One Boy Can Change the WorldRemembering Trayvon Martin Six Years After His Death

This story was originally published on July 16, 2013.

Saturday’s verdict in the George Zimmerman trial shouldn’t have been a surprise.

History has shown us, again and again, that the legal system is less interested in the deaths of young Black men than ones in which Black people stand accused. Just look at the 2008 acquittal of the New York police officers who shot Sean Bell 50 times, or the short sentence that an Oakland transit cop who shot the unarmed Oscar Grant received in 2010, or the wildly unjust sentencing of Florida mom Marissa Alexander to 20 years in prison for firing a warning shot at her abusive ex-husband, or the damning national statistics on how white-on-Black killings are far more likely to be ruled “justifiable.” 

Although I believe that the legal system will never deliver true justice, Saturday’s verdict still felt like a kick in the gut. It sent a loud and clear message that targeting a Black teenager simply because he is Black is not only acceptable, but legally permissible. And so, like thousands of other Americans, I went out into the streets the following evening to show my outrage.

The vigil I attended in New York City turned into an impromptu march, taking over portions of our city’s streets. There was a group of young Black children who chanted about Skittles and iced tea not being weapons. There were people in automated wheelchairs, nursing mothers holding their babies to their breasts, parents with strollers, and older people who had difficulty keeping up with the march’s rapid pace. Teenagers and adults held signs condemning the verdict. At every intersection, protesters linked hands and stopped traffic, allowing everyone—young old, fast and slow—to pass. It was a powerful gathering. 

Rally for Trayvon Martin Outside the ALEC Headquarters

Rally for Trayvon Martin Outside the ALEC Headquarters in Washington, D.C. on March 29, 2012 (Photo credit: Flickr/LaDawna Howard/2.0)

But something bothered me during the protest. One man had a sign around his neck that said “I Am Trayvon Martin.” The sign had an almost-life-sized picture of a hood and a blank space where a person could put their own face. The man was white. Others wore stickers that said “We Are All Trayvon.” Numerous people held signs and chanted “We Are All Trayvon Martin.” The sign-holders and chanters included many white people.

Let’s be real: Trayvon Martin was profiled and targeted because he was Black. For me (and many others) to chant “I Am Trayvon Martin” erases the very real history of racism and racial profiling against Black people. So why were so many white people taking up that cry? Did they really not understand how race and racism were fundamental parts of both Martin’s murder and the court case that ultimately acquitted Zimmerman?

I understand the need to feel like something bigger than just yourself. But, as an Asian woman who works on prison issues, I know that I have a skin privilege, which makes me a lot less likely to ever be targeted by the same state-sanctioned violence that Martin and so many other Black people encounter on a daily basis. That doesn’t mean I’m immune to racist violence (remember Vincent Chin?) but state-sanctioned violence doesn’t hang over my head the same way it would if I were Black. Stop and Frisk will not be an inevitable part of my daughter’s experience the way it is for hundreds of Black and Brown New York youth.

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton at a rally in Union Square, New York for Trayvon Martin

Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton at a rally in Union Square, New York for Trayvon Martin (Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

I’ve been pointed to a new Tumblr called “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” that examines the ways in race and gender protect individuals from fearing the engrained racism and violence that ended Martin’s life. I know that in many circles, race and racism are considered taboo and can halt conversations (and even organizing work). But if we truly want to build a world in which no more young Black people are senselessly killed while walking home, we need to be brave and have these conversations, not erase our very real differences. 

While I’m furious over the lack of justice in Trayvon Martin’s case, I believe that even had Zimmerman been found guilty, justice would not have been done. The problems revealed here are bigger than just one legal verdict. There is something bigger here, and it’s not that “We Are All Trayvon.” This country is full of systems that treat people differently based on their race. 

