Social Activism and the Case of Trayvon Martin
By now most Americans are familiar with the basic circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin – a 17 year old African-American teen. On the evening of February 26, 2012, Martin was walking from a convenience store in Sanford, Florida to the home of his father’s finance when a confrontation between Martin and George Zimmerman, a member of the local neighborhood watch, occurred and resulted in the shooting death of Martin. These basic facts of the incident are generally undisputed by all parties involved in the case.
Beyond this, there is raging debate between those advocating for justice on behalf of Trayvon Martin and those supporting George Zimmerman. Martin advocates argue that the 17 year-old, without a criminal record, was walking home and was shot by an overzealous, and perhaps racially-motivated, Zimmerman who chased the teen and shot him in cold-blood when he was armed with little more than a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. Zimmerman supporters contend that Martin attacked Zimmerman and, while an unfortunate tragedy, Martin’s death was a justified acted of self-defense.
Over the next several years – and possibly – decades, this case will likely become the basis of numerous examinations and commentaries that endeavor to reconstruct the circumstances of Martin’s death in order to substantiate either Zimmerman’s version of events or the version put forth by Martin’s supporters. The focus of this column is not to engage in the back-and-forth between the Martin and Zimmerman camps; rather, the focus is on how activists from across the country and around the world mobilized to call attention to the circumstances of Martin’s death.
For the first several days after Martin’s death, this was a relatively local matter confined to the Florida media market and, unfortunately, this was seen as simply another common case of violence plaguing American cities. However, by March 8th – ten days after the shooting – Martin’s family had secured the assistance of an attorney who helped them take their story to the national media through an appearance on the CBS’ This Morning talk-news show. From this point forward, the Martin case became a matter of national news and, in turn, generated a collective call for justice from activists across the country and around the world.
Civil rights activists such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, celebrities like Spike Lee, Russell Simmons and Deepak Chopra and professional athletes LeBron James and Dwayne Wade have all lent their status, voice and support to the calls for justice in the Trayvon Martin case. Congressman Bobby Rush (IL-1 D), donning a hoodie, spoke out against racial profiling and for justice in the name of Trayvon Martin on the floor of the United States House of Representatives. President Obama commented on the case and sympathized with Martin’s parents during a Rose Garden press conference.
The Occupy Wall Street movement has taken up the case of Trayvon Martin by initiating “Million Hoodie Marches” in New York, Oakland and smaller events across the country. The Occupy Toronto group held a vigil at the US Embassy in Toronto in order to offer “the Martin family support and solidarity”. In addition, millions of people have registered their support for further investigations into the case and justice for Martin through online petitions as demonstrated by the Trayvon Martin petition at Change.org which had collected 2,233,993 signatures as of April 4, 2012.
All of this leads back to the title of the column, which asks if justice takes a village. The basic set of facts that have led to the public outcries and calls for justice have not radically changed since Martin’s death; very little new evidence has come to light, fresh investigations have not produced new details that makes sense out of the shooting. If anything the death of Trayvon Martin and the events of February 26th have become even more murky and muddled as we try to understand more. So what then has led to the heightened profile of this case and the great outpouring of public support? Rather than the injection of new evidence and new data, it is the realization that justice in this case has been transformed into a matter of public responsibility.
Yet this realization, in and of itself, is not something unique to the Trayvon Martin case. The phenomenon of individuals rallying together to pressure social and political leaders and institutions to act in response to instances of injustice has a long and storied past throughout the world. And so, from this perspective, the mobilization of thousands of people in support of justice for Trayvon Martin is neither innovative nor exceptional. This is not intended to downplay or dismiss the involvement of those who have demanded justice for Trayvon Martin; rather, it is to situate the public calls for justice in the Trayvon Martin case within a larger context. In addition, it is a reminder that cases like Trayvon Martin’s occur with far more frequency and too often they fail to elicit a similar level of public demands for justice.
Indeed, for Trayvon Martin to receive justice, it has taken, and will continue to take, a village because, without the outcry and mobilization of thousands of people around the world, Trayvon Martin’s death would have been largely ignored and simply chalked up as another unfortunate death of a young African-American male in America. While the tragic and unnecessary death of Trayvon Martin must not be overshadowed or overlooked in this, neither should the tragic and unnecessary death of the next Trayvon Martin who will also need his or her village to maintain vigilance to ensure that they too receive justice.
Originally published in Anthropology News.