Jeneé Osterheldt

Wear a hoodie for Trayvon

By Jeneé Osterheldt

The Kansas City Star

Many protesters marching peacefully in San Francisco, California, Sunday afternoon, July 14, 2013, wore hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed by George Zimmerman.
Many protesters marching peacefully in San Francisco, California, Sunday afternoon, July 14, 2013, wore hoodies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin, the Florida teen killed by George Zimmerman.

I am Trayvon Martin.

At night, I walk my dog in my mostly white neighborhood, my gender hidden beneath a hoodie, sweatpants and sneakers.

Does that make me suspicious?

Does that give some gun-carrying vigilante the right to hunt me down?

On a Sunday night in late February, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot in a gated Florida neighborhood by George Zimmerman, who claims self-defense. To him, the 17-year-old walking along  looked suspicious.  Why? He didn't know the young black man who was wearing a hoodie. So he called the police. CNN's Anderson Cooper reported on the speculation that Zimmerman used the word "coon" during that call.

I listened to the tape, and I fall in the crowd that believes that's what was said. That's  racial profiling at its absolute worst. And it hurts.

President Barack Obama said this case requires all of us to do some soul-searching. As he stood in the Rose Garden at the White House on Friday, he said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon."

Obama went on to say every parent in America should understand how crucial it is that every aspect of this case be investigated. I agree. But I think everyone in America, parent or not, no matter your color, should care about the murder of Trayvon Martin.

For Derecka Purnell, the news  brought tears to her eyes.

She thought of her brothers. Derecka, 21, a University of Missouri-Kansas City senior and political science major, is the eldest of six children. And two of her brothers are about Trayvon's age. She immediately thought how easily stereotypes could have claimed their lives, not just back in St. Louis where she's from, but anywhere. They wear hoodies too. What's to stop someone from considering them a threat just because of that?

Even after the police told Zimmerman not to follow Trayvon, he did. Instead of driving home, Zimmerman stalked the young man who had just walked to the store to get Skittles and a can of  ice tea. Trayvon was on his way back to his father's fiancée's house. Like most of us would, he got scared when he realized he was being followed. He ran.

Zimmerman claims he was assaulted. But Zimmerman hunted Trayvon down. He was the instigator. He was the shooter.

How is it that Zimmerman was never arrested? What part of pursuing a child while armed with a gun allows for a self-defense argument? Why has it taken this long for the FBI and Justice Department to get involved?

"It terrifies me that in 2012 an innocent kid can be pursued by an armed man and shot and killed," Derecka says. "If Zimmerman is not held accountable, it means that the lives of unarmed children, especially black boys, will seem expendable."

Monday, on the one-month anniversary of Trayvon's tragic murder, Derecka and her classmates, as well as members of her church, Macedonia Baptist, invite Kansas Citians to gather at 5:30 p.m. at the J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Country Club Plaza for a candlelight vigil and rally to raise awareness.

"We have to make sure Trayvon Martin does not die in vain," says Derecka. "We're not just standing up for the lives of black children, we're standing up for all children. Trayvon has become an unintentional martyr, and we have to send the message that predatory violence against our youth, of all colors, will not be tolerated."

People are urged to wear hoodies to represent Trayvon, but Derecka wants people to know that this event is not just about him, it's about our entire community.

"It's important that we talk about racial profiling and stereotypes in all communities so we can bridge the gap and prevent this from happening again," she says. "Because the fear of the unknown lives here too."

Organizers will speak on that at the vigil. Derecka says we can't get caught up in the sensationalism. We have to remember the issues.

What will the discussion be? Determining what is and isn't appropriate behavior for neighborhood watch groups, racism and the importance of not letting this tragedy tarnish an already shaky relationship minority communities have with the police.

"When you know that the police knew Zimmerman was following this good, unarmed kid and he still lost his life and no one was arrested," Derecka says, "it almost presents a feeling of hopelessness."

But Derecka knows there is still hope. And I do too.

It starts with building better relationships with the police and better relationships with one another. We have to get rid of this hate and not be so quick to buy into stereotypes.

Because in the dark, wearing a hoodie, any of us could be Trayvon Martin.


Trayvon Martin Rally & Candlelight Vigil

When: 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Monday

Where: J.C. Nichols Fountain on the Country Club Plaza, 47th & Main streets

Wear: Your hoodies