How Trayvon Martin’s Death Launched a New Generation of Black Activism
“I think we’re seeing different types of organizing [taking] shape, and I think we’re going to continue to see that—especially with the evolution of social media and technology,” said Dante Barry, deputy director of the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice. The group, founded in 2012 by Daniel Maree, drummed up attention for a Change.org petition, created by Howard University Law School alum Kevin Cunningham, calling for a criminal investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death. It collected over 2 million signatures—at the time, the fastest-growing petition ever on the Internet. Barry, 26, joined the Million Hoodies Movement in October 2013. He points out that if not for social media, Trayvon Martin’s death could have languished in obscurity.
While the audiences for these new groups may not be larger than the older ones’—the Dream Defenders has more than 27,000 Twitter followers; the NAACP has over 74,000—the newer groups use Twitter to hear from, not just talk to, their members. The Dream Defenders hosts Twitter discussions about its key issues, including gun violence, the criminalization of black youth and the prison-industrial complex. Community cultivation is vital as these organizations take on the challenge of long-term movement building. In February, Agnew and others put together a Tumblr called “Blacked Out History,” featuring members’ artwork. “We were born out of [the Trayvon Martin] murder, but that didn’t become our focus,” Agnew said.
Trayvon Martin’s killing deserved all of the attention it eventually received, but elevating Trayvon as a singular martyr risks portraying the struggle of this new generation of activists as the exclusive domain of black men. That would repeat the missteps of past generations. While black women were often responsible for most of the practical work involved in organizing, they were poorly represented in leadership positions, and their concerns were all too frequently sidelined.
Carruthers sees this dynamic playing out today. “A lot of people rallied across the country in the aftermath of Trayvon Martin,” she observed. “Not as many rallied around the killing of Renisha McBride.” McBride, age 19, was killed on November 2, 2013, in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Looking for help after being injured in a car crash, she appeared on the porch of 54-year-old Theodore Wafer, who opened his front door and shot her. Wafer is white; his defense team argued that he believed McBride was breaking into his house. A rally was held that weekend, with local residents calling for Wafer’s arrest, but the level of outrage and media attention didn’t come close to what it was for Trayvon Martin.
“That’s a reality,” Carruthers said, “and as an organization invested in freedom and justice for all black people, we are equally as committed to elevating the stories of black women and girls.” To this end, BYP100 uses a “queer, feminist/womanist and economic-justice approach” to consider issues from the position of how they affect the people most marginalized in their community. It’s a deliberate rebuke to the charismatic male leadership that centers on the concerns of black men.
Just a couple of weeks ago, the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, exploded after 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed by a police officer on August 9. Brown, who would have started college the following Monday, became the latest unarmed black person to be killed by police. In the wake of his death, and with little information forthcoming from the Ferguson Police Department, residents took to the streets, first for a vigil, later in protest. The underlying crisis—economic and educational disparities, the lack of political representation, constant harassment by the police—boiled over. Nights of unrest followed, characterized by the aggressive presence of a militarized police force as well as some rioting and looting, as the nation once again came face to face with its centuries-long tradition of criminalizing black bodies. In response to the shooting, BYP100 asked supporters to submit videos describing how they have been profiled or harassed by police. “Beyond our current frustration and anger, our memory hums as our ancestors call out to us. We will redeem their suffering through collective work for liberation,” the group said in a statement. “Stoicism, respectability politics and piecemeal measures of progress are not working.” Here, perhaps, is the new movement’s first big test.
Editor’s Note: This piece initially credited Daniel Maree with creating the Change.org petition calling for a criminal investigation into Trayvon Martin’s death and then was incorrectly changed to say a group of Howard University students created it. In fact, the petition was created by Howard University Law School alum Kevin Cunningham. The text above has been corrected and we regret the errors.
Read more from our special issue on racial justice
The Editors: “Renewing the Struggle for Racial Justice, Post-Ferguson”
Paula J. Giddings: “It’s Time for a 21st-Century Anti-Lynching Movement”
Rinku Sen: “As People of Color, We’re Not All in the Same Boat”
Dani McClain: “Obama’s Racial Justice Initiative—for Boys Only”
Melissa Harris-Perry: “Obama Is Responsible for the Protests in Ferguson—but Not in the Way You Think ”