How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism
On July 13, 2013, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the murder of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-year-old walking home from a 7-Eleven. What The Washington Post and other media outlets had dubbed “the trial of the century” was over, with a deeply unsettling verdict. In the fifteen months between Trayvon’s death and the beginning of the trial, people across the country had taken to the streets, as well as to newspapers, television and social media, to decry the disregard for young black lives in America. For them—for us—this verdict was confirmation.
A group of 100 black activists, ranging in age from 18 to 35, had gathered in Chicago that same weekend. They had come together at the invitation of Cathy J. Cohen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago and the author of Democracy Remixed: Black Youth and the Future of American Politics, and her organization, the Black Youth Project. Launched in 2004, the group was born as a research project to study African-American youth; in the decade since then, Cohen has turned the BYP into an activist organization. The plan for this meeting was to discuss movement building beyond electoral politics. Young black voters turned out in record numbers in the 2008 and ‘12 elections: 55 percent of black 18-to-24-year-olds voted in 2008, an 8 percent increase from 2004, and while a somewhat smaller number—49 percent—voted in 2012, they still outpaced their white counterparts. But how would young black voters hold those they had put in office accountable? And what were their demands?
This group, coming together under the banner Black Youth Project 100 (“BYP100” for short), was tasked with figuring that out. As with any large gathering, people disagreed, cliques were formed, and tensions began to mount. The organizers struggled to build consensus within this diverse group of academics, artists and activists. And then George Zimmerman was acquitted. The energy in the room changed.
“A moment of trauma can oftentimes present you with an opportunity to do something about the situation to prevent that trauma from happening again,” said Charlene Carruthers, one the activists at the conference.
Carruthers, a Chicago native, has been an organizer for more than ten years, starting as a student at Wesleyan University. She has led grassroots and digital campaigns for, among others, the Women’s Media Center, National People’s Action and ColorofChange.org. She heard all types of sounds emanating from the people in the room that day, from crying to screaming. “I don’t believe the pain was a result, necessarily, of shock because Zimmerman was found not guilty,” Carruthers said, “but of yet another example…of an injustice being validated by the state—something that black people were used to.”
Some members of BYP100 went into the streets of downtown Chicago and led a rally. Others stayed behind and drafted the group’s first collective statement. Addressed to “the Family of Brother Trayvon Martin and to the Black Community,” it read in part: “When we heard ‘not guilty,’ our hearts broke collectively. In that moment, it was clear that Black life had no value. Emotions poured out—emotions that are real, natural and normal, as we grieved for Trayvon and his stolen humanity. Black people, WE LOVE AND SEE YOU.”
The group recorded a reading of the letter and released the video on July 14, one day after the verdict. “That was the catalyst,” Carruthers said, “that cemented [the idea] that the people in that room had to do something collectively moving forward.”
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The police department in Sanford, Florida, was slow to act in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin’s killing. It took forty-five days for the police to arrest George Zimmerman; although he had admitted to killing Trayvon and had been brought in for questioning the night of the shooting, the police appeared to have accepted his word that he’d shot Trayvon in self-defense and failed to charge him. As the weeks passed, thousands of people took to the streets in frustration. One of them was Phillip Agnew, who worked at the time as a pharmaceutical sales representative. Along with a couple of friends, he organized a group of college students and recent graduates from across Florida for a three-day, forty-mile march from Daytona Beach to Sanford to demand justice for Trayvon. When the marchers arrived, Agnew said, the police sat down with some members of the group, who demanded that they arrest George Zimmerman and form a blue-ribbon commission to investigate the shooting. The department’s response was to shut the police station down for the day. “That march solidified our bonds,” Agnew said. Shortly thereafter, he organized a conference call with nearly 200 other activists to discuss how to pressure the police to arrest Zimmerman. This was the start of the Dream Defenders.
The day the verdict was announced, Agnew was in Miami, having dinner at a neighbor’s house. Like so many others, he had followed the trial intently. Agnew got back home just as the verdict came in. “I saw George Zimmerman celebrating, and I remember just feeling a huge, huge, huge… collapse,” he said. “I’ll never forget that moment…because we didn’t even expect that verdict to come down that night, and definitely didn’t expect for it to be not guilty.”
The injustice of the acquittal shook the Dream Defenders, and on Sunday morning, members of the group convened in Tallahassee, where they occupied the state capitol building. “We thought of the tactic before we even thought of what we were going to demand,” Agnew said. Initially, that didn’t matter: their mere presence in the capitol was enough to garner national media attention. Civil-rights legends like Jesse Jackson, Harry Belafonte and Julian Bond joined them, as well as hip-hop artist Talib Kweli.
“We were going on the fly a lot during that time,” Agnew said. “But we knew we had to go to a seat of power and confront a person or a body of people that could give us what we wanted.” Over the course of the monthlong protest, the Dream Defenders crafted “Trayvon’s Law,” an ambitious package of bills calling for an end to the school-to-prison pipeline and racial profiling, as well as the repeal of “Stand Your Ground,” the self-defense law that had come under scrutiny after Trayvon’s death. While the bills were not introduced, the Dream Defenders met with several supportive legislators to discuss them.
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