Six years after the murder of Trayvon Martin, esteemed activist Barbara Ransby takes stock of the evolving Black Lives Matter Movement and Movement for Black Lives in her forthcoming book Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the Twenty-First Century. “This is not a book about police killings but about the responses to them,” she says. “It is about the central role of visionary young Black activists who, inspired by Black feminist teachings and practice, are embracing new modes of leadership as they attempt to build a movement that creates transformative possibilities.”
In the below excerpt, from her chapter titled “Justice for Trayvon: The Spark.” Ransby revisits Trayvon’s death and the movement it inspired.
If the police murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson in summer 2014 was the fire that signaled the full-blown emergence of the Black Lives Matter Movement and Movement for Black Lives (BLMM/M4BL), then the vigilante murder with impunity of young Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, in February 2012 was the spark. Trayvon Martin was a Black teenager coming back from buying snacks on a rainy Florida night in the winter of 2012, when he unknowingly stumbled into the path of George Zimmerman. An overly zealous community patrol volunteer, Zimmerman saw a young Black man wearing a hoodie sweatshirt and assumed the worst. In a crude and deadly case of racial profiling, Zimmerman saw Trayvon’s skin color and profile and concluded he was up to no good. Ignoring the 911 operator’s instructions not to pursue Martin, Zimmerman did so anyway, complaining “F— king punks . . . they always get away.”1 He eventually caught up with Martin and, under circumstances that are still unclear, shot him to death, claiming self-defense. When the story first broke and photos of the handsome, baby-faced Black teenager were circulated on social media, along with the information that he had simply been returning from a trip to a local convenience store to buy candy and a soft drink when he was killed, Black people, especially young Black people, were incensed. Many of them had experienced racial profiling themselves. They identi- fied with Martin. His murder triggered protests in the streets and the formation of several new national or regional organiza- tions, notably, Million Hoodies Movement for Justice, Dream Defenders, and Black Youth Project 100.
Weeks after the teenager’s murder, as it became increasingly clear that the Florida authorities had no intention of prosecuting his killer, activists called for “Million Hoodies” marches all over the country. The largest march, involving more than five thou- sand protesters, took place on March 21, 2012, in New York City. There protesters converged on Union Square to hear speeches by Trayvon’s parents and others. Similar marches took place in cities across the country, as the hoodie sweatshirt, the item of clothing that Trayvon had been wearing when he was killed, became a political symbol of opposition to racial profiling and the criminalization of Black youth. Celebrities donned hoodies in public gestures of solidarity, and megacelebrities Jay Z and Beyoncé even showed up at one of the New York protests. President Obama expressed sympathy for the parents of Trayvon, reflecting in a public statement that if he had had a son he would have likely resembled Trayvon.
Trayvon’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, became two of the most compelling voices in the “Justice for Trayvon” campaign, which from the outset extended beyond the bounda- ries of this single case. “My son is your son,” Fulton said repeatedly at rallies and in press conferences. Speakers at the New York rally cited the police shooting of an unarmed Black man, Ramarley Graham, on February 2, 2012. Invoking Graham and others killed by police connected vigilante violence to state vio- lence. Speakers at the rally also pointed out that the collective anger over Martin’s death was not directed simply at a single individual, George Zimmerman, but at the system that failed to prosecute and hold him accountable. Police on the scene, protesters argued, treated Zimmerman as if he were the victim, not Trayvon. Initially, they seemed to accept his version of events without question, even as an unarmed Black boy lay dead. Out of this moment of anger, the Million Hoodies Movement for Justice was founded.
The Million Hoodies was the brainchild of digital strategist Daniel Maree, who in March 2012 wrote a blog post and launched a petition calling for the prosecution of Zimmerman. He teamed up with student activists from Howard University and later with Malik Rhassan from Occupy the Hood. Movement strategist Thenjiwe McHarris, who would later cofound Blackbird and would be instrumental in the founding of the Movement for Black Lives Coalition, was also involved at the outset, giving political, tactical, and strategic direction to the effort. Million Hoodies Movement for Justice is a human rights organization led by youth of color devoted to “reimagining safety and justice” for Black and Brown communities. The group has evolved into a not-for-profit, membership-based organization. Its current executive director, Dante Barry, came on board in the summer of 2013, after meeting Maree at the Roosevelt Institute, a liberal think tank. He built up the group’s current membership and infrastructure. While the fatal racial profiling of Martin led to the formation of Million Hoodies, the group now works on a range of human rights and racial justice issues and is part of the Freedom Cities network linking racial justice and immigrant rights, working with organizations like Black Alliance for Just Immigration, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, and the immigrations rights group Enlace.
Those who were furious when the story of Martin’s murder was first reported were even further outraged on July 13, 2013, when George Zimmerman was found not guilty after a highly publicized jury trial. The only reason a trial was held in the first place was that sustained protests in the streets and on social media, along with pressure from Martin’s family, forced local officials to reconsider the initial decision not to charge Zimmerman.
The larger political context in which the Martin murder occurred is important. Trayvon Martin was killed four years into Obama’s presidency, on the eve of his re-election. The case sparked the largest resurgence of Black protest in over four decades. In light of the lack of recognition for the preponderance of violence against Black people, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released a provocative and revealing report in 2013 called “Operation Ghetto Storm,” the title borrowed from the US Desert Storm military invasion of Iraq. The well-researched report asserted that a Black person was killed by police, security guards, or vigilantes every twenty-eight hours. This statistic was widely circulated and helped to connect the dots between what authorities argued were isolated incidents of police and related shootings. The Washington Post and other mainstream publications questioned the accuracy of the statistics, but as others began to track and document instances of police violence, the presence of a clear pattern and a disturbing uptick of incidents across the country became apparent. The Post began to track its own numbers of police shootings, in a documentation project titled “Fatal Force.” In a sense, the explosion of protest in the wake of Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal was a quarter century in the making, but more immediately the case underscored the precariousness that defined the lives of Black youth in the United States, especially if they were poor and working class. They were deemed expendable and disposable, activists argued, by a society that had no place for them in a downsized, neoliberal labor market. Black men and boys like Trayvon Martin had already been systemically criminalized, not by their individual actions but by their collective identity, their posture, their positionality, and sometimes even their fashion choices. They were typecast in popular culture and popular media as menacing, violent, and dangerous: bodies to be feared, contained, or even killed.