On Saturday, people in the United States will mark the 10th anniversary of the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old Black youth who was shot to death in Sanford, Florida, in 2012. Martin’s death, and the subsequent exoneration of his killer at trial the following year, created a firestorm of public anger that many consider a seminal moment in the development of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Among them is civil rights attorney Ben Crump. In the foreword to an essay published this month by Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, he wrote, “The not guilty verdict in the Trayvon Martin case was the catalyst for the Black Lives Matter movement, for the resounding call for justice when the people cried out: ‘Justice for Michael Brown,’ ‘Justice for Breonna Taylor,’ and ‘Justice for George Floyd.'”
Brown, Taylor and Floyd were all Black Americans killed by police officers. Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis in 2020, documented in video footage that showed him dying in the street with a police officer’s knee on his neck, ignited global protests that drew attention to the fact that individual Black Americans, particularly men and boys, are statistically far more likely to be killed by police officers than white Americans.
According to a study published in the Lancet, Black Americans were killed by police at more than three times the rate of non-Hispanic white people, between 1980 and 2018.
Though Martin’s death did not come at the hands of a police officer, his killer’s exoneration prompted calls for the reform of a legal system that, according to advocates for change, systematically undervalues the lives of Black Americans.
Martin, who had recently turned 17 at the time of his death, had left home to buy candy and a drink at a nearby convenience store. On his way back, he encountered George Zimmerman, a volunteer for the local neighborhood watch. Zimmerman phoned police to report Martin as a “suspicious” individual.
Despite being told by a police dispatcher that he should not pursue Martin, who ran from him and was unarmed, Zimmerman gave chase. After a struggle, Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest, killing him.
Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter. In July 2013, a jury found Zimmerman innocent of both charges. The case hinged, in part, on the state of Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which holds that individuals who believe themselves to be in danger from another person have no duty to retreat before responding with force, including lethal force.
Martin’s family, including his father, Tracy Martin, and Fulton, his mother, helped lead an unsuccessful campaign to have Florida change its stand-your-ground law.
Signs of change
In the days leading up to the 10-year anniversary of Martin’s death, there have been signs suggesting the Black Lives Matter movement may have helped shift public attitudes on race, policing, and the use of force.
In Minneapolis last week, three police officers on the scene at George Floyd’s death were convicted on federal charges for their failure to intervene. Months earlier a jury found Derek Chauvin, the police officer who knelt on George Floyd’s neck, guilty of murder. The jury found all three officers had violated Floyd’s civil rights by willfully refusing to provide medical assistance. Two were found guilty on an additional charge stemming from their failure to intervene during the nine minutes Chauvin spent kneeling on Floyd.
Also last week, three Georgia men were found guilty of federal hate crimes for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a young unarmed Black man who was gunned down while jogging in a rural part of the state. The culprits, Gregory McMichael, Travis McMichael and William “Roddie” Bryan, had chased Arbery down in pickup trucks, and the McMichaels, who were both armed, confronted him with guns while attempting to make what they described as a citizen’s arrest.
A state court had already convicted all three men of murdering Arbery and sentenced them to life in prison. Georgia subsequently passed a hate crimes law, and repealed and replaced its law governing citizen’s arrests.
The case, with its obvious parallels to the Martin case, was particularly fraught because the three culprits were not arrested until two months after the murder even though their identities were known, and then only after the case was taken out of the hands of a local prosecutor.
Frustration and hope
In an essay published this month marking the 10th anniversary of her son’s death, Fulton wrote, “Even now, a decade later, when I see the continual acts of racial violence – against George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery – I don’t tell people that justice is coming, because we did not receive justice.”
However, Fulton also struck a hopeful note, writing, “We are at a turning point now. Things are changing. If the protests during the summer of 2020 showed us anything, it’s that we cannot afford to be silent.”
She added, “While one generation is getting older, we need the next generation to step up to the plate and use their voice on behalf of our people. The youth have the spirit and enthusiasm, we just need to show them how and then get out of their way. The very future of our people is at stake, and there’s no room for nonsense or playing games.”