Coming Of Age In The Era Of Oscar Grant And Trayvon Martin

In the aftermath of the George Zimmerman verdict, a Youth Radio reporter talks about his coming of age as a young black man in Oakland, where violence has been the backdrop to his life.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The Zimmerman verdict happened to coincide with the release of a film with similar themes. It's called "Fruitvale Station" and it's set in Oakland, California. The movie tells the story of Oscar Grant, an unarmed young black man who was shot by a white Bay Area transit police officer in 2009. The movie has sparked lots of discussion among young people there. Myles Bess of Youth Radio was 13 when Grant was killed, 17 when Trayvon Martin was killed. He has this audio essay about what it's like to come of age as a young black man with these cases as a backdrop.

MYLES BESS, BYLINE: I don't know how I should feel about the George Zimmerman verdict. I was the same age as Trayvon Martin when he was killed. It was the first shooting case that got national attention where I felt connected, like I could relate. When I first heard the story, it seemed clear. Trayvon Martin was young and he was murdered. I thought it would be an open and shut case. As time progressed, it changed.

The more information came out, the more complicated the case became. And then the verdict was announced. I wasn't surprised but I was emotionless. Should I be angry? Should I be sad? I felt like goop - no shape, no structure.

I decided to go to Arnold Perkins, someone with deep roots in Oakland and the Civil Rights movement, who is a mentor to black youth like me, hoping he could help me understand my feelings. He's a former member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. He was also head of the Alameda County Public Health Department.

I turned to Perkins because, honestly, I felt lost.

ARNOLD PERKINS: Part of the lost-ness is of the making of my generation, 'cause we came through the Civil Rights era, so we thought we were free through integration. And then we then set out to get mines - you know, and then I got mine and I left you behind. And that's what we're suffering from now is we have walked away from your generation.

BESS: I see another side to that. I wonder if it's not that the older generation walked away, it's that the younger generation - my generation - didn't step up to replace those civil rights leaders in the community. So when something big happens, we don't know how to respond. And things keep happening.

I was 14 when 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot and killed on a subway platform in Oakland. In a lot of ways, the full significance went over my head. Now, I really get it, in light of Trayvon Martin's death. This kind of thing happens to people like me daily. My family has been telling me this since childhood but now it has greater meaning.

I grew up in a neighborhood where on my block it was fine, but a few blocks over, it was more transitional. As a fourth grader, every time I went outside - whether I was going to school or hanging out with friends - my Grammy and my Mom would always tell me to be careful and to look out for myself. As I entered middle school, their directions got more specific: Myles make sure when you walk home you change your route, you never know who's watching.

Up until that point, I thought they were just being overprotective. But now as an 18 -year-old, I realize they weren't so much worried about me. They were concerned about those around me and how they would perceive me. As a young black man, I'll always have this cloud following me evoking fear, hate, and sometimes empathy. At 71 years old, Arnold Perkins is still living with that cloud and it angers him.

PERKINS: Racism has never rested. There's a strain, a history of it going on from the time of slavery up until now. Nothing has changed. And so, you can take Oscar Grant, you can take Emmett Till, you can take Trayvon Martin, you can take them all and it's the same pattern that goes on where people are afraid of us. I, as an African male walking down the street - a 71 -year-old African-American walking down the street - people are afraid, you know. And so, we have to deal with that.

BESS: That's why what's next is really important. I don't want to shrug my shoulders and say, what can you do? At any other time, there were obvious leaders, and obvious movements I could have gone to for answers. As I get older, I realize that stories like Trayvon Martin's were always close to home, I just had to grow up to understand how they relate to me.

My Grammy's warnings have a deeper meaning now. They weren't just about rules, like looking both ways before I cross the street or not talking to strangers. She was telling me I'm a target.

For NPR News, I'm Myles Bess.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BLOCK: That story was produced by Youth Radio.

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