It has been five years since Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon Martin was 17 years old, visiting his father. At halftime of the NBA All-Star game, he walked to a local convenience store for an Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles. On his way back, George Zimmerman, a local neighborhood watch volunteer, followed him. After being urged by police not to follow Trayvon, he continued. Eventually there was some kind of an encounter between the two, during which Zimmerman shot Trayvon Martin with a gun he had in his truck. A gun Zimmerman took with him when he exited his truck. Trayvon Martin died at the scene.
Zimmerman claimed he was defending himself. Of course, had he followed the advice of the police there would have been no encounter, no shooting, no trial. The Sanford Police Department botched nearly every aspect of this case. They didn’t immediately arrest Zimmerman. Because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the police assumed Zimmerman was telling the truth and let him go. Some days later, he was brought in for questioning and the larger case emerged. The trial was torturous. Zimmerman was acquitted. Many cities across the country exploded in protests.
Today, few laws have been changed to protect people from vigilante behavior, like Zimmerman’s. We have seen a heartbreaking litany of Black men and women killed by police on cellphone video. We have seen very few laws or police conduct rules amended. One must be clear in this too: murdering Black people with impunity in America is not new. This did not begin with Trayvon Martin’s murder or with the advent of cellphones.
The simple fact is this: our laws do not adequately protect Black people. When details of Trayvon Martin’s murder emerged at the Zimmerman trial, what happened was clear. The crisis was that– due to Florida’s laws– what George Zimmerman did was legal. The prosecution could not get a conviction because the laws protected Zimmerman. Similarly, in 2015, near the third anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder, the U. S. Justice Department completed an investigation to determine whether or not it would bring a civil rights case against Zimmerman. The Justice Department decided it did not have enough evidence and would not charge Zimmerman. Therefore, according to the law, George Zimmerman did not violate Trayvon Martin’s civil rights. That observation staggers the mind. Our current laws are not sufficient.
Today, we have a President who describes himself as a “law and order” President. His bombast and disdain for people of color, and for the rule of law, are obvious everyday. Our current Attorney General has a record of open hostility to African Americans.
In the five years since Trayvon Martin’s murder, we have made virtually no legal progress to protect people of color. Have we made progress in other ways? This is harder to gauge. Have hearts been changed? Have people of conscience been mobilized? Yes, to some extent. But until people with changed hearts insist on change to their political representatives, we will not see real changes that protect people. Until we change laws that protect vigilantism, until we tighten the rules regarding police use of fatal force, we will continue to see our young people like Trayvon Martin– and hundreds of others– killed with impunity in America.
As Ella Baker said so clearly: “Until the killing of Black men, Black mothers’ sons, becomes as important to the rest of the country as the killing a white mother’s son, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until this happens.”
Artwork by Ricardo Levins Morales with text by Ella Baker