Blacks have long been the victims of vigilante justice in America. One night forty years ago, I could have numbered among those victims.
Earlier that day, Howard, my freshman homeroom classmate, having just made the JV basketball squad, invited me to see their first home game. Since basketball, much less JV b-ball, at Bronx Science did not arouse keen interest; Howard wanted to drum up an audience.
After the game, as I walked to the 204 th Street subway station with members of the team, I noticed over my shoulder that a car was slowly following us. I turned back to the group and saw that two white teammates (an Italian and a Jewish kid) were walking in the middle of our group of black kids.
“Hey guys, I think we have a problem,” I recall saying as the car pulled up ahead of us and three Italian men with baseball bats got out.
Speaking directly to our white classmates, they asked what was going on. “They’re my teammates and we just finished playing over at Science, “ answered Delvecchio. “What’s YOUR problem?” he added. One of the men uttered something about white kids being mugged recently and they were out patrolling.
Black-white tensions in New York City were high in the 1970’s. Crime rates were rising. There was forced busing in an effort to integrate high schools. In 1971, Joe Colombo, a reputed Mafioso and leader of the Italian-American Civil Rights League, was shot by a black man during a Columbus Circle rally.
After they drove off, I remember how angry David, the team’s point guard, felt. We expressed our indignation and joked about never letting Delvecchio and the other guy got surrounded again.
Funny, how we had to joke about being conscious about how we walked home with our white friends in a white neighborhood. Those white men were armed with bats. All we had were our wits.
Over the years, I have often wondered what would have happened if those bat-wielding men had swung first before asking questions. A few lives would have changed that November night.
Those men in that car saw two white boys surrounded by several black teenagers in a white neighborhood and thought the worst. We were talking about the game and the math or science test that was coming later that week.
Those black kids they saw that night became lawyers, businessmen, respected professionals and a state legislator.
George Zimmerman told the 911 operator that Trayvon Martin aroused his suspicion because of recent break-ins in his gated community. Trayvon was wearing his hoodie over his head and talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone.
Trayvon’s now dead and we’ll never know what kind of man or professional he might have become.
So when African Americans say, “we are Trayvon,” we are, indeed, Trayvon. We are aware that we’re one bullet or one bat swing away from a shattered life.
No one’s son should be a victim of vigilante justice anywhere in America. We all have a role to play in eliminating prejudice and racial stereotyping among ourselves and among those who would purport to protect us.