When The Stranger asked me to attend and write about A Conversation with the Parents of Trayvon Martin at Town Hall, which happened last night, I hesitated. Not because this isn’t important stuff, but because it’s such a tough topic for me. I have a son who is close to Trayvon’s age, and the seemingly constant barrage of black death caught on camera phones has become too much for me to keep watching. The sadness and grief that surround these stories are hard to hear. But the work is important. I attended the event.
A little background: Trayvon Benjamin Martin was born on February 5, 1995. On the evening of February 26, 2012, he was shot to death as he walked home from the store by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighborhood watchman. He was 17. He was unarmed. When Zimmerman (who is a white Latino) spotted the seventeen-year-old Martin walking back to his father’s home in Sanford, Florida, he called 911 to report a “suspicious person” and was instructed to remain in his car. Instead, Zimmerman confronted Martin, and, after a brief altercation, Martin was shot. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, claimed self-defense, and was found not guilty by a jury on July 13, 2013. On February 15, 2017, Trayvon’s mother, Sabrina Fulton, and father, Tracy Martin, spoke at Town Hall in Seattle.
When Trayvon's parents walked out on stage with moderator and local icon Vivian Phillips, I suddenly noticed the large percentage and racial mix of young people in attendance. A black mother herself, Phillips did a masterful job of guiding the conversation with empathy, yet pressed both parents to expand in detail on the unimaginable. For me, the most poignant moment of the evening was Tracy’s story of finding out Trayvon was the unidentified young man the media had been reporting for hours as shot to death. Father, unable to locate son, calling son’s phone and going straight to voicemail over and over, calls the police who arrive, get a description, go back to the squad car and return with a folder containing a photo of Trayvon dead on the ground. The silence and focus of the crowd during that telling was an emotional peak, or valley—not sure which.
Because so much has happened since then, it can be easy to forget that George Zimmerman, whose name neither Fulton nor Martin said the entire night, wasn’t arrested for 44 days, and that the trial is commonly referred to as the “Trayvon Martin Trial” even though he wasn’t technically on trial, and that Martin was basically blamed for his own death by defense attorneys for the shooter, and also that when Sabrina Fulton sees a picture of her son, she sees an average teenager.
But Trayvon stopped being an average teenager that fateful moment nearly five years ago when George Zimmerman laid eyes on him. I wondered how these parents could not be totally consumed with anger and revenge, given not only what happened to Trayvon, but also given the way the Sanford Police Department and other local authorities treated the family in the aftermath. However, I sensed that speaking about their feelings on this topic numerous times has been therapeutic. Indeed, Tracy Martin, who was raised in East St. Louis, mentioned how he had to really restrain himself from going “East St. Lou” many times while in those moments of pain.
Fulton and Martin said they initially felt optimistic that President Obama’s comments on the case might make a difference, but soon realized how powerful institutionalized racism is within the justice system, especially in the Deep South. Fulton in particular challenged the crowd: “If you don’t stand up to this kind of injustice, you are part of the problem.” And added: “Knowing that Trayvon was killed because of the color of his skin, you are obligated to do your part.”
The phenomenon of fatal encounters with law enforcement for African Americans has a long local history. In 1938, three white Seattle police officers were fired, charged, tried, convicted and sentenced to 20 years each in the death of 26-year-old Berry Lawson, an African American waiter who was asleep in a chair in the lobby of the Mt. Fuji Hotel. Ninety minutes after being contacted by the officers, Lawson was pronounced dead at the hospital with a fractured skull. Soon after being convicted, all three officers were pardoned by the governor. A more recent example was the 2016 shooting by two white officers of Che Taylor, an African American who police said had a gun in his car. Curiously, an inquest found that Taylor was complying with officer’s commands, while also stating that the officers feared for their lives.
Trayvon Martin’s story has proven to be a catalyst in the discussion of race and policing. In the aftermath of this case and a social media celebration of Zimmerman turning the hooded black male ‘predator’ into prey, Black Lives Matter was created by three community organizers—Alicia Garza in Oakland, CA; Patrice Cullors in Los Angeles, CA; and Opal Tometi in Phoenix, AZ.
Initially a rallying cry and a hashtag on social media, Black Lives Matter was at its core a plea for humanity within the context of what seemed to be inhumane circumstances, in this case involving a minor. The profile of Black Lives Matter was raised significantly with its national “freedom ride” and the resulting protest presence in Ferguson, Missouri, after the 2014 fatal police shooting of unarmed, eighteen-year-old Michael Brown.
The trivializing nature of response phrases like “All Lives Matter” further reinforced the need to articulate the sentiment of “Black Lives Matter” in the first place. As my then 15-year-old daughter told me: “By definition, all lives can’t matter until black lives matter.”
For those locally who dismiss out of hand a statement like "Black Lives Matter," I can only hope that not too many of you work in education or law enforcement. However, given the fact Seattle’s Public Schools and Police Department have recently been the subjects of federal investigations related to mistreatment of African Americans and other people of color, I think we already know the answer.