Eugene Robinson: "Denied the right to be young"

The purpose of this post is to discuss the following remarkable column
by its lead African-American columnist, Eugene Robinson.
The column is reprinted below in its entirety,
as taken from the Post's web page on 2013-07-30.
I have interspersed it with some comments,
and some further comments,
along with some news articles that seem to present data
that conflicts with what I perceive to be Robinson's arguments,
appear below.

Black boys denied the right to be young
By Eugene Robinson
Washington Post Op-Ed, 2013-07-16

[The headline in the print version of the story
omits the words “Black boys”,
so the headline is just “Denied the right to be young”.]

Justice failed Trayvon Martin the night he was killed.
We should be appalled and outraged, but perhaps not surprised,
that it failed him again Saturday night,
with a verdict setting his killer free.

Our society considers young black men to be
dangerous, interchangeable, expendable, guilty until proven innocent.
[That is an unwarranted generalization.]
This is the conversation about race that we desperately need to have —
but probably, as in the past, will try our best to avoid.

George Zimmerman’s acquittal was set in motion on Feb. 26, 2012,
before Martin’s body was cold.
When Sanford, Fla., police arrived on the scene, they encountered
a grown man who acknowledged killing an unarmed 17-year-old boy.
[Surely it is pertinent to note that the reason they arrived on the scene
was because of a request from that "grown man."
How often does the guilty party in a murder himself call in the police,
and in fact even before the murder was committed?]

They did not arrest the man or test him for drug or alcohol use.
They conducted a less-than-energetic search for forensic evidence.
They hardly bothered to look for witnesses.
[For a more detailed and less accusatory review of the investigation by the SPD,
see the Wikipedia discussion in their article on the shooting.
Note in particular that it says:
“[Sanford police officer Timothy] Smith handcuffed Zimmerman”
and “had Zimmerman in custody”
and that
“Zimmerman was then transported to the Sanford Police Department
where he was questioned by investigators for approximately five hours”.]

Only a national outcry forced authorities to investigate the killing seriously.
Even after six weeks, evidence was found to justify arresting Zimmerman,
charging him with second-degree murder and putting him on trial.
[That evidence, as presented to the charging magistrate,
was that
Martin's mother claimed the voice on the recording of the 911 call was her son's.
Some definitive evidence!]

But the chance of dispassionately and definitively establishing
what happened that night was probably lost.
The only complete narrative of what transpired was Zimmerman’s.

Jurors knew that Zimmerman was an overeager would-be cop,
a self-appointed guardian of the neighborhood who carried a loaded gun.
They were told that he profiled Martin — young, black, hooded sweatshirt —
as a criminal.
They heard that he stalked Martin despite the advice of a 911 operator;
[Stalked? Too strong a word. Tailed is more accurate.]
that the stalking led to a confrontation;
and that, in the confrontation,
Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.

[Robinson omits any mention of the injuries to Zimmerman,
and the fact that no injuries on Martin were noted in his autopsy
other than the fatal gunshot wound and
“a 1/4 by 1/8 inch small abrasion on the left fourth finger.”
(wonder how he got that?).]

The jurors also knew that Martin was carrying only
a bag of candy and a soft drink.
They knew that Martin was walking from a 7-Eleven
to the home of his father’s girlfriend
when he noticed a strange man in an SUV following him.

To me, and to many who watched the trial, the fact that
Zimmerman recklessly initiated the tragic encounter
was enough to establish, at a minimum, guilt of manslaughter.
The six women on the jury disagreed.

[“[T]he fact that
Zimmerman recklessly initiated the tragic encounter”.
Oh really? Is that a fact?

Zimmerman denies that he followed Martin.
But even if he had, how does the act of following someone provide cause
for Martin to give Zimmerman the injuries that he did?]

Those jurors also knew that Martin, at the time of his death,
was just three weeks past his 17th birthday.
But black boys in this country are not allowed to be children.
They are assumed to be men, and to be full of menace.

[We need to disentangle two levels of concern concerning Martin.
First was the concern that he was a potential burglar.
As justification for such concern,
note this quotation from a Reuters story:
At least eight burglaries were reported within Twin Lakes
in the 14 months prior to the Trayvon Martin shooting,
according to the Sanford Police Department.
Yet in a series of interviews,
Twin Lakes residents said dozens of reports of attempted break-ins
and would-be burglars casing homes
had created an atmosphere of growing fear in the neighborhood.
In several of the incidents,
witnesses identified the suspects to police
as young black men.
So there was some justification for that concern,
enough justification, in my opinion,
for determining where Martin was going,
which house, if any, he was going to enter.
That, to me, hardly seems a violation of his civil rights.

