Trayvon and the Myth of the 'Juvenile Superpredator'

When I first read and watched the media coverage of Trayvon Martin's death and listened to George Zimmerman's conversation with police dispatchers, I couldn't help thinking that Trayvon Martin was just the latest casualty of the myth of the "juvenile superpredator," a myth that still causes some people to presume that young black men wearing "hoodies" are up to no good.

The "superpredator" was one of the most demonizing words ever used to describe young people in the history of the United States. In the mind of Princeton Professor John DiIulio, who coined the term in 1995, superpredators were "subhuman," "amoral," "feral" creatures ready to maim, rape, and murder Americans without a second's thought. DiIulio's forecast of a "coming Armageddon" of this "new breed" of urban (i.e. black and brown) youth criminals helped fuel a wave of laws designed to prosecute children as adults, send them to adult prisons, and keep them there for most or all of their lives.

After all of the hype, however, the superpredators never arrived. By 2001, after years of declining juvenile crime, the Surgeon General of the United States issued a report stating that there "is no evidence" that young people engaged in violence during the 1990's "were more frequent or vicious than youth of earlier eras." The word virtually disappeared from public discourse and the "superpredator" was relegated to the ranks of "urban legend."

But urban legends die hard, especially when they are as hyped as the superpredator was. In the late 1990s, even while juvenile crime was spiraling down, media coverage about violent juvenile crime was peaking. George Zimmerman, who was in his mid-teens during the peak years of the myth, had to have seen or been influenced by the myth. There was no avoiding it.

When the adult George Zimmerman saw Trayvon, perhaps he saw a "superpredator." From the get-go, he told police dispatchers that Trayvon was "suspicious-looking" seemed to be "up to no good" and "looked like he was on drugs." Pressed for more details, Zimmerman said the guy "looks black" and was wearing a "gray hoodie" and that the guy was "just staring at him", was "walking towards him" and "had his hands in his waistband." When Trayvon started to run, Zimmerman assumed he was a career criminal, saying "these assholes, they always get away."

All of these features -- the cold, long stare, the suspicion of drug use and weapon possession, the hoodie, his age, race, and criminal propensity -- fit the profile of DiIulio's superpredator. But they also fit the profile of many innocent young kids on our city streets, kids who are just walking back from the corner store with cans of pop in their hands and Skittles in their pockets.

George Zimmerman presumed the worst about Trayvon Martin -- he was conditioned to do so. But I blame him for taking the law in his own hands, even after he was told by real cops to back off. And I blame him for chasing after Trayvon, instigating the confrontation, and opening fire when it got out of hand.

I worry that his acquittal will lead other armed vigilantes and wanna-be cops to follow his example, especially in states with liberal "concealed carry" laws and shooter-friendly self-defense laws like "stand your ground." I worry that it will be open season on young black men in "hoodies" and that Zimmerman's acquittal will give rise to a new, real breed of superpredator -- "the shoot first, ask questions later" superpredator.

I only hope that I am as wrong as those who predicted the coming of the "juvenile super predator."

Steven A. Drizin is a Clinical Law professor at Northwestern University School of Law where he has represented young people in trouble with the law for over two decades.