The February 26th shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has sparked shock, outrage, and action across the state of Florida and the nation, and around the world in a way few would have predicted. There are many reasons to mourn the death of a young man shot on his way home from buying candy during an encounter that indisputably began solely because his Black skin and hooded sweatshirt convinced an armed neighbor that Trayvon was “suspicious,” dangerous, and a threat.
The tragedy of Trayvon’s fate is undeniable. But as we at EJI have learned through our work appealing death sentences, fighting juvenile life without parole, and decrying the abuse and murder of the incarcerated, tragedy alone too rarely sparks a movement. Tragedies go largely unnoticed and unspoken every day. Indeed, the power of Trayvon’s story is that it tells many others.
The movement that has arisen in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death has been fueled by a national community bearing witness. A community devastated by the senseless loss of life and lack of law enforcement response in this particular case but also left shaken, jarred, and uncomfortable by the story’s broader implications for a nation that has refused to confront its history of persistent racial prejudice, inequality, and distrust that was racializing criminality and fueling unchecked vigilantism in America long before Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman crossed paths.
As Pulitzer-prize winning journalist Isabel Wilkerson aptly observed in a CNN commentary this week, the history of Sanford, Florida, and surrounding communities features many stories of racial violence masquerading as “public safety,” including the deadly attacks on Black communities in Ocoee and Rosewood in the 1920s and the savage lynching of Claude Neal in Marianna in 1934. This is the legacy that greeted Trayvon Martin growing up as a young Black man in Florida – the legacy to which he is now added and, as Wilkerson implies, perhaps a legacy his story can help to end.
EJI joins the echoing calls for the criminal prosecution of those responsible for Trayvon’s death, and the repeal of laws that recklessly endanger people of color, facilitate lethal violence and vigilante justice, and resulted in this fatal shooting. But EJI also urges that this moment of discomfort be embraced as an opportunity to more deeply examine the plight of young people of color and other populations presumed criminal and targeted in this modern era of mass incarceration rooted in much older systems of racial control.
The injustice and horror slavery wrought in this country has not faded, but rather has evolved and been re-instituted through new systems crafted from the same mold. This cycle will continue until we as a nation face the truth of this history and renounce the legacies of racism we never truly set down. Only by demanding of ourselves and our systems an honest willingness to uncover and grapple with this past can we purge it from our future. Do the energetic masses now mobilized around the nation have the bravery and resolve for this undertaking? Trayvon’s death reveals both that these national legacies are ugly, painful, and heart-wrenching to face, and that we cannot afford to turn away.