When I was 17, I was getting ready to graduate from Indianapolis’ Broad Ripple High School and was eagerly looking forward to attending college. The world felt golden, and all my hopes and dreams seemed well within my grasp. I had a lot of things on my mind, but murder was not one of them.
When I think about the acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, who was 17 when he shot three people, killing two of them, I can’t help but think of my younger self and my teenage students. And I can’t help but think of Kalief Browder, Trayvon Martin, and Chrystul Kizer — three other 17-year-olds who had their futures stolen from them (or threatened) by Lady Justice, who only gets out her walking stick for a certain group of people.
I think of Kalief Browder, a Black male living in the Bronx when he was arrested in 2010 for stealing a backpack. Subsequently, he spent three years imprisoned on Rikers Island. He was in solitary confinement for about two of those years. He was never charged with a crime but stayed in custody because he could not afford the $3,000 bail. Browder did not have the support of a 1980s TV star or a Christian crowdfunding site to raise money for his bail. By the time his case got the attention it deserved and Browder was finally released, his mental health had suffered tremendously, and he eventually died by suicide.
I think of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Black teenager who in 2012 was senselessly executed by George Zimmerman, who thought him suspicious for, what, wearing a hoodie. He was not protesting. He was not being unruly. He did not place himself in a hostile confrontation. When Martin attempted to defend himself from an armed vigilante, he was shot dead in cold blood. Zimmerman had a 9 mm handgun; Martin had only a bag of Skittles.
I think of Chrystul Kizer, a teen sex trafficking victim who faces a lifetime in prison for the 2018 killing her alleged abuser. There are no masses of right-wing supporters in her corner backing her right to self-defense (though, thankfully, community groups have protested and raised money on her behalf). There are no talks of book deals or TV shows for Kizer,and there aren’t members of Congress lined up to hire her. With Kizer’s case pending, experts have noted how young victims of color are often perceived as older than their years and thus “willing participants” in their sexual abuse. It’s appalling.
The majority of my students are 17, and they are already jaded by the U.S. judicial system. They know that they live in a country where they will not get the same consideration or grace as their white peers. They see two Americas — one for them and another for the Kyle Rittenhouse, whose violence was championed by so many conservative, white Americans.
The verdict only serves as another cancer in the body of our country. America is sick with bias, racism, inequality, and poverty, among myriad other ills. One of my students responded to a photo of Rittenhouse sporting a “Free as F—k” T-shirt, like this: “Yeah, free to kill at will.”
Nikia D. Garland is an English teacher and an adjunct professor who resides in Indianapolis.