Three years ago today, George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin. I think it’s important to say it that way, even if it means mentioning Zimmerman’s name. Trayvon’s life wasn’t simply lost, he didn’t just die too soon—he was killed, his life was taken, and despite what a jury in Florida had to say, a person named George Zimmerman is responsible for his death.
In the years since he was killed, Trayvon’s death, and those of other young black men, served as a catalyst for a new generation of activists that seek to dismantle the structures of white supremacy that target and criminalize black youth. New organizations have been formed, new leaders have emerged, the spirit of resistance has been given a reboot, and a new movement has taken hold.
After Zimmerman was acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin in the summer of 2013, Alicia Garza, a longtime activist and organizer with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, gave the movement its name—and ideology: Black Lives Matter. It started as a social media hashtag. It is growing into a political force.
The question at the center of this movement is: “What does the world look like when Black Lives Matter?” Not just in terms of policing, which has become a major focus in the wake of the killings of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City (and the state’s failure to bring charges against the police officers responsible for their deaths), but in all areas of our society. What does education look like when black lives matter? What does the economy look like when black lives matter? What does the environment look like when black lives matter? What does our government look like when black lives matter?
It’s difficult to answer those questions when everyday we are handed reminders that, for the United States as a whole, black lives don’t matter. Neither historically, nor right now—even after all of our “progress” as a nation. Instead, we’ve seen just how little black lives matter in the very institutions that are supposed to be an example of this country’s greatness. The Department of Justice just reminded us of this, only two days before the anniversary of Trayvon’s death, when it announced that there was “insufficient evidence” to charge George Zimmerman with federal civil rights violations. Even the laws created to protect us don’t protect us.
How, then, do we imagine a world where black lives matter? If after centuries of asking, demanding and fighting for equal protection under the laws of an already flawed system, we can’t seek refuge and find understanding of the value of black lives there, what choices do we have left? That’s what is at the crux of the Black Lives Matter movement. We need a new system, one where black lives (and yes, all other lives, but the erasure of anti-blackness—the cornerstone of American racism—clears the way) hold the same value under the law as they do within the hearts of black people.
But that requires us to ask more questions: what do black girl’s lives look like when black lives matter? What do black trans women’s lives look like when black lives matter? When the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown can be the catalyst for a mass national movement, but the deaths of at least six black trans women at the beginning of this year can’t do the same, what are we saying about which black lives matter?
We are in a place where there are more questions to be asked than answers to be offered. And that’s fine, but we have to be willing to ask the questions. We have to face the uncomfortable reality that no easy answer is forthcoming—though I happen to think abolishing the police and prisons, while investing more in social welfare, is a good place to start. There’s so much work to be done, and while that’s one of my least favorite cliches, it is a cliche for a reason. There’s always so much work to be done, if we’re truly committed to creating a world where black lives matter.
This movement started when George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin, but it’s neither defined by or limited to that moment. It will keep, however, keep going, until there are no more George-Zimmerman-killing-Trayvon-Martin moments to remember.