Steven Jonhson, 3, joins Los Angeles community members to protest the death of Trayvon Martin, March 27, 2012. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman one year ago today. It wasn’t the first time a young black man was killed despite being unarmed and posing no threat to his killer. At first, there was little public outcry, and it seemed as if Trayvon’s death would be swept under the rug. But within three weeks, #Trayvon was trending on Twitter, and less than a month after the shooting, the local police chief was forced to step down. It was far from the first and it certainly wasn’t the last time a young black man was killed under those circumstances. But those deaths don’t trend on social media, and police departments are running business as usual. Everyone seems to have forgotten about Trayvon and about the avoidable deaths of so many others. And that’s troubling.
I am one of those people who became obsessed with Trayvon’s death last year, consuming tons of media for months on anything Trayvon-related. I pored over photos. I read countless news articles. I listened to audio. In searching back on my journal entries and social media updates from a year ago, I wrote that my obsession was about the search for justice. It still is. And for me, it feels personal.
After all, my own brother was handcuffed, shot, and killed by a cop in 2004 when he was just 20 years old. He was unarmed, sober and hadn’t committed any crime aside from looking suspicious to the officers who stopped him. The similarities are substantial: nine years ago, my family didn’t know where my brother was for twenty-four hours after he was killed; Trayvon’s family didn’t know where he was for twenty-four hours, either. During the subsequent trial, the cop who killed my brother testified that he posed a threat because he had long hair; before so much as a trial, pundits like Geraldo Rivera blamed Trayvon’s death on the fact he wore a hoodie. My brother is remembered as one of the nicest people you’d ever meet; I’ve heard the same said about Trayvon Martin.
When our brothers die young, they stay young in our memories forever. I try to imagine mine at 29 today. But it doesn’t work. My brother will forever be 20. Trayvon will forever be 17. And the other thing that will never grow old is the fact that I hold back tears every time I write those words.
Trayvon’s death help opened up a space for me to talk about my own brother’s murder. Because I was living in New Haven and attending Yale at the time, it was especially poignant for me to recognize that so many of my middle and upper-class hoodie-clad peers, professors, friends and neighbors were open to talking about how easily racism can result in what Ruthie Wilson Gilmore calls a “vulnerability to premature death.” I wanted that conversation to continue, but after some time, it came to a pause.