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Speaking to a packed room Thursday, Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt addressed the question on everyone’s mind: Could what happened to Trayvon Martin happen here in Chapel Hill?

“It was on my mind and all the mayors I spoke to because we all struggle to create safe communities in our cities and it’s a hard job to do that,” Kleinschmidt said.

Kleinschmidt spoke at a panel hosted by the town’s Justice in Action Committee, a group advocating for racial, economic and social justice in Chapel Hill. Panel members discussed Florida’s George Zimmerman case, and how the community has programs in place to make sure a similar event doesn’t happen here.

“This incident cast a huge shadow on those efforts, not just in Florida, but across the country,” Kleinschmidt added. “We strive to create neighborhoods in Chapel Hill that reject an image of what a specific person in that neighborhood looks like.”

Panelist and Chapel Hill Police Chief Chris Blue said the department makes a clear distinction between the job of neighborhood watch members and police officers.

“We would never tell the neighborhood watch to patrol the neighborhood,” Blue said, explaining that the job of watch members is to look out for suspicious behavior and contact the police with concerns.

Panelist Lorie Clark, a teacher at Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools, said she works one-on-one with her students to combat negative stereotypes and ensure the next generation grows up with an appreciation for diversity.

“It’s all about advocacy and creating a safe space for students to talk with their peers, teachers and administrators,” she said. “We are there to support them in having a voice and creating a movement in being treated fairly.”

To begin addressing the issue, Stephanie Perry, a member of Organizing Against Racism Alliance, said people need to first assess their perceptions of people who are different than themselves.

“As we dissect (racism) and understand how it acts through us in schools, government and the way we do business, we need to really begin to examine how we can create something that has probably never been created before,” she said.

UNC junior South Moore, a member of the Justice in Action Committee, said he was proud to help organize the event and bring the issues of social justice and equality to the forefront of people’s minds.

“I learned a lot about how Chapel Hill handles issues with crime and social justice,” he said. “It was eye-opening to hear different perspectives on how students of different backgrounds feel on the issue.”

“You just have to have conversations,” said panelist Matthew Taylor, a UNC student. “These types of stereotypes are in people’s mind, both in the generation before and the generation now.”

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