Second is the concern that Martin posed a mortal threat to Zimmerman.
Where would Zimmerman get such a notion?
How about from the wounds that Martin inflicted on Zimmerman.
Does Robinson deny that Martin caused those wounds to Zimmerman?
Once you start having your head pounded into the pavement,
the age of your assailant, and whether he is a boy or a man,
no longer seems relevant.
He has both the ability and willingness to cause you harm.

So when Robinson generalizes about general perceptions by whites of blacks,
he omits all the relevant specific context to this specific situation.]

I don’t know if the jury, which included no African Americans,
consciously or unconsciously bought into this racist way of thinking —
there’s really no other word.
But it hardly matters, because police and prosecutors initially did.

The assumption underlying their ho-hum approach to the case was that
Zimmerman had the right to self-defense but Martin — young, male, black —
did not.
The assumption was that
Zimmerman would fear for his life in a hand-to-hand struggle
but Martin — young, male, black — would not.

[Here is the fundamental question that needs to be asked:
Zimmerman's fear for his life stemmed from
the injuries Martin had inflicted upon him,
injuries which Robinson does not deny.
Precisely what did Zimmerman do
that would cause Martin to fear for his life?

Is merely being followed a life-threatening act to the black community?

And as to the "hand-to-hand struggle",
according to Zimmerman Martin initiated it.
Where is the evidence Zimmerman initiated it?]

If anyone wonders why African Americans
feel so passionately about this case,
it’s because we know that our 17-year-old sons are boys, not men.
It’s because we know their adolescent bravura is just that —
an imitation of manhood, not the real thing.

We know how frightened our sons would be,
walking home alone on a rainy night
and realizing they were being followed.
[I frequently walk home along on nights, rainy or otherwise,
and on occasion realize that I am being followed.
Should I have fear in those situations?
Has there been a wave of "creepy-ass crackers" assaulting black children?
Come on Robinson, give some examples of
why black children should be frightened in such situations,
other than when they beat up the person who happened to be following them.]

We know how torn they would be between a child’s fear
and a child’s immature idea of manly behavior.
We know how they would struggle to decide the right course of action,
flight or fight.

And we know that a skinny boy armed only with candy,
[According to the autopsy report on Martin,
at the time of his death he weighed 158 pounds and was 5'11" tall.
That yields a Body Mass Index of 22.0,
smack dab in the middle of the Normal range.
To be underweight requires a BMI of 18.5 or less.
Looks like Robinson has a problem with the truth.]

no matter how big and bad he tries to seem,
does not pose a mortal threat to a healthy adult man
who outweighs him by 50 pounds
and has had martial arts training
(even if the lessons were mostly a waste of money).
We know that the boy may well have threatened the man’s pride
but likely not his life.
How many murders-by-sidewalk have you heard of recently?
Or ever?

[Murders by unarmed teens using their bare hands?
See the post “Unarmed teens who kill”.]

The conversation we need to have is about how black men, even black boys,
are denied the right to be young, to be vulnerable, to make mistakes.
[Is Robinson talking about black men in general here,
or specifically about Trayvon Martin as well as the general situation.
As the principal topic of this column is Martin,
it would seem this remark was motivated by his view of the Martin situation.
If so, what does Robinson acknowledge were the mistakes made by Martin?]

We need to talk about why, for example,
black men are no more likely than white men to smoke marijuana
but nearly four times as likely to be arrested for it —
and condemned to a dead-end cycle of incarceration and unemployment.
I call this racism. What do you call it?

Trayvon Martin was fighting more than George Zimmerman that night.
He was up against prejudices as old as American history,
and he never had a chance.

[The most basic problem with Robinson’s argument,
like that of many other of the media’s opinion leaders,
is that it fails to take into account the specific actions that Martin made
that lead to his death.
Sure, perhaps Martin’s race was part of the complex of factors
which caused Zimmerman to want to follow him
to see where he was headed.
But it was not race that led Zimmerman to shoot Martin,
but rather the specific and documented acts that Martin performed against Zimmerman.
It is so typical of the apostles of political correctness
that they fail to hold the supposed victims of racism responsible for their actions,
in particular, Martin for his actions.]

