the life of a soldier in Afghanistan—stabbed his face and neck. Uttering an Arabic greeting, the assailant told the driver, "Consider this a checkpoint."

During a March 20 press conference at the National Press Club called by the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms (NCPCF) to discuss "pre-emptive prosecution" of Arab- and Muslim-American targets, the subject of discrimination and profiling on the basis of race, religion and national origin came up.

Attorney Stephen F. Downs described the case of Ziyad Yaghi, a 21-year-old Palestinian American living in Raleigh, NC, who went overseas to visit family members and get married in Jordan. Somehow Yaghi—who spent no money on illegal activities and never planned or committed a crime—was accused and convicted of providing material support of terrorism and conspiracy and was sentenced to 32 years in prison. "So now an innocent young man lies in jail for a simple trip he took overseas," says his mother, Laila Yaghi, adding that her family has been "ripped apart, destroyed and shattered." Her son is innocent, a victim of guilt by association, and Laila Yaghi urges Americans not to forget his plight.

"I can't imagine how painful it must be for a family and community to live with this terror," Downs said. "This mirrors the fear in the black community. What will happen to their sons? Will they be treated fairly?"

"Our son is your son," Trayvon Martin's mom, Sybrina Fulton, told a New York crowd protesting her child's senseless death. "This is not a black and white thing. This is a right and wrong thing."

That "wrong thing" is happening to African, Hispanic, Arab, Muslim and other minorities in America.

In his New York Times article Blow writes: "As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them 'suspicious.' That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss."

He continues: "That is the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line."

During a March 22 interview on National Public Radio, Washington Post columnist Donna Brittdescribed "The Talk" that black parents have with their sons and daughters: "My oldest son had just turned 12 and I knew that he was shifting from being adorable and sweet and cute into something that could be perceived as threatening and frightening to people who had no idea who he really was," Britt explained.

"I just knew that we had to sit down and discuss what was proper for him to stay safe and what was not, what kind of behavior might get him hurt and what kind might keep him safe."

Darryl Owens, a columnist for the Orlando, FL Sentinel, said he'd hoped the day never would come when he'd need to have "The Talk." "Not about birds and bees. About surviving a world that often sees darkness if black is the skin you're in.

"Fearful Jim Crow-era black parents knew that a wrong word, a glance held too long, could prove deadly. 'The Talk' was a primer for kids in kowtowing, a survival guide for apartheid America..."

Martin's killing will start conversations around the kitchen table, in church, synagogue and mosque basements, and classrooms around the country. Young people will hear "The Talk," which might include telling them to stand up straight; dress the part; be over-polite to policemen or people in authority; never make fast moves around police; keep your hands in sight at all times; be careful about being perceived as running away; and never let your anger get the best of you.

How does a parent do all this without instilling a sense of fear, or dashing hope for the future in America? Is this the kind of country we want, one in which we blame the victim for possibly looking suspicious to others?

One Arab-American mother, Samira, who has courageously promoted interfaith dialogue in Maryland, said she is terrified for her sons. She has found herself telling them not to speak Arabic in public and not to be in crowds with people from their same culture. "It was painful," she said, when she heard herself telling them not to go hiking or exercise with their Muslim friends. "My son likes to wear a loose-fitting jalabiya but I've told him not to wear it in public any more. I tell them the stories, but they don't get it," she said. "They say, 'This is my country and home. Why can't I be myself?'"

Another mother, Samar, who lives in Virginia, has had "The Talk" with her 16- and 19-year-old sons. "I tell them 'don't rock the boat; Keep quiet and don't talk about politics in class.' I won't let them join the solidarity groups in school. I worry because we gave them Arabic names. I'm embarrassed to say I even discourage them from going to the mosque and exploring their religion."

Are Arab- and Muslim-American mothers over-reacting?"

Muslims attend local Islamic community centers for social events, education and fun, as well as prayer, but lately attendance has dropped. Thanks to CIA and NYPD surveillance programs there is now a climate of fear in mosques. People used to welcome visitors and new arrivals, but now they suspect that strangers might be informers. Ideology also matters—people are afraid to criticize the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Pervasive fear is fracturing the Muslim community.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) hosted a March 30 event at its Washington, DC headquarters titled "NYPD: The Community under a Microscope." Speakers discussed NYPD spying on Muslims, the legality of these actions, and the impact of this program on the Arab-American community. Sameera Hafiz, policy director at the Rights Working Group (RWG), described the negative effects, primarily the breaking down of trust between law enforcement and the communities they are supposed to serve. Arab Americans are now less willing to report domestic abuse or other crimes.

Ginger McCall, director of Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC)'s Open Government Program, described NYPD informants recording license plates of people attending mosques. Undercover agents have been monitoring college students in New York City, at Yale and the University of Pennsylvania, and even joined a Muslim Student Association's whitewater rafting trip to upstate New York.

The NCPCF sent a letter to congressional leaders on March 20, 2012 decrying the "fake terrorism investigations" that create "crimes" where none exist and divert resources from actual threats. These actions improperly target innocent communities, the letter said, and raise the specter of "terrorism" where no plots exist.

Racial, religious and ethnic profiling harm the national cohesion of the American people, as well as the rule of law. In the United States—this great melting pot, the land of the free—people are supposed to be able to believe what they want and look different from each other.

The way Trayvon was profiled and followed is horrifying—but perhaps something good can come from this. We can create a new version of "The Talk"—one which ends racial profiling in America.

Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.