Real Talk: Mothers Of Sons Respond To The George Zimmerman Verdict, Part 1

In the wake of George Zimmerman’s not guilty verdict this past weekend, I wanted to gather a group of parents to discuss the jury decision as well as the larger impact of Trayvon Martin’s murder. I especially wanted to hear from fellow mothers of boys, in hopes of fostering dialogue about how we as mothers can move forward given what happened. I gathered an incredible group of women and over the next couple of days, I welcome you to read our conversation.

The participants:

  • Jamila Bey hosts the radio program, “The Sex Politics And Religion Hour: SPAR with Jamila.” The show can be heard in NYC, DC, Miami and Chicago and online. Find her on Twitter.
  • Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser is a writer living in Western Massachusetts. Find her on Twitter.
  • Carolyn Edgar is a lawyer, writer and single mother of two who publishes the blog Her work has been featured in a variety of outlets, including Huffington Post and Follow her on Twitter.
  • Denene Millner is a New York Times-bestselling author of 21 books and the founder and editor of, a blog that measures the intersection parenting and race.
  • Shay Stewart-Bouley is a non-profit administrator, freelance columnist who writes on issues relating to diversity for the Portland Phoenix, and blogger at where she muses on race, motherhood and middle age.

Read on, after the jump:

Avital: As a mother — particularly of a boy(s) — what were your feelings when you heard the verdict of not guilty?

Jamila: I cried and I shook uncontrollably for half an hour. I was humiliated that the mere idea that a trial — a reluctant trial — which served to question the value of a young black male life was, by the verdict, seemingly ridiculous. Of course, Zimmerman was not guilty. It was only a Black boy that he killed. Hardly anything at all. I listened to the white people around me pant with excitement and say, “Get ready for riots!”

I was away from home, and away from my son. And I ached with wanting to hold him. And I cried because I know that in increasingly large swaths of this country, I could be crying for an unjustly killed boy — his Blackness reason enough to deny him life and permit his murderer some months of inconvenience, but eventually his freedom and ultimately his life.

On hearing the verdict, I tweeted “Voting Rights Act + #ZimmermanTrial = 1955,” because all Black mothers in Florida, and Black mothers around this country are now, once again, potential Mamie Tills. When her son, Emmett Till was lynched in 1955, the all-white Mississippi jury agreed that his murders did indeed take Till’s life, but that it’s senseless to punish white men for killing the boy. These are troubling times to be Black in these United States.

It is open season on our sons.

Carolyn: As a lawyer, I was not surprised by the verdict. I had been bracing myself for it for months. I’d read the Florida statutes that define 2nd degree murder and manslaughter, as well as self-defense, and I had always thought it would be hard for the prosecution to prove its case, particularly since the only witness who could refute Zimmerman’s version of the story was dead.

But the fact that I anticipated the verdict doesn’t mean I consider it correct, fair or just. A kid went to the store on a snack run and never came back home.

It bothers me that Trayvon Martin’s fear, his right to defend himself, has been subsumed in the narrative that paints him as the attacker and Zimmerman as the hapless victim who had no choice that night but to pull the trigger. I couldn’t watch the trial, but found the recounts of Sybrina Fulton’s and Tracy Martin’s testimony particularly chilling. When Tracy Martin said he listened to his son’s cries for help over and over again, I understood. We parents pay careful attention when our children get into conflicts with others. We dissect each incident, looking for teachable moments, for ways we can help our children avoid those situations in the future. Martin understood that his boy was afraid. Rachel Jeantel told us that Trayvon was afraid — but because of how she looked and how she sounded, no one could hear her.

Trayvon Martin was afraid, and justifiably so. Tracy Martin was looking for something his son could have done that would have brought him back home, safe and alive. But it seems there’s nothing Trayvon could have done to avoid Zimmerman that night. Zimmerman followed him. He had already decided that Martin was one of those “fucking punks” and he was determined not to let him get away.

As a mother, that has been the hardest part of all of this for me to deal with. There is no teachable moment in this. The standard can’t be that a Black kid now has to stop and show his ID —  with his address — to any random stranger who finds him a threat. We teach our kids about stranger danger, and yet it’s been suggested that Trayvon should have stopped and answered Zimmerman’s questions, as if Zimmerman had a right to question Trayvon in the first place. As Alex Pareene points out in a wonderful piece in Salon, Zimmerman was afforded many of the same presumptions that are afforded to police and law enforcement officers in the endless number of cases where a cop shoots an unarmed Black kid. Zimmerman’s defense effectively painted Martin as a Scary Negro, and the prosecution offered no counterpoint. So now, our kids are not only vulnerable to overzealous prosecution by poorly trained police with itchy trigger fingers, they are equally vulnerable to random vigilantes who deem them “punks” because of the color of their skin. Somehow, this must stop.

