Exactly a month after Trayvon Martin was killed, his family gathered in a muggy back room at the civic center in Sanford, Florida. The city council was preparing for its first public meeting since the boy’s death, and his family and their supporters wanted to pressure city leaders to step up and arrest the man who had fatally shot Martin.
Outside of the civic center a crowd of thousands began to swell, chanting so loudly that at times it felt like a train was rumbling in the near distance. For weeks, momentum had been building around the call for justice for Martin, the 17-year-old whose life was taken by George Zimmerman, then a neighborhood watch volunteer.
But inside the room that evening, away from the cameras, away from the hounding media and the emotional protests whipping up just yards away, there was an intimacy — a rare quiet moment amid the profound anger that was beginning to spill from that small Florida city to cities all across America.
“We can’t stop,” Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father said at the time. “If we stop, the world will stop. We’ve got to keep fighting.”
In Martin’s death, a movement was born.
A Rallying Cry in a New Era of Activism
It has been five years since Trayvon Martin’s death on February 26, 2012. And yet the seeds of the movement sewn in those early, tumultuous days, continue to grow.
Much like 12-year-old Emmett Till’s murderby a pair of white men 60 years earlier, Trayvon Martin’s death sparked a new era of protest for black life in America. Shortly after Martin’s death, a group of black women summed up the effort to respect lives like Martin’s with a hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. That hashtag became a rallying cry in this new era of activism, organized widely on social media — arguably this generation’s Civil Rights Movement.
The pull of his death would stretch and tear at the tent poles of race and politics in this country, dragging the often-whispered “national conversation” around black death and white power into the mainstream. The cause of justice in the Martin case would evolve into a sweeping national movement that has consistently and successfully challenged the status quo in the criminal justice system’s handling of suspected vigilante killings and police-involved deaths of unarmed black men.
In the half-decade since Martin died, a slew of other unarmed black men and boys have died under similar circumstances. And year by year, as the list grows longer, the movement to save black lives has matured along with it.
First there was a fight for Zimmerman’s arrest and a thorough investigation. Then a fight to have a special prosecutor appointed in the case. Then a fight against racial bias, profiling and against the controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws that give wide latitude for citizens to legally kill others if they feel threatened. The fights kept gaining momentum, challenging historic disparities and ill treatment of people of color by government institutions and systems.
In recent years, with the deaths of Michael Brown Jr., Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Ezell Ford, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, LaQuan McDonald and others killed by police or who died in police custody, activists were pushed to transcend the moments to a build a fortified movement.
In time, the movement would take on the political establishment, with a number of protesters entering the fray of politics as local and statewide candidates for public office. It would push veteran local prosecutors out of office and reshape local elections into referendums on the value that elected officials place on black life.
Those on the front lines of the fight against systemic violence against blacks have found themselves in the precarious position of needing to deflect criticism that they ignore black violence perpetrated by blacks and against blacks. That criticism has largely been a knee-jerk, convenient argument that deflects from the specific issue that many in the movement are rallying to address, that they believe too often African-Americans are summarily killed by police.
Yet, in beleaguered communities of color across the country, the young black men who face police violence at levels many times more than their white counterparts, do indeed face a greater risk of being shot by someone in their neighborhood. They face a sort of double victimization between an at-times brutal law enforcement apparatus and a relentless spray of neighborhood gun violence.
While it is patently false to assume that communities of color aren’t rallying and protesting community violence, the Black Lives Matter movement, in its broadest sense, has yet to develop as succinct a platform to addressing that issue as it has the issue of police violence.
A Search for Meaning in Tragedy
That day at the civic center, Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, had no idea that their child’s death would spark a movement that would morph into what today is widely and loosely recognized under the banner of Black Lives Matter. But there was hope and belief that his death would somehow matter.
Zimmerman was arrested and charged in Martin’s death two weeks later. He was eventually acquitted. But with each day that passed that didn’t see Zimmerman in handcuffs, the nationwide protests were growing larger and more intense. Young protesters were galvanized in collective anger, not just because they considered Martin’s death a cold-blooded murder, but because of what was perceived as law enforcement’s lack of interest in holding anyone accountable.
Many of the young people who took to the streets in those early days, in some cases by the thousands, had never participated in any form of protest before. But in Martin, who turned 17 not long before his death, they saw themselves. He was fresh-faced and lanky with narrow shoulders that gave away his youthfulness despite his height. In photos blasted across front pages and webpages, he was shown as an innocent pre-teen and later, as supporters of Zimmerman and others such as white supremacists groups attempted to paint Martin as a thug, photos of a mean-mugging teenager with middle fingers thrust into the air.
It took the national news media weeks to cover the case in earnest, as in the beginning it was a small cadre of African-American journalists mostly who first pushed the case into the mainstream. For black people in America, regardless of their lot or profession, it was difficult not see a bit of themselves in Trayvon Martin. He was followed, confronted and shot by Zimmerman after a struggle in a courtyard of an apartment complex where Martin's father's girlfriend lived. According to Zimmerman, what first drew his attention to Martin was the teenager's hoodie and that he was black. Zimmerman would later say that Martin's description fit that of the burglars who'd recently hit a few of the homes in the complex where he lived.
It’s hard to be black in America and not relate to the constant feeling of the world being threatened by you and a constant threat to you.
Young black men die every day in America. They don’t just die, they are snatched in fear and anger and hate and by bullets. Their lives are cut brutally short by rivals and police — often seemingly for no good reason at all. Trayvon Martin was among that number, the thousands of black boys and men sunk by bullets each year, a hefty number of them fatally shot by the very people tax payers entrust to protect the public.
A Mother on a Mission
That day back in 2012 — a month to the day, almost to the hour that Trayvon Martin was killed — his mother stood before the city council and an audience of a couple hundred, and expressed her pain.
“My heart is broken,” she said. “That was my baby.”
It was hard to look into his mother’s eyes and see the oceans of hurt there. When she spoke of her dead son, it was as if those oceans were on the verge of flooding over. That pain was familiar — it had been reflected in the eyes of countless other mothers who'd lost boys to bullets.
But Fulton always pressed forward and, in the coming years, turned that soft, wet ground of hurt beneath her feet into something sturdy enough to support mothers and fathers who lost their children to police violence.
As the movement for black lives continues to refine its various platform positions and mobilize in the face of ongoing violence by police, Fulton has created a space called the Circle of Mothers, a collective of 50 mothers of children who have been cut down — “whose names you would never have known except for the children they lost.”
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton also continue to grow the Trayvon Martin Foundation, which supports various programs aimed at bolstering the life chances of young men around Trayvon’s age.
For the five-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s death, his parents released a book they co-authored, “Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin.”
“I became a mother on a mission. A mission to bring awareness and change. So that the killing of Trayvon Martin would stand for something, so that the killing will someday stop and the healing will begin,” Fulton wrote. “So that our children, and your children, can live in peace.”
Trayvon Martin’s name has been written in textbooks. Legal and political scholars have studied his case. President Barack Obama, who from the Rose Garden a month after the shooting told the world “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” further immortalized the teen’s name.
In death, Trayvon Martin remains a specter of both pain and promise for a generation of young people who came of age in the shadow of his death and who boldly and fiercely proclaim that Black Lives Matter.