It surprises me how the black community regards 17-year-olds as "boys".
For an alternative way of referring to that age group, see, e.g.,
Mormons drop Scout programs for older teens,
which contains the following (the emphasis is added):
The LDS Church is eliminating the Scouting programs for
Young Men ages 14 through 17,
replacing them with a program of activities focused on
spiritual, social, physical and intellectual goals.
Boys 8-13 will continue in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts.
Note when the change from "boys" to "young men" occurs in this account.
That way of describing young males is in fact
the way I remember we (white) young men as being described
in the early 1960s, when I was in high school, and the Boy Scouts and Explorers.

Here is an article from the Post which provides data which might argue against
the arguments Eugene Robinson made in the column above.
Am I the only one who sees a profound and unresolvable contradiction
between the situation described in this article
and some of the assertions made by Mr. Robinson in his column?

Arrest of 3 teens in Brian Betts's death puts scrutiny on D.C. juvenile system
By Henri E. Cauvin
Washington Post, 2010-05-06

The District's juvenile justice agency has come under scrutiny again after
three teens under its care
were charged in the slaying of a city school principal.

The shooting death of Brian Betts has unleashed a round of finger-pointing
over who is to blame for the fact that the 18-year-olds charged in his killing --
Sharif T. Lancaster, Alante Saunders and Deontra Q. Gray--
were at large.

All three had lengthy juveniles arrest records,
and all three were wanted.
Saunders had walked away from a group home two weeks before Betts was killed,
and Gray and Lancaster, who were being supervised in the community,
had stopped showing up for court hearings and meetings with juvenile officials
weeks before the April 15 homicide.

At least seven men under the city's care
have been charged with murder this year,
more than in last year and nearly as many as in 2008.
As of this week, almost 80 youths,
or about 8 percent of the D.C. juvenile system's population,
were unaccounted for.

But trying to determine responsibility can be difficult
in the District's juvenile justice system.
Local officials run the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services,
which supervises almost 1,000 people.

But the D.C. Superior Court,
which is funded and overseen by the federal government,
has a social services agency that supervises youths who are on probation --
including one of the men charged in Betts's death.
Communication and coordination are lacking,
said D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At Large),
chairman of the council's public safety committee.

"It's not working,
because the agencies are not working together as well as they need to,"
he said. "It's a mess."

The juvenile system doesn't work the way the adult system typically does.
Judges, not juries, hear cases against juveniles.
But juvenile judges in the District have less power
than their counterparts in some other jurisdictions.
In the District, the juvenile justice agency, not judges,
decides whether a juvenile will serve a sentence in a locked facility,
be placed in a community facility or live at home.

At least two of the three of the men charged in Betts's death
had spent time at New Beginnings, the District's long-term juvenile detention center,
or its predecessor, Oak Hill.
On April 15, authorities say,
the men robbed and killed Betts in his Silver Spring home.

In the hours before he was killed, Betts, a well-liked principal at a D.C. middle school,
had talked to one of the teens on a chat line they were using
to scope out a mark, authorities said.
Later that night, Gray, Lancaster and Saunders showed up at Betts's home, police said.
In the course of the robbery, Betts was shot to death.

The District has been trying to reform its juvenile justice system for years;
by some measures, it has made progress.
One of the key goals has been to place youths in the least restrictive settings
while maintaining public safety.
But the Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services,
created in 2005 to carry out much of the reform,
has come under fire for what critics see as a focus on rehabilitation
that overlooks the dangers posed by some of the youths in its care.

Like Gray, Lancaster and Saunders,
most of those under DYRS supervision are not in detention centers.
As Saunders did, some live in group homes, which are staffed but not locked.
Others, such as Gray and Lancaster, live at home and are supervised in the community.
Only about 60 of the youths committed to DYRS live at its New Beginnings,
and 160 or so with severe behavioral issues live in out-of-state facilities
better able to deal with specialized needs.

When a juvenile is placed on probation, as Lancaster was,
he would report to Court Social Services.
A spokeswoman for D.C. Superior Court said
the number of juveniles under the agency's supervision was not available.
Other information about the agency,
such as how many of its juveniles have been arrested in the past year
and how many have absconded from custody,
was also said to be unavailable.

Court Social Services, like DYRS, has a unit
that tries to find youths who have walked away from a group home
or who have stopped showing up for drug tests or other appointments.

