A discussion by teens on race, crime and stereotypes

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April 27th, 2012

Omaha, NE – Omaha teens are making their views known in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. For this week’s KVNO in the Community report, we’ll hear their thoughts on this national debate about race, crime and stereotypes, and how it’s impacted young people here in Omaha.

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On February 26th in a Florida suburb, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood patrolman noticed Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old black man wearing jeans and a hoodie walking along the streets of a gated community. Zimmerman called 911 and told a dispatch operator about recent break-ins and a “guy who looked like he’s up to no good, or on drugs or something.”

Teens in Omaha at a panel discussion on the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. (Photo by Angel Martin)

Zimmerman shot Martin, who was unarmed, in the chest in what he said was self defense. Zimmerman wasn’t immediately arrested, but has since been charged with second-degree murder. The incident has sparked discussions around the country. And last week, at the Eastern Nebraska Community Action Partnership building in north Omaha, teens spoke out.

“If you’re just mad because there is an African American in your neighborhood. That’s not defending yourself, that’s taking racism to a whole other level,” said Kianna Williams, a panelist at the discussion.

For many in the room, Martin’s death hit close to home because not only was he a black man, but he was also a teenager. Kenae Ashley, 17, said, “I wear hoodies…I’ve walked to the store before.”

As the discussion went on, others voiced concerns with what they see as loose gun control laws. Martin’s death drew national criticism over Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law,” which allows someone who feels threatened to defend themselves – with the use of a weapon. Most of the teens said lenient laws lead to more guns on the street and more gun violence in general. And many said they had personally been impacted by gun violence in one way or another.

Mary Beth Becker, right, performed her piece "The Talk" at Omaha's recent Louder than a Bomb poetry competition. She's pictured here performing her group poem. (Photo courtesy Nebraska Writer's Collective)

“The problem in Omaha is that it’s black on black (crime) a lot of times,” Williams said. “I think the fact that it was a white on black, it kind of opened our eyes and let us realize that we’re doing the same thing.”

Zimmerman is in fact of mixed ethnicity: his father is reportedly Caucasian, and his mother Hispanic. But he was described in initial reports of the incident as, simply, white. Williams added, “So how can we blame a white man who did exactly what we do every day? It made us realize that we have to change something.”

Not only have people been talking about Trayvon Martin’s death, there have also been rallies, rap songs and even poetry. Recently at an Omaha youth poetry competition, Mary Beth Becker, a sophomore at Duchesne Academy, shared her feelings with a spoken word piece titled “The Talk,” which was set against the backdrop of her experience as a member of a mixed-race family.

“You shoot him with your eyes closed, because in your hunter’s mind, a boy who blends in with the dark is no longer a child but a target,” Becker said, as her peers started to snap and clap in support of her piece. “My brother is three years old, his piano-black skin is velvet smooth… in 15 years, I will have to tell him ‘Honey, you can’t go out tonight. Honey, you have to stay in because some self-righteous vigilante might steal you away.”

Back at ENCAP, participants like Ashley said the community needs to work together to address gun violence and end racism and injustices in the community.

“It’s not just African Americans that should get together, it should be everybody to get together and try to push this (change),” Ashley said.

“We’re all fighting for the same thing; we all don’t want anybody to be killed; we all don’t want racism; we all want the law to be right,” he said. “So it takes all of us getting together, not just one ethnic group.”

Kianna Williams said she’s pushing for a community without gun violence – of any kind – and is encouraging other teens to do the same, starting by speaking out.

“A voice does so much more,” Williams said. “If you can get people to speak out, then it leads to action and it leads to changes.”

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