EDITORIAL: Trayvon Martin
7/16/2014, 3 p.m.
One year ago on July 13, a jury of six women in Sanford, Florida, acquitted neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman of murdering 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Trayvon’s killing touched a nerve in communities of color and among decent white people around the country. And both the murder and trial exposed a deeply polarized nation and the wide chasm that separates the races in this country.
The case ripped the scab off the ugly boil of race and ignited a ferocious national debate about vigilantism, racial profiling, equitable justice and gun control after Zimmerman admitted shooting Trayvon with his 9-mm.
Trayvon returning home from a 7-Eleven grocery store and minding his own business, was confronted by Zimmerman, who felt that a young black man in a hoodie had to be up to no good.
No one but Zimmerman and Trayvon know exactly what went down the night of Feb. 26, 2012 but Trayvon soon lay on the ground with a single bullet in his chest and the world would begin hearing stories from Zimmerman about how Trayvon, unprovoked, had attacked and beaten him.
Everything about the case smelled. Although Trayvon died not far from his father’s home, his body lay in a morgue as a John Doe for three days before the authorities contacted his parents. Then for 44 days, Zimmerman walked free because the police chief said there was no evidence to disprove Zimmerman's claim of self-defense. Further, he said, under Florida's Stand Your Ground Law, police officers couldn’t make an arrest and also that Zimmerman had the right to defend himself with lethal force.
A young man, former Howard University law student and social activist Kevin Guinane Cunningham, came across the story and was outraged about the fact that Zimmerman had not been arrested, started an online petition on change.org calling for Zimmerman’s prosecution that more than 2 million people signed.
Hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of angry people marched and in black homes, conversations between nervous and anguished parents and their children began again.
Philip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, a group formed in the wake of Trayvon’s murder in 2012, best captures the current reality.
"Before (the verdict), there might have been some confusion or uncertainty as to how evil a state or judicial system could be, how blind a jury could be. But after that, it was really, really clear that we are prisoners of war. Our communities are occupied by a police force that kills, that profiles and is deputizing citizens and allowing them to treat poor people and people of color the same way."
The Dream Defenders marched to Sanford, held protests and blocked the entrance to the Sanford Police Department to demand Zimmerman’s arrest. Within days of the verdict, the young people held a monthlong sit-in at the capitol building in Tallahassee insisting that Gov. Rick Scott call a special session.
In the wake of the verdict, people deeply dissatisfied with the outcome of the case aren’t sitting still. There are signs of activism everywhere with workshops, seminars, discussions and debates on where the country goes from here, healing the racial wounds and trying to find common ground. Trayvon's parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin and others work to fight racial discrimination and help improve a criminal justice system that is wildly skewed against black and brown people.
This summer, according to USA Today, Dream Defenders has organized eight freedom schools across Florida similar to those established by young civil rights activists in Mississippi during the height of the movement in the 1960s.
It’s clear that out of this vile act, the most optimistic among us remain unwilling to allow the country they love to be subsumed in hate, anger and violence.