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The Enduring Power of Trayvon Martin

A new documentary about the late teen’s life asks us to consider why we first said “black lives matter!”

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 28:  People along with New York City Council members attend a press conference to call for justice in the February 26 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, on the steps of City Hall March 28, 2012 in New York City. Martin was killed by George Michael Zimmerman while on neighborhood watch patrol in the gated community of The Retreat at Twin Lakes.  (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

A New York City rally demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.

Allison Joyce/Getty

My mother sat next to me as we listened to Trayvon Martin die again and again. Millions of Americans have heard the 9-1-1 calls from the gated Sanford, Florida, community where, six years ago, an armed George Zimmerman felt compelled to follow a black kid carrying snacks while wearing a hoodie in the rain. We have heard the struggle and the anguished voice silenced by the sole gunshot. But even a deep familiarity with the incident couldn’t stop my mother from gripping my jacket sleeve as the audio rolled again in a theater last Thursday night. I got the sense that, like Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, my mom could hear her son in those screams.

We were watching the first episode of Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story, which premieres Monday night on Paramount Network and BET. (I moderated a brief conversation with the filmmakers and Trayvon’s parents following the screening.) Adapted from the 2017 book that Fulton wrote with Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, the documentary’s six episodes revisit the tragic events that seeded the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened national awareness of how dozens of “Stand Your Ground” laws in states like Florida protect white offenders at the expense of people of color.

The timing of the series is both unfortunate and uncanny. It premieres mere days after the burial of 28-year-old Markeis McGlockton. He and Trayvon died similarly. Both were 1) black 2) shot to death in Florida 3) by a man who isn’t black 4) who provoked an unnecessary confrontation 5) who was later protected by a law enforcement official who refused to arrest him.

Whereas Zimmerman wantonly pursued Martin, the shooter in this case, Michael Drejka started this all on July 19th when he berated McGlockton’s girlfriend, Britany Jacobs, over sitting in a car parked in a handicapped space. Drejka was ostensibly upset at her lack of a parking permit for such a space, something Florida punishes with a mere parking ticket. Surveillance video shows McGlockton — who had been shopping inside the Circle A Food Store with his young son — coming outside and pushing Drejka to the ground. That is when Drejka produced his licensed firearm and shot McGlockton in the chest.

Sheriff Bob Gualtieri of Pinellas County announced one day later that he would not be charging Drejka. Why not? “Stand Your Ground.” He told the press, “I don’t make the law — we enforce the law.” Even worse, the burden of proof has shifted. Prior to last year, Drejka would have had to prove that he acted in self-defense. Now, thanks to a change in “Stand Your Ground,” the would-be prosecutor, McGlockton family attorney Benjamin Crump (who also represented the Martin family) would have to prove that Drejka wasn’t in fear for his life when he pulled his gun.

This fits a national trend. The Washington Post recently reported that in the last decade police in the nation’s 52 largest cities have failed to make an arrest in nearly 26,000 homicide cases. Of those, more than 70 percent involved black victims. If you kill a black person, you are more likely to avoid arrest than if you kill someone of any other racial group.

The question of whether black lives matter has always extended well beyond protests of police brutality. In fact, that plain assertion — ”black lives matter!” — was popularized thanks to the uproar over Martin’s death. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi formed Black Lives Matter in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. Though the group remains active in civil rights work, we don’t hear those three words chanted as conspicuously as we once did. Perhaps the years of conservative slander against the movement have taken their toll. But those three words still convey a universal truth — and the time has come once again to speak them loudly, and often.

“We know that all lives matter,” Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, tells Rolling Stone, “but black lives are the lives being taken by cowards who claim that they felt threatened by the presence of another human.”

This is another reason why we need to hear “black lives matter!” more often in this Trump era. Despite the rise in white extremism stoked by the president and all but ignored by his attorney general, Americans increasingly — and often conveniently — disagree on what racism looks like. A recent Quinnipiac poll showed that Americans are divided evenly on whether or not President Trump is a racist — despite birtherism, “shithole countries,” his demonization of the innocent Central Park Five, the horrific family separation policy and his open encouragement of police brutality. We can’t even agree on what racism is, let alone what to do about it.

“Black lives matter!” was born under a black president, but Trump continues to fuel white panic about demographic change, solicit support for his racist policies and silence dissent. This goes beyond Trump’s trolling of the NFL, which attempted to placate him by briefly banning pre-game nonviolent protests against racial injustice — in essence, declarations of “black lives matter!” in physical form. We are undergoing a revision of basic vocabulary, whereby the right feels increasingly empowered to boldly declare that being called a racist is worse than experiencing racism, itself.

It is tempting to view the McGlockton case as evidence that no progress has been made since Martin’s death, given how much the two incidents mirror one another. But we should remember that America likes to repeat itself, and often fails to learn lessons that black people often pay for with their lives. We must repeat the assertion of our humanity, loudly and proudly. Rather than lament the lack of understanding and action coming from the White House and those under its sway, it is instead time to push forward — and in dramatic fashion.

Tracy Martin wants to encourage and embolden the McGlockton family ahead of the storm they will likely face. “It’s a long road ahead for them, and trials and tribulations will be a part of the road,” Martin says. “Go out and fight. Someone should be held accountable for their loved ones’ death. The state of Florida has to end this madness — where white people can shoot and kill black and brown boys and girls, and say that they are standing [their] ground!”

In addition to the Martin family, those mourning McGlockton already have other significant allies. Both Crump and Al Sharpton are working to make the McGlockton killing the national conversation that it should be.

Of course, McGlockton’s case is by no means an outlier. Lucy McBath, whose son was murdered in Florida in a case in which the killer unsuccessfully claimed to be “standing his ground,” may be headed to Congress. The recent murder of teenager Nia Wilson in an Oakland public transportation station has animated celebrities and pundits alike and will shine a brighter light on the conversation around black safety. And in addition to Rest in Power, a new Sandra Bland documentary will land on HBO in the fall.

Some on the left may very well lament the increased visibility of black liberation politics in the push toward the 2018 midterms, fearing that a rebirth of “black lives matter!” may enliven Trump’s racist base. I would hope that they would worry more about turning out black voters who are excited to see change. Now is the time for African Americans to reissue the demand that our neighbors accept the fundamental fact of our humanity, and neither politics nor propriety should stand in the way of saying that our lives matter.

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