Social Activism and the Case of Trayvon Martin

Picture 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 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


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


October 18th, 2015

Mapping the Dead in the Latest Israeli-Palestinian Violence

Basma Atassi at Al-Jazeera has put together a great storymap that explores the latest violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Complete with pictures, text and place location, this resource allows you to get a good sense of where, when and how the violence is occurring. Definitely worth a look.

October 16th, 2015

Netanyahu, Context & Responsibility

At the center of this current iteration of violence in Israel and Palestine stands the Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Netanyahu has reacted to this violence as if he was surprised that Palestinians would resort to violence when for decades he has done everything within his power to thwart the establishment and growth of a responsible Palestinian civil society, expanded settlements with the explicit aim of crippling an emerging Palestinian state, and undermining the responsible leadership of Mahmoud Abbas at every possible opportunity.

October 8th, 2015

Abbas, Netanyahu and Responsible Leadership

Abbas is demonstrating his commitment to deescalating tensions and calming the violence that is a direct result of Netanyahu’s persistent efforts to whip Israeli society into a panicked frenzy about an existential threat lurking behind every corner.

June 30th, 2015

Our Dictator in Cairo – Abdel Fatah el-Sisi

So, once again, the foreign policy of the US has chosen perceived immediate stability over the somewhat more bumpy and unpredictable evolution of democracy in the Middle East. It’s not the first time we’ve done this… it’s sort of our thing at this point… we’re pro’s out it.

June 22nd, 2015

The Many Victims at Mother Emmanuel

The problem with Gosnell and others who make these arguments is that they believe intentionality serves as some magical “Get out of Jail Free” card that absolves perpetrators of the violence they commit. Further, and in many ways far more problematic, is the realization that Gosnell and others only want to use this logical canard to absolve themselves or other like them. No such compassion regarding intentionality and the multiplicity of victims derived from violence will ever be used with the families of the 9-11 hijackers. In the end, the fundamental mistake that Gosnell and others make over and over again is that they focus on issues of intentionality rather than on issues of responsibility.

March 4th, 2015

Mr. Netanyahu Goes to Congress

There are two things to never forget when considering Netanyahu’s views of regional threats. First, he is desperately seeking his “Churchill moment”. Second, he has a record of being blinded by his own biases and is never, ever a sober analyst of a situation

February 16th, 2015

Cursed Be The Peacemakers?

This video, produced by Israeli settlers in the West Bank, has been released as part of the current Israeli political contest where the extreme right wing of Israel is attempting to maintain the rightist complexion of the Israeli government. For me, the truly offensive aspect of this video is how it makes the case that working for peace between Israelis and Palestinians or defending Palestinian and Israeli human rights somehow makes you a threat to the country.

February 14th, 2015

The Danger of Molly White’s Islamophobia

Rep. White is the new poster child for the anti-Muslim bigotry, Islamic hatred and Islamophobia that is so deeply embedded in American society that it can hide in plain sight.

July 15th, 2014

In Focus: The Gaza Strip

As Israeli bombs are dropped throughout the Gaza Strip and Hamas missiles are launched into Israel, the media coverage has focused on discussing Gaza as a known yet ill-defined entity. We are made aware of roughly where it is (next to Israel), who lives there (Hamas) and what happens there (rockets are made and launched). But this reductionist view of Gaza doesn’t provide any insights into the common, everyday lived experience of the 1.8 million Palestinians who live in the 360 sq. km that makes up the Gaza Strip.

July 14th, 2014

Middle East News Review #28

The Middle East was plagued with news of violence this week. In Israel, Palestine, Iraq and Libya, episodes of violence resulted in death and destruction. Iran continued its negotiations with the US and EU this week in the hopes of reaching an agreement over the country’s nuclear program and removing the economic sanctions that have crippled its economy. In Iraq, violence between the militant group ISIS and the Baghdad government reached new heights as 29 people were found massacred in an apartment and Human Rights Watch condemned the government for mass executions carried out earlier this year. The direct physical violence in Iraq was mirrored this week with political turmoil as the government of Nouri al-Maliki erupted into conflict with the semi-autonomous Kurdish government.