But with dozens of juvenile absconders at any given time,
DYRS does not have the resources to mount an intense search for every one of them.
The agency's absconder unit is made up of three people,
so it relies on police officers, who have to worry not only about scores of juveniles
but also thousands of adults wanted by the courts.
Of the roughly 16,000 people under the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency,
more than 2,000 are in absconder status, a spokesman for that agency said.

D.C. Council member Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6), chairman of the Human Services Committee,
said the panel, which oversees DYRS,
will hold a hearing this month to discuss juveniles who abscond.

"We need to know and be confident that the government is retrieving them
and getting them back into custody as fast as humanly possible,"
he said, adding that he thinks the council should not rush to change the law.
"I want to be sure that we don't react in a way that makes us less safe
because of political heat of the moment."

[What world does Eugene Robinson live in?
Planet Airhead?
Whose sons were Gray, Lancaster and Saunders?
Where do they fall in Robinson's dichotomy between men and boys?]

Here are some other recent articles which provide further background:

‘Violence for violence’s sake is troubling,’
says cyclist attacked by youths on D.C. trail

By Peter Hermann and Trishula Patel
Washington Post, 2013-06-16

Victim says he was held up by armed 12-year-old boy in Northeast
By Peter Hermann
Washington Post, 2013-07-24

Authorities reported eight robberies in the District on Wednesday —
four with guns or knives — from about midnight through mid-afternoon.

One robber was described as a man with tattoos and wearing army fatigue shorts.
Another, D.C. police said, had a “regular haircut.”
Still another had on blue jeans and a gray hat with a dolphin on it.
One description stood out: a boy with a gun,
who was thought to be all of 12 years old.

If the victim was correct,
the middle-school-age gunman would be among the younger people
who commit robberies in the city.

The robbery occurred about 1 p.m. in the 4900 block of Eads Street NE,
just off Benning Road and near the Anacostia Freeway.
Police tweeted the description: “12-year-old wearing red shirt.”

Officer Araz Alali, a police spokesman, said the victim said
the youth pointed a black handgun at him and tried to take his cellphone
but didn’t get it.
The victim said the robber was 4 feet 6 inches tall.

Police said they have only the man’s word to describe the robber’s age.
But a high ranking police official with direct knowledge of the case
played down any attempt to sensationalize.

“He probably is 12,” said the official, who is not authorized to speak on the matter.
“I don’t know why everyone is so surprised.
Unfortunately, it’s not out of the norm
to have some younger kids involved in these types of crimes.”

In September,
two people in Northeast Washington reported being robbed by a 6-year-old boy,
although they said he did not have a gun.
The police announcement on Twitter caused a sensation,
and police later toned down the description to include
a group of children ranging in age from 7 to 14.
Police privately questioned the victims’ stories;
one admitted in an interview they were trying to buy drugs.
No arrest has been made.

The gray beyond: A family copes after tragedy
By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post, 2013-07-27


It was three days after their third wedding anniversary,
and TC was walking home alone from an evening with friends.
They had attended a Nationals [baseball] game
and gathered afterward for drinks at Tune Inn, a Capitol Hill bar.

As he crossed a park near Eastern Market just after midnight,
three men approached him and demanded money.
He handed over his iPhone and bank card, but as he did so,
one of the men came up from behind with an aluminum bat.

Tommy Branch, 23, of Fort Washington called the bat his “Barry Bonds,”
according to detectives.
With a two-fisted grip, Branch wound up and swung so hard
that TC’s skull shattered, an optic nerve was severed
and he was left with a dent across the left side of his head.

He was found eight hours later on a front porch a few blocks from home,
unconscious and bleeding internally where pieces of his skull had sliced into his brain.

TC remained in a coma for several days.
He underwent six surgeries.
He was left blind in his left eye and lost some use of his right arm and leg;
both are noticeably thinner than the left.
He faces at least two more surgeries,
including one to rebuild part of his collapsed skull.

Branch was found guilty of aggravated assault and robbery,
and earlier this month, he was sentenced to more than 24 years in prison.
Michael Moore, 19, of Landover pleaded guilty earlier this year.
Sunny Kuti, 18, of Southeast Washington was acquitted of the assault
but still faces a conspiracy charge.


[My intent in posting these is merely to point out that,
just as it is wrong to tar all African-Americans as potential criminals,
it is equally wrong to suggest that youths, of whatever race,
cannot pose a real threat to adults.
Obviously, most do not.
But when one is on the receiving end of unprovoked blows from someone,
as I believe Zimmerman was,
it is hard to know when or if they will stop.
Consider the example of the Bennetts discussed here.]

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