As a prison abolitionist, I think about how a guilty verdict would simply have added another body to the 2.4 million people behind bars in the United States. It would not have brought Martin back. It would not have undone the rewriting of his life to cast him as the villain in the story. It would not have stopped the prevalent and systemic fear of young Black and Brown men that led to Zimmerman following and killing Martin. It would not address the need to change the ways we talk about race and racism in this country. It would not stop another shooting of a young Black man by an overzealous gun owner. It wouldn’t make our communities and loved ones any safer from racist violence. Heck, it wouldn’t even make Zimmerman rethink his irrational fear of young Black men.

Perhaps, however, a guilty verdict would have given some closure to the Martin family. Our world has huge gaps between the rhetoric of a world without prisons and the reality of the world as it is right now, a world in which “justice” equals “incarceration.” We should push ourselves to think past that narrow equation and begin to envision a world which truly prizes safety and healing. 

by Victoria Law
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Victoria Law is a voracious reader and freelance writer who frequently writes about gender, incarceration and resistance. She is also the author of Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women

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19 Comments Have Been Posted

I think it's quite possible

I think it's quite possible that rather than being oblivious to white privilege these protestors were expressing human solidarity, and encouraging people who might be racist to see that not everybody views Trayvon Martin as someone "other." I think it's a good bet that if someone's at a protest, protesting his shooting, they're on the same side and agree that racism is a problem. I get really weary of the left nit-picking people who have good intentions. Mind you, I am thoroughly of the left, I just also think that finding what we have in common is more powerful than picking at what separates us constantly. Why not focus on the awesome fact that so many white people showed up to a protest to acknowledge their shared humanity with Trayvon Martin, to acknowledge that his death was unjust and deserved mourning and anger, to emphasize that he was one of us, not someone who deserved to be singled out and attacked. White privilege is real, of course. It's worth talking about. But getting annoyed at people, assuming that they have egotistical motives for being at a protest "being part of something bigger than yourself", taking people to task for protesting the wrong way... I just don't see how any of that actually helps. What it's more likely to do (if anyone wearing those signs reads this thing) is to make them feel ashamed and sad and make them think twice before joining a protest again for fear that they'll do it wrong. A lot of us white people (and yes, I'm white) desperately want to address problems of institutional racism, but feel that we are bound to make mistakes while doing so, bound to offend someone inadvertently, bound to show our desperate ignorance of what it's like to live as another race. It's good to educate about white privilege, but does it need to be done through the lens of - you're doing it wrong, you're not like us, don't pretend to share common humanity with us? It's distancing, it's shaming and it's not actually helping much. Maybe starting from the assumption that those people were there to protest because they were angry or sad or motivated by love or compassion would be a good place to start.

And I am so tired of people

And I am so tired of people thinking "good intentions" make everything alright.

As a white person you -and I- will never be Trayvon Martin. We will never know what it is like, let alone suffer it on our own skin. These signs are completely missing the point, no matter the intention. The problem isn't some abstract wishy-washy "we're all the same! why can't we just get along?", the issue is that the racism in our society allows the killing of an unarmed black youth to go completely unpunished.

I'm tired of people like YOU

This ignorant bullshit is why racism is still alive today.

I don't give a shit if someone is black. They're a human like me. But it's people like you that ruin that. Just kill yourself, really.

I have to agree with your

I have to agree with your reply. My great uncle participated in MLK's march on DC. No, he'd never been moved to the back of a bus, arrested for sitting at a lunch counter, lynched, mobbed, tormented by KKK, prevented from obtaining certain education or certain jobs because of his skin color. But he marched non-the-less. Without people like my uncle, more white folks may have said it's okay to sit on the sidelines and watch. Instead, he may have encouraged others to stand with them and voice the public's displeasure with the intolerance and hate in our society. It takes a few to start the trend of making what's RIGHT the norm, not the exception. Bravo.

Stop the BS please

I've dedicated practically my whole life to helping disadvantaged populations. I believe racism exists and that we as society must address it if we are to move forward.

But where is the evidence that Trayvon was targeted because of race? All the evidence seems to show that Martin started the physical altercation and was hurting Zimmerman badly, in which case Zimmerman has a valid right to self defense. Ironically, only Martin was verifiably racist ("cracker"). I've looked at all the evidence and heard all the testimony. Zimmerman is simply not guilty. To say otherwise is to deny reality.

