Trayvon Martin killing galvanizing country in a historic way, activists say

No Justice No Peace is chanted at the first of three candlelight vigils this week for Trayvon Martin at Love Park in Philadelphia, Pa. on March 26. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Robertson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT.


“No Justice No Peace” is chanted at the first of three candlelight vigils this week for Trayvon Martin at Love Park in Philadelphia, Pa. on March 26. Photo courtesy of Elizabeth Robertson/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT.

In the annals of American justice, a few famous figures have altered the social landscape: Rosa Parks, Emmett Till, even Rodney King.

And now, perhaps, a Miami Gardens teenager named Trayvon Martin.

Although the facts are not fully known and some troubling information about Trayvon has begun to emerge, the killing of the 17-year-old has galvanized the nation in a way activists say they have not seen in a generation or more.

The circumstances — an unarmed teen carrying Skittles, a gated suburban community and a man with no official authority — along with simmering economic frustrations in the nation’s African-American community turned the death into a social touchstone. Social media, black radio and cable television drove the debate about racial profiling and the state of black males, helping give rise to an indelible image that seems to be everywhere: Trayvon Martin and his hoodie.

Rallies and marches have been held from coast to coast. Students, some dressed in all black, have walked out of classes en masse throughout Miami-Dade County. Celebrities and NBA athletes have adopted the cause. In Sanford, some estimates say as many as 30,000 people showed up at a rally last week in a city of just 50,000. Even the white Republican mayor joined in predominately black events to denounce the killing, demand a review and begin the healing. More than 2 million people have signed an online petition and more than 400 people have donated money to help the family pay expenses.

“This is the Emmett Till or Rodney King for this generation,” said NAACP president Ben Jealous. “It’s that case that exemplifies the ubiquitous anxiety about the vulnerability of black men and black boys in our society. The difference this time is that our society is less divided.”

Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Chicago boy, was tortured and killed while visiting relatives in Mississippi. His 1955 murder, triggered by his chatting with a white woman, is considered one of the key moments of the civil rights movement.

“My mom was 14 when Emmett Till was killed, and she talks about the impact that had on her life,” Jealous said. “Today’s 14-year-olds will talk to their children and grandchildren about the impact of Trayvon Martin.”

Trayvon was shot to death Feb. 26 when he got into a scuffle with a neighborhood watch volunteer who had called police to say the teen looked drugged and suspicious. The teen was visiting his father in Sanford while on a 10-day suspension from high school after being caught with an empty plastic bag with traces of marijuana.

The shooter, George Zimmerman, told police Trayvon attacked him and that he fired his semiautomatic handgun in self-defense. He has not been charged but is now the target of state and federal probes. A special prosecutor was appointed and a grand jury is expected to meet next month.

Experts say Trayvon’s case has electrified the country in part because of the seeming randomness of the incident. Black mothers, worried that their sons aren’t safe anywhere, have joined the movement. Black fathers talk about feeling a personal connection to Trayvon, remembering their younger selves.

That feeling of vulnerability, particularly in a case where the shooter was not a licensed police officer, has helped incite protesters, said the Rev. Al Sharpton, whose radio and TV shows were one of the driving forces behind building national momentum.

“It’s one thing when you are dealing with people that have the right to do this,” Sharpton said. “So what are you telling us — anybody can kill us now? There were no gray areas here. There wasn’t a question of police guidelines — he wasn’t a cop. It wasn’t a question of whether he misunderstood a call — nobody called him.”

The lack of arrest and an investigation that was widely portrayed as bungled from the start, resonated on Twitter and on the streets, he said.

“When nothing happened, no arrest and police give contradictory statements, people saw themselves as completely vulnerable,” Sharpton said. “It’s like, ’now you’re just saying it’s open season on us.’ ”

But in the month since his death, a complicated portrait of Trayvon has emerged, including three school suspensions, one involving possession of women’s jewelry and a screwdriver that a school security staffer described as a “burglary tool.”

Sharpton, Trayvon’s mother and the family attorney dismissed the new information as irrelevant to the case, a way of demonizing the victim.

Sharpton said Trayvon’s case echoes those of Sean Bell, the Queens bridegroom shot 50 times by New York City police, and of the Jena Six, the Central Louisiana teens convicted of the 2006 beating of a white student. Both cases dominated the news cycle as thousands of angry protesters took to the streets to challenge racial inequities and injustices.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said the furor over Trayvon’s death was aided by repeated economic blows suffered by blacks during the recession.

“Blacks lost more homes to foreclosure, lost more jobs, lost more small businesses,” Jackson said. “There’s an undercurrent of anger. The racial profiling of blacks is not just by police. It’s by banks, insurance companies. The racial profiling by people in blue striped suits has been devastating.”

Now the question is whether the anger and desire for social change will reach beyond the protests and the rise of the hoodie as a social-political symbol.

“I think a lot depends on where the court case will go. But there is now a conversation about young black men and the assessment of them walking down the street,” said Soledad O’Brien, host of CNN’s Starting Point and the acclaimed Black in America series. “There’s the sense that if Trayvon is going to be a martyr for a cause, that blunt conversations should come out of it.”

Frances Robles & Audra D.S. Burch

McClatchy News Service