Martin’s death sparks soul-searching in Roxbury

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff
Drew Morris, a senior at the New Mission High School, attended a reflection group at the school.

They see themselves in the images of Trayvon Martin that stare from television and computer screens. They relate to the sting of being “suspicious’’ for doing little else than just being themselves and they worry that their accommodations to the fears of others won’t be enough to keep them safe - or alive.

“Who’s next?’’ wondered senior Sarah Shephard, whose sentiment was shared by her peers at New Mission High, a small Boston school tucked among colorful Victorian-style homes 1,300 miles from where Martin, an unarmed black Florida teen, was gunned down by a neighborhood watch captain who said the teen appeared to be up to no good.

Martin’s death has reverberated through the hallways and classrooms at New Mission High in a way not seen before. “Because,’’ explained sophomore Jared Brown, “he’s just like us. We’re in high school. We’re black. We’re teenagers. It could have been any one of us.’’


And while many are captured by the rapidly evolving story, watching videos of protest marches and listening to recordings of the 911 calls, some students said they were surprised the story has gone viral, galvanizing thousands. When asked why, they answered that people have almost become desensitized to the loss of young black lives.

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“People in the ’hood die everyday,’’ 17-year-old La’Raysha Robinson said. “People don’t make a big deal out of it, especially when a black man kills another black man. But now that someone else is killing us, it’s a problem.’’

Robinson sat with six schoolmates, some with overloaded book bags by their sides, others with textbooks and loose sheets of paper. The room was awash in individual style, from Tweety Bird charms to mohawk-inspired hairstyles.

These mostly black and Latino students, some waiting for college acceptance letters, said their academic prowess and personalities mean little once they venture beyond the walls of the school. Instead, students said, they are reduced to stereotypes because of where they come from and how they look.

Clothes, said senior Carlesia Cornish, are only as suspicious as the wearer. “White kids who wear white Ts and baggy pants are emulating what we wear in our communities in Dorchester and Mattapan,’’ she said. “But nobody says they’re up to no good.’’


To mitigate suspicions, the teens said, they don’t walk in large groups. Having 10 or more people together, they said, is like asking to be stopped by police. “Honestly, this is what we say, ‘OK. You five walk way up here, and you back here, so we don’t look suspicious,’ ’’ said Shephard, a senior.

Especially, said Cornish, in certain places, such as downtown near Faneuil Hall. “People make it obvious that they feel some type of way about groups of black kids being in areas,’’ she said.

But something recently dawned on Shephard: Trayvon Martin was by himself.

“What made him look suspicious?’’ she wondered.

More importantly, asked Brown: “What should be done? At the end of the day, there’s not much we can do but project our voices. We don’t make the decisions in the Martin case, but we can spark change.’’


Better yet, said Shephard: “Spark Boston. Boston needs to come together. Everybody needs to see the light.’’

‘Drew wears a hood every day. When does Drew not have a hood on?’

Martin, a 17-year-old high school student from Miami, was spending time in Sanford, Fla., with his father. He had gone to a convenience store and was walking back to the townhouse of his father’s girlfriend, carrying Skittles and iced tea. That’s when he encountered George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man of white and Hispanic heritage. During a 911 call, Zimmerman said that the teen wearing a dark hoodie looked “real suspicious . . . like he’s up to no good or something.’’ Then, as an audiotape would later attest, someone screamed and a shot rang out.

It’s been a month since Martin’s Feb. 26 death, a time with no arrests made and a growing national reaction to the shooting. Fueled by social media, attention to Martin’s death has exposed America’s racial fissures and caused the nation to explore what it means to be young and black in a country debating its ascent into a post-racial society. “I thought we were past this when you could be viewed as a suspect if you wear hoodie,’’ said 18-year-old Richard Moteiro, who happened to be wearing a hoodie.

“Honestly,’’ interrupted Cornish, “I didn’t think we were past this stuff.’’

It all comes back to stereotypes of where someone lives and how someone looks, the group agreed. Those stereotypes, they said, impact the value society places on an individual’s life.

“Black man equals scary in American society,’’ Robinson said.

The conversation ended as the school day came to a close and students gathered in a circle for their moment of daily reflection.

“All distractions aside,’’ said senior Drew Morris, signaling it was time to share.

Cornish exhaled. She had finally gotten a chance to express her thoughts about the death of Trayvon Martin. “It’s like Drew,’’ she said, pointing to her classmate. “Drew wears a hood everyday. When does Drew not have a hood on?’’ The lingering question was, why did that make some people see him as dangerous?

“I feel good because we actually got a chance to speak out on the case,’’ Shephard said. “Me and Richard were talking about possibly creating something and calling it Spark Boston.’’

Because, as Moteiro said earlier: “When the case is over, will all these people still be fighting for justice in America?’’

Akilah Johnson can be reached at