In April 2012, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman was arrested in the Feb. 26 shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old unarmed black teenager, in Florida. Zimmerman saw Trayvon walking through his gated community, followed him and shot him. He claims it was in self-defense after Trayvon attacked him. In March, two Pasadena police officers shot and killed Kendrec McDade, an unarmed 19-year-old black college student. Police were responding to a 911 call in which the victim said he was robbed at gunpoint, but he lied about the suspects having a gun. After discussing these cases, we talked to a group of Jefferson High students from South L.A. about how they’re treated by authorities and if they feel they get profiled because of their race.
Daisy Aguila, 16: My classmate went to Malibu to a restaurant with his parents. He’s Mexican and they eyed him from head to toe. He didn’t feel comfortable.
Jose Estrada, 16: I walked in the liquor store. I was looking around for chips and the guy, he was just like staring at wherever I was going. I guess he thought I was going to steal something. And I just got chips and he just kept looking at me ‘til I left.
Frannette Tolon, 18: One of the people in my [class said] she and her friends were walking down the street. It was late at night and they all got stopped because [the cops] thought they were selling drugs. They got frisked. They were basically stopped because they looked a certain way when they weren’t doing nothing, just enjoying the evening.
L.A. Youth Editor Amanda Riddle: How did you feel when you heard that story?
Frannette: It felt like it was something common, like what I deal with in my neighborhood. I live close to gangs and drug dealers, so they stop everyone, everyday, to see if they got drugs on them or a weapon or something.
Mike: Why do you think it’s important that people talk about this?
Cyril Diego, 17: Because stuff like this happens every day and it doesn’t get out on the news. So it’s something that needs to be let out to show everybody this is not just happening to you, it’s happening to everybody around you.
Mike: Has anyone ever talked to you about how you should behave if you run into the cops?
Frannette: My parents, they tell me if I see police, avoid them at all times. But if they do say “come here,” just be civilized. Don’t get aggressive or out of hand because then you will be in the back of a police car.
Jose: Be polite to them.
Cyril: They say respond respectfully. But if they jump out the car, tell you to put your hands behind your back, but I’m walking home and I have a backpack, and they feel that’s suspicious because they probably think I’m walking from my homie’s house or I probably have a gun in my backpack. So, how I respond to that is, “Why you gonna stop me? I’m coming from school.”
Mike: Has that happened to you?
Mike: How many times?
Cyril: I don’t know. So much I can’t even count. It’s what happens every day so it’s basically something that’s a part of my life.
Mike: George Zimmerman said Trayvon Martin was wearing a hoodie and had something in his hands and it was dark so he thought that was somebody who might be dangerous. So how would you define suspicious?
Daisy: If you see a couple of guys in suits and then you see another couple guys in baggy clothes, who are you going to look at for trouble? We all know our neighborhood, we all know the gangs and it’s not the same thing. So you’ll probably think that the guys in suits are doing something. But if you have a white person come in here, in this neighborhood, of course they’re going to look at the guys with the baggy clothes, thinking that they look suspicious.
Mike: Can girls be suspicious?
Frannette: Yeah. They look innocent sometimes but they do stuff too.
Jocelyne: Sometimes, even if you’re not dressed appropriately or inappropriately, you can still be suspicious. Just going really close to a person, they might think, “Oh, they’re trying to do something bad to me.”
Mike: How would you describe a suspicious walk?
Cyril: Walking fast, looking around every minute to see who’s around you or who’s behind you and who’s watching.
Amanda: Zimmerman claims that he saw Trayvon walking and looking around.
Frannette: Well he was probably nervous; it was late at night. Everybody gets nervous walking home because anybody could come up behind you and shoot you like he did. Somebody could stab you or rob you. Of course you’re gonna look around and see who’s coming behind you.
Mike: In the liquor store example, you were there to buy chips but how might the owner define a suspicious person?
Jose: He probably had other experiences; people actually stealing something. That’s what he probably thought I was doing.
Mike: Why do you think he may have thought you were more likely to be someone who would steal? Do you think it had to do with the fact that you’re a teenager?
Jose: Yeah, a little.
Mike: And maybe because you’re a boy. Like if you were an 80-year-old woman, do you think he would have given you that look?
Jose: No, I doubt it.
Mike: How do you think the cops see you versus how you see yourself?
Frannette: They’re probably like, “OK, that’s a black girl. I’m gonna have to go stop her. She’s in a gang-affiliated neighborhood so she’s probably gang affiliated.” I do live in a gang-affiliated [neighborhood] but it don’t mean I’m part of a gang. They shouldn’t judge everybody by how they look because half the time they’re wrong.
Jocelyne: I guess when they see me, as a teenager, the first thing they probably think is, “She’s probably a troublemaker. She probably has a lot of tickets, a bad record, that she’s not gonna do nothing good with her life.”
Mike: Is it just because of your age?
Jocelyne: No, it’s because of the neighborhood. The neighborhood has a reputation and they think everybody’s going to live up to it. Like everybody’s going to be a gangbanger and they are always gonna do drugs. A lot of people want to do other things with their life.
Mike: Given that this country is founded on a presumption of innocence, it’s discouraging to hear that you feel like when the cops pass by you, they’re presuming you are guilty of something.
Daisy: But not everybody’s innocent though.
Jose: I think that police should stop having assumptions. Stop assuming that just because you’re walking at a time of the night or walking a certain way or looking at something different, they should stop you. Because you’re regular people just like they are.