Black Boys Are Not Safe on Our Streets

Attorney Benjamin Crump talks about the new Trayvon Martins, a brutal death and the fears for all black sons.

Kendrick Johnson (; Leon Ford Jr. (courtesy of Latonya Green)
Kendrick Johnson (; Leon Ford Jr. (courtesy of Latonya Green)

Editor’s note: This article contains a graphic image that may be unsuitable for young readers. 

(The Root) — Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon Martin’s family, has become a new face in the fight for the equal treatment (under the law) of black and brown boys. Just months after a demoralizing verdict in George Zimmerman’s second-degree-murder trial, which saw Trayvon’s killer walk free, Crump is engaged in two new cases.

First, the case of Leon Ford Jr. — a teenager at the time of the incident — involves a far too common occurrence of unexplained police brutality. The second case takes on the violent death of 17-year-old Kendrick Johnson and what Crump claims can only be described as a real-life murder mystery.

In Ford’s case, police shot the young man multiple times during a routine traffic stop. In a strange twist, Ford now faces a 20-year prison sentence, although the officers — who may have lied and falsified facts of the case — do not face charges.

As Janell Ross wrote for The Root this week, “Whether Ford should have been stopped, what happened when Pittsburgh police officers approached Ford’s car, what Ford and the three officers said and did, even the order of events — is disputed. But this much is not: Ford, 19 at the time of the incident and unarmed, was shot multiple times and left paralyzed below his waist.”

Though hardly surprising, it bears repeating that Ford was unarmed — just like Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Trayvon Martin and countless others.

The case of Johnson is equally hard to stomach and, according to Crump, bears an eerie resemblance to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till.

Johnson, a teenager from Georgia, was found in a rolled-up wrestling mat, standing upright, in the gymnasium of Valdosta High School in January. The death was initially ruled an accident, and authorities claimed that the teen had been trying to reach sneakers that fell through the mat, somehow got stuck and was unable to breathe.

A second, independent autopsy arranged by his family found that Johnson died of blunt-force trauma to the head. But even stranger — his organs had been removed and his body cavity filled with newspapers. In photos, Johnson’s face has been brutalized beyond the point of recognition.


Kendrick Johnson (courtesy of the Johnson family); Kendrick Johnson postmortem (courtesy of the Johnson family’s attorney) 


How could these undeniable facts have been lost on the medical examiners in the first autopsy?

The only reasonable answer is that Johnson was young, black and dead.

It seems that unarmed young black males are so threatening that Skittles (in Trayvon Martin’s hand) are a deadly weapon, their routine traffic stops end in paralyzing gunfights and their murders are written off as accidental.

Crump has been recognized for his outstanding work by his selection to The Root 100 for 2013. He spoke exclusively to The Root about these new cases for which he seeks justice, about the legacy of the Trayvon Martin case and the precedent set by Zimmerman’s acquittal.

The Root: After the verdict in the Zimmerman trial, many black Americans were convinced that we still live in a separate-and-unequal society. As you prepare to defend the victims, Kendrick Johnson and Leon Ford Jr., and their families, what is your message? Do you believe the U.S. court system is ever capable of delivering actual justice on behalf of young African-American males?