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Trusting Law Enforcement After the Trayvon Tragedy

Dennis Parker,
Former Director,
ACLU Racial Justice Program
Laura W. Murphy,
Director, ACLU Washington Legislative Office
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July 16, 2013

The fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in February 2012, while not the first act of senseless violence of its kind, evoked a wide array of emotions including sadness, anger, and fear. For many of us, hearing the verdict two days ago felt like a punch in the stomach right in the same place that was still healing around his untimely and puzzling death.

Since “not guilty” was heard on Saturday night, thousands of people from New York to San Francisco have taken to the streets expressing hurt, frustration, and disappointment. Hurt, frustration, and disappointment because of why Trayvon was pursued in the first place, and at whether or not there will be a day when people of color–particularly Black families–will ever put their trust into the criminal justice system.

Trayvon’s is a story that far too many African American men experience daily. This case, and the countless others that haven’t received the same attention, remind us of the crisis of racial profiling where millions of Black and brown people in America–particularly Black boys and men–are often automatically judged as suspicious or dangerous. These young men are growing up in a world where they feel unsafe proceeding with certain everyday activities such as returning home from an errand, driving, or hanging out with friends because of stereotyping and over-criminalization by our criminal justice.

How can we expect communities of color to trust neighborhood watch groups and police organizations that were designed to protect them and all of us? How can we stop them from wondering what IS the value of black life in America?

The conversation of race and the criminal justice system is not an easy one but one that continues to unfold before us. The question is what actions are we going to take as a result of these conversations.

What better time than now to hold federal and state governments accountable for discriminatory policies foisted on people of color and their empowerment of individuals (like George Zimmerman) and the private sector to treat racial minorities in a discriminatory manner?

We’re not pressing for more over-heated, racially-charged rhetoric. It’s time for specific reforms and pragmatic solutions that are in the enlightened interest of the entire nation and all of its people. That is why the ACLU is calling on the Department of Justice to strengthen its guidance on racial profiling for federal law enforcement agencies and calls on members of Congress to immediately pass the End Racial Profiling Act. America can no longer tolerate the profiling of Black men and boys.

For more on the widespread problem of racial profiling, see “The Value of Black Life in America.”

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