Denene: I was — and am — absolutely disgusted. Not surprised. But incredibly sad and angry that, once again, a Black child’s life has been taken without repercussion, thanks to a justice system and laws and a culture of racism that allows the stalking, harassment, accosting and killing of our children. The air in our home was just thick. It’s hard to breathe when I am trying to explain to my children — not just my 20-year-old son, but my two little daughters who love their brother and their male cousins and their grandfathers and their daddy and do not want to see any of them hurt over something as arbitrary and unchangeable as skin color — how it is possible that someone can shoot a human being and go unpunished. And frankly, it sickens me that in 2013, I HAVE to explain that, while working through the fear and wearing the poker face so that my tears don’t scare them. How is this normal? How is this okay? I submit that it is not. And it never will be for us parents of color who love our children just like any other human being, regardless of their race.

I FB’d “I hope that every night Zimmerman closes his eyes, Trayvon stalks his dreams.” And I mean that shit. From the gut. In a second post, I had a few choice words for Florida, which I intend to boycott down to the orange juice I serve my children. They won’t be getting these Black dollars. Not knowingly. Not while the taking of Black children’s lives is justified by its Stand Your Ground law.

Shay: Angry, sad but not terribly surprised. While I did not closely follow the trial, I had heard enough to know that the defense had done its job of creating reasonable doubt. Yet as the mother of a 21-year-old son, this verdict was a gut punch and a reminder that my son lives in a world that sees him as suspicious and is determined to reduce him to nothing more than a stereotype. Since my son’s 16th birthday, our family has learned firsthand that the type of profiling that I believe lead to Trayvon Martin’s death is very real and very scary.

During the summer of my son’s 16th year, we had an incident that looking back as I have since Trayvon Martin’s murder was a reminder of just how fragile life is for Black boys in this country. On a hot summer night, I was working late and my son decided to go grab a drink and sandwich at the local convenience store. Upon leaving the store, he was accosted by a police officer who thought that my son fit the description of a suspect who had been burglarizing cars in the area. My son explained that he lived a few blocks away and that he had no idea what the officer was talking about. The cop did not believe that my son lived in the area and told him he was taking him home to see if he really lived in the area. My son had been taught by both his father and I that in situations such as this never to argue with the police. The officer brought him to our house, which is one of the biggest homes on our block, and my son was again questioned on whether he really lived not only in this area but in our house, clearly not believing that a young Black boy could live in an 1880s Victorian house. My husband, who is white, answered the door and verified that my son was in fact his stepson and that yes he did live in the house and furthermore asked the cop point blank why was he harassing our son and was my son’s race the reason for bringing him home.

In the end the cop apologized for the inconvenience and emphatically stated that he had been called to check my son out because a neighbor had seen a young man that they deemed suspicious (my son) and that he was just following up on that call. To say we were all shaken up was an understatement. My underage son was humiliated and forced to ride in the back of a police car because someone thought a Black teenager walking to the store and leaving it with a sandwich and drink was suspicious. In the end the suspect they were looking for turned out to be a good six inches shorter than my son and white.

Since that initial incident five years ago, we have had countless incidents where my son’s right to be in a space was questioned. Even on his college campus he has been subjected to harassment and a questioning of his right to be on campus despite the fact that he is a student in good standing. In all these instances, it was a white person and their fear and assumptions that have challenged my son’s very right to exist.

These incidents have taken a toll on my son emotionally and mentally. We have seen him withdraw at times because the pain of just being is hard for him. So this case for me has been very personal and this verdict is personal because in watching George Zimmerman be acquitted the underlying reality is we are saying “yes, it is okay to profile someone based on the race and gender because I am uncomfortable with their existence.”

Sarah: I happened upon the verdict and felt my stomach drop in slow motion. The horribleness I feel about a society that rubber stamps fear of young black men most especially is visceral and deep. It’s not the world I want for my children — the white boys, the biracial girl. It’s the sense I had waiting for the small girl’s arrival that had I adopted a dark boy I’d know to be scared ON HIS BEHALF much earlier than I even expected and obviously that’s not something one should have to feel for her son at any age.

The verdict made a resounding sense that racism is more than alive — it’s thriving. How we change the conversation in communities where fear is accepted (and guns are, too), I really do not begin to know. Justice has to come from our peers and from our institutions.

Avital: I share your disgust, anger, and sadness. I, too, wasn’t surprised by the verdict, and yet was still shaken to my core — mostly because of the message it sends about the value of this young man of color. I woke up on Sunday morning, my 6.5 year old son had crawled into our bed at some point overnight and I just couldn’t stop staring at him. He was still sleeping peacefully beside me and I felt gutted, realizing just how damn privileged I was in that moment. That I don’t have to fear somebody calling out my son for being a thug if he grows up to wear a hoodie while walking home after dark.