The Youth Movement #Trayvon Martin Created
On Feb. 26 last year, a young black man’s life was taken and the alleged shooter walked free.
Sadly, this is all too common. What made Trayvon Martin's shooting different was how America responded: In a nation often desensitized by daily acts of senseless gun violence, the loss of one more life seemed to rouse the nation.
“If you look at Sandy Hook, the language used afterward were things like ‘tipping point’ and ‘enough is enough,’” said Michael Skolnik, Editor-in-Chief of Global Grind and a board member for the Trayvon Martin Foundation. “Young people across the country had already felt that. Trayvon Martin’s murder was a moment for young America. Even before that there were a number of killings that tore at the heart and sanity of our generation. Trayvon Martin’s murder was a moment that we as a generation didn’t want to pass by unnoticed.”
Martin became a watershed moment in the Millennial conversation on race relations and gun violence: His name was the ninth most globally searched topic of 2012, and a petition calling for justice in the case became one of Change.org’s largest petitions of the year.
“Young people all over the country and the world used social media to get the story out,” 1Hood Media Academy founder Jasiri X said, whose music video about the Martin shooting went viral last year. “This story didn’t break via national media. It was Facebook and Twitter that made it a national story. It was young people putting profile pictures of themselves in a hoodie. It was young people who had never engaged in activism meeting online and organizing 'Million Hoodie Marches' on campuses everywhere. It shows the power of young people organizing and the power of social media to affect real change.”
The facts of the case, which spread rapidly via social media, were troubling. Martin was carrying a bag of skittles and a can of iced tea home from a corner store when he was confronted by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. The confrontation ended in Martin's death, but police released Zimmerman hours later without charge. At first, the media largely ignored the case.
Looking on, young people took action.
Perhaps young people were tired of the slew of systemic racial profiling methods appearing in similar cases across the country. In 2011, 87 percent of the more than 680,000 New Yorkers stopped-and-frisked by the New York Police Department were young black and Latino men—and just like Martin, the overwhelming majority were unarmed (90 percent of searches resulted in no weapons or drugs). Or perhaps young people were tired of the school-to-prison pipeline that continues to feed the prison-industrial complex that some argue is the new Jim Crow. Whatever it was, young people were moved enough to force the rest of America to open their eyes to the disproportionate injustices young people like Trayvon faced just for walking while brown.
“The spirit of our generation is one of service,” Skolnik said. “We believe in our duty to serve others. We will fight for the rights of others. And sometimes that right is just to walk home safely in your own neighborhood.”
Students like Ander Marcelin, co-creator of the Justice for Trayvon Martin Facebook page, helped activists across the country organize using social media. His work and that of other passionate young people helped put pressure on local officials to finally arrest Zimmerman.
"It had to do with rage," Marcelin said. "You had Attorney Crump, Rev. Sharpton, Trayvon’s mother, they all urged us to stay calm. We told them we could not stay calm. If we allowed this to happen to Trayvon, nothing would stop this from happening to anyone else. It wasn’t the sheer numbers. It was the sheer anger.”
Marcelin, a law student, was particularly taken aback by Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which offers substantial protection for shooters who are found to have acted in self defense. To Marcelin, it seemed that Zimmerman had been given a free pass to take Martin's life.
A Tampa Bay Times study last year found that nearly 70 percent of shooters who have invoked the controversial law have gone free. Of those, some shooters went free after shooting their victims in the back.
And there is a stark racial component: 73 percent of shooters who killed a black person went free, compared to just 59 percent when the victim was white.
“We have a very huge problem with the law,” Marcelin said. “We want to be mindful that what his mother and father desire is for no parent to have to go through this again. Stand your Ground can no longer exist. That’s what the whole movement is working toward.”
Marcelin, who is part of The Justice for Trayvon Martin Coalition, stressed that all parties are avoiding doing anything that would prejudice Zimmerman’s hearing, which is currently scheduled for this summer. The foremost goal, he said, is to ensure that justice prevails.
In the immediate aftermath, justice for the family meant an arrest—and, eventually, due process and a fair trial. However, in a country where a leading cause of death among black teens is gun violence, long term justice means ensuring that being young and black is not tantamount to a death sentence.
Martin’s family has remained active in advocating for change. At an event to commemorate what would have been Martin's 18th birthday this month, family members were joined by celebrities, including Jamie Foxx and Al Sharpton.
“Our focus is just to keep our son’s legacy alive,” Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said during a recent appearance. “So we decided to put this together to, you know, to just come together and something alternative to violence. We wanted the young people and we asked the young people to come out.”
Phillip Agnew, executive director of Dream Defenders, was part of an initial group of students that rallied for justice. The Martin family lawyer, Benjamin Crump, knew Agnew from previous advocacy work, and reached out to him shortly after Martin's death. Agnew and other young people organized a 40-mile march last April, calling for the arrest of Zimmerman. Subsequent rallies were held across the country.
“We don’t expect enough from college-aged and high school-aged young people,” Agnew said. “We have a lot of resources at our disposal like social media that we didn’t have before. We can reach a lot of people and capture imagination."
Now, the Dream Defenders are teaching students to organize and fight for justice across the country. Agnew sees the organization as an ideological successor to the Civil Rights movement, and wants to see students become proactive in changing their communities for the better.
“If we don’t take a stand as young people now, the next generation will be in danger,” Marcelin said.
Marc Peters is a reporter at Campus Progress.You can follow Marc on Twitter at @rippleofhope.