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Willie Ratchford talks about the Trayvon Martin case

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 Willie Ratchford (Charlotte Observer file photo)

The killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., has sparked a nationwide debate about race, racial profiling and racial justice. Some have compared his death at the hands of neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till in Mississippi.

On Wednesday, April 11, three Charlotte-area groups -- Mecklenburg Ministries, Community Building Initiative and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee – will host a public event to discuss the broader implications of the Martin case:

  • Why is what happened so disturbing?
  • Could it happen here?
  • What should happen now?


• Zimmerman supporters are blaming the victim

• Every youth killed should get the Trayvon Martin treatment

• The killing of a "suspicious" black man

Qcitymetro.com caught up with Willie Ratchford, executive director of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee, to discuss the event, called "Can We Talk About Trayvon Martin: Why is What Happened so Disturbing?" The Q&A below is based on that interview:

Q. What do you hope to accomplish by hosting this event?

I think we have too many situations where different factions of the community are talking at each other instead of to one another. We want people to be able to talk about the issue in a civil manner. Right now, young black males are carrying the suspicious weights of others. Just like in the Trayvon Martin situation, this could lead to disastrous consequences.

Q. What was your reaction when you initially learned of the Trayvon Martin shooting?

The first time I heard about it, I heard bits and pieces from different people. I thought, how could this have happened? And since the shooting and his death, the only story we had was (George Zimmerman’s). I wondered if we would ever be able to get the truth.

Q. Do you think the truth has come out?

I think some things are true and there are some things that are not true. The only things we can say that are truthful are those things we have heard on the tape. I think…right now it’s conjecture. No one knows but Mr. Martin, who can’t speak for himself, and Mr. Zimmerman.

Q. Could this happen in Charlotte?

Anything could happen anywhere. I would like to think that, based on some training that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg police has had over years…I would hope that those things would mitigate that not happening here. But anything’s possible.

Q. What can we do?

That is a very complicated question. We can encourage the community to not stereotype individual racial or ethnic groups. If we see an individual of a particular race do something negative we cannot assume that everyone in that group would do that.
For example, in the Trayvon Martin case, Mr. Zimmerman said a lot of things that turned out not to be true. He made many assumptions about the young man…that turned out to be wrong. The only thing he may have gotten right is (Martin) had on a hoodie and he was African-American.

Q. It’s sad to say, but injustices against African Americans are not unheard of. There have been cases for centuries. Why is the Trayvon Martin death so controversial?

I’m not sure... When initial wording of this got out, many people interpreted it to be so egregious that something had to be done. I’ve heard many African American parents say this is the time for them to have the talk with their African American sons. You have parents who are very afraid for their sons. I think there’s a perception that, had the racism been reversed, if a black man would have done this, he would had been arrested. We as community need to get to the bottom of it so it doesn’t happen again. This was an innocent situation where a young boy was watching the NBA All Star game and, during half time, he left to get some snacks, Skittles and a drink. But a series of actions initiated by Mr. Zimmerman ended in the tragic death of this young man. What is it in our society that would allow such a situation like this to happen?

Q. Is Trayvon Martin our modern Emmett Till?

I don’t know if he’s our modern-day Emmett Till. I think the type of outrage that was garnered because of Emmett Till some decades ago we now have a similar type of outrage. I think based on that outrage, I can see that some can come to this conclusion, that Trayvon Martin is a modern-day Emmett Till.

Q. What’s next?

We expect 150 to 250 people on April 11. We will break up into small groups and then have a larger group discussion. This is to have some brainstorming so that what happened in Florida does not happen in Charlotte. This event gives the community the ability to sit down in a civil way, in a safe environment, and have a real honest conversation about what we can do together.

Q. Participants for events like these are typically African American. Do you think this event will affect our white counterparts?

I think the truth of the matter is that African-Americans also stereotype these young men. The stereotypes on all racial fronts need to be addressed. This is going to be a very racially diverse group that will be there...to have this conversation. If it were just African-Americans to show up to this event, that would be tragic. We need a racially diverse group to have these discussions if we are to have success moving forward.

When: Wednesday, April 11, 2012
Where: Little Rock AME Zion Church (401 North McDowell Street)
Time: 7 p.m. - 8:30 p.m.
To RSVP: Contact Willie Ratchford at 704-336-2195 or email wratchford@ci.charlotte.nc.us.

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