Just a few days ago on February 5th was Trayvon Martin’s Birthday, he would have turned 25 years old. However, as Americans are woefully reminded every year, his life was cut at the age of 17 when he was followed, shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida on February 26th, 2012. His death sparked what many believe to be the beginning of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and quickly became one of the most racially-stained and polarizing trials since the likes of Rodney King and OJ Simpson. What I aim to accomplish in this blog is to highlight the laws surrounding Trayvon’s murder, the impact it has made on society, and the various forms of activism surrounding “____ Lives Matter”.
If you haven’t watched the video yet, now is a good time. One of the most striking facts of this case that has faded away with time is that Trayvon was being followed for a long period of time by Zimmerman against the will of law enforcement. Here’s a link to the transcript of his phone call with dispatch: https://www.documentcloud.org/documents/326700-full-transcript-zimmerman.html .
Zimmerman continues to mention “something in his hands” they discovered skittles and an iced tea after Trayvon was murdered. The most telling portion of this phone call is Zimmerman’s statement “Okay. These assholes they always get away.” Once being made aware that Zimmerman was following Trayvon dispatch said, “We don’t need you to do that”.
History tells us that there is no guarantee that the situation would have ended any differently had Zimmerman stopped then and police found Trayvon alive, running, in the dark, with something in his hands. Nevertheless, this was not the case, police arrived to find Trayvon dead, Zimmerman alive, and no evidence of what happened after that call except for Zimmerman’s word. This is the crux of what is so baffling to many folks across the country and the world, a civilian took the law into his own hands, followed another civilian without just cause and murdered them—all while being protected by the Florida’s Stand Your Ground (SYG) law. No judge, no jury, just suspicion of guilt worthy enough to pursue—ultimately leading to execution in the name of self-defense.
SYG laws are a byproduct of intense lobbying by the National Rifle Association, built with the intention of widening the bounds of self-protection, allowing weapons to be used under looser guidelines. To rewind, the legal description of acting in self-defense followed the precedent that you, as the victim of aggression, have a duty to retreat until you can no longer retreat; only when retreating is no-longer an option may you then defend yourself (Vilos & Vilos, 2010). Following the introduction of the Castle Doctrine and SYG laws in 2005, the duty to retreat was removed, allowing individuals to act with aggression at the presumption of aggression. To go a step further, these laws expand the locations where self-defense is necessary from your home (or castle) to “one’s vehicle, place of work, and in some cases, any place one has a legal right to be.” (Hoestra, 2012).
Another issue with SYG laws is the fact that now the police are unable to justify whether someone like Zimmerman acted unreasonably, the burden of proof is on the prosecutor. A study conducted by Mark Hoestra at Texas A&M collected homicide data across states that adopted these laws and analyzed the correlation below; blue represents the state(s) with SYG laws while red is a control group of states who did not.
These graphs show a substantial uptick in homicides in states where SYG laws were enabled. Numbers indicate that the increase was about 8%, an additional 600 homicides per year; furthermore, this spike was the largest divergence in homicide data between these two groups of states in 40 years. The case being made here is that SYG lowered the cost of using lethal force, increasing the prevalence of homicides. In other words, the circumstances that required lethal force have been reduced and individuals responded in kind.
Contrarily, SYG laws don’t protect all individuals—3 months after Trayvon was murdered, Marissa Alexander (a black woman) was convicted for aggravated assault when she fired a single warning shot in self-defense from her abusive then-husband. In Jacksonville, Florida Marissa was sentenced to a minimum 20 years; following a successful appeal she served nearly 6 years. Widespread activism pointed a spotlight on her case, foiled it against Zimmerman’s and uncovered a myriad of Florida laws that have been cited as “overcriminalization” including the minimum 10-20 years in prison Marissa was forced to serve.
To circle back to the main point of this blog post, Trayvon Martin’s homicide kickstarted a modern age of social activism that snowballed over the following years to become what is commonly referred to as the Black Lives Matter movement. A timeline can be found here: https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/1040691/Black%20Lives%20Matter%20Timeline%20.pdf?sequence=1
This outlines the sequence of events that lead to Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi’s creation of the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. This became a rally cry for Black people to counter what they were seeing on television every day. BLM as a phrase existed for many Black folks to adopt in their own way, an umbrella term that existed to connect each other while displaying to the world “Our lives have worth, they have meaning, they deserve to be lived”.
It may be difficult for many to remember but there was a time in the early 20-teens where black death was excessively televised. Eric Garner’s “I can’t breathe” screams followed by his death was cycled and recycled through social media, reporters recorded their pieces while Mike Brown’s body lied on the asphalt in the sun for hours in the background, bodycam, police car, and civilian footage of black people dying were released and pushed through televisions, computers, and smartphones at a near bi-weekly rate. Another body desecrated, another name to remember, another story that is tattooed on the brain of Black people, another cycle to see victims become criminals and criminals become martyrs.
In almost a call & response fashion, “allies” that didn’t want to seem as “radical” adopted the term “All Lives Matter”; a move that directly took the spotlight away from those names and the injustices that lead to their death. “All” then shifted to “Blue”, eventually becoming a shield to protect law enforcement but especially police officers who fired shots or choked or in some manner killed unarmed Black people and received little to no repercussions anyway. A movement that was created to protect victims of police brutality was co-opted and weaponized against the very same folks who were physically victimized in the first place.
Personally, Trayvon Martin’s life has a significant and intimate connection to my own. I turned 17—Trayvon’s age—four days before he was murdered. I didn’t just see Trayvon, I saw myself; a teenager with his whole life ahead of him, on the brink of starting the process to decide his own future. A kid who was bad at chemistry, liked the color orange, wanted to go to college, and most importantly, a Black child living in America—unaware of what the world has defined you as against your will. It’s one thing to know about racism, it’s another to know the fact that your life, no matter how you live it, is endangered BECAUSE or racism.
I sat there as my parents (immigrants themselves) fought with how to deliver this truth to me and my siblings,
“He looks black”.
I saw the media comb through his life for excuses to justify that he deserved to lose his life,
“he’s got something in his hands, I don’t know what his deal is”.
I argued online with my friends and classmates about how it didn’t have to end this way,
“these assholes, they always get away”.
. . . . . .
Trayvon’s death breathed life into so many activists today, his memory reminds me that this world was not built to protect me, his parents remind me that fighting can be a form of grief, not just sorrow. His death opened my eyes and ever since then it’s been his life that has given mine meaning. Happy Belated 25th Trayvon Martin, Rest In Power.
Vilos, James. D., and Evan John Vilos. 2010. Self-Defense Laws of All 50 States. Guns West Publishing.
Cheng C, Hoekstra M, Cunningham S, et al. Does Strengthening Self-Defense Law Deter Crime or Escalate Violence? Evidence from Expansions to Castle Doctrine.