I think anyone who is serious about fighting racism needs to call BS on this whole sham crucifixion. I mean, it's clear to any impartial observer that the ONLY reason Zimmerman was on trial was because they THOUGHT a white guy killed a black kid. How is wrongly convicting a Hispanic man to placate black people NOT racist? And even if Zimmerman were white, why is it OK to just ignore the evidence that Martin attacked him? Is that too hard to believe?

This kind of widespread stupidity gives the impression that "racism" is simply a manufactured evil, a function of black paranoia and white guilt. In short, it hurts our cause. On top of that, the whole "white privilege" and "we can never have it as bad as black people" conversations are non-starters for any true reconciliation. For one, not all white people have it easy, and it's plainly unfair to minimize someone's struggles on the basis of race. But expecting anyone to be ashamed or apologetic for their race is simply... racism. That is the conservative caricature of civil rights causes, after all.

So yeah. Save the outrage for when you need it.

As a poor white cis female

Who was raised in suburban privilege, but as an adult must struggle to fend for herself without any guarantee of dependence on just anyone else in my livelihood, including immediate family, I could not agree with this comment more.

And as a poor, white, cis

And as a poor, white, cis female who grew up poor, was orphaned at 16 and has no financial security to speak of I think it's a load of bullshit.

I wrote the long comment above

Why do you think my comment is bullshit? I'm not a white supremacist, gun activist, Republican, or Tea Party supporter. But I am a rational person, and based on this evidence, it's certainly plausible (even likely) that Martin was the aggressor. It's sad, but the law doesn't offer much protection for people who attack others. Nor should it. If you were attacked, you would feel pretty angry if you went to jail for defending yourself.

On that note, it's sad that a rational person can't express a rational opinion on a clearly misguided cause célèbre without being called a "racist." You can't fight ignorance with ignorance.

RE: Martin the aggressor????

Forget race. Think legal precedent. Anyone of us would be terrified if we were being followed by a total stranger in a car and more terrified if that stranger parked, got out of the car and went looking for us. Random rapes, attacks, beatings, shootings do exist. What conclusion would you come to if you were being stalked? This verdict suggests that if I am unarmed and pursued by an armed stranger and respond with actions of self defense, including aggressive self defense, that I may be shot dead when my stalker claims he was defending his life. Many people get in physical fights at schools, streets, everywhere. Very few die from them. Cops were on the way. This verdict suggests it is legal to stalk a stranger via car and on foot and shoot them dead when they conclude they are in danger and fight back in terror. You cannot possibly believe this scared teenager was the aggressor. Stalking is very aggressive. Stalking initiated this action which led to an innocent child's death.

That's the problem, you don't

That's the problem, you don't actually understand stalking or what self defense is. You aren't allowed "self defense" until there is a clear threat or actual violence. Stalking means there is malicious intent. Zimmerman didn't plan on killing this kid. No one had ever even thought to argue that. Everyones argument is "oh, treyvon had a right to defend himself and Zimmerman stalked him." Those are incredibly stupid arguments with no basis in actual law or common sense. Being nervous someone is following you is reason to confront him, which treyvon did according to testimony as he got off the phone with his girlfriend. If Treyvon hit Zimmerman first at that point it is NOT AT ALL SELF DEFENSE. That is called assault. Assault SHOULD absolutely be met with deadly force. Always. You don't know how badly that person wants to hurt you. You could end up dead and that person has also proven themselves to be an animal with no sense of morality or respect.

Re-thinking Justice?

I think it is fair to state that making the entire conversation solely about race hampers the fact that there are many people from disadvantaged backgrounds who do not readily identify with Trayvon Martin. This is the case regardless of racial and/or ethnic identity; if one is white, it should not mean that dis-identifying with Trayvon Martin entails the automatic labelling of "racist" on all white and non-white people. Granted, showing solidarity with someone who had an injustice done to him is noble. At the same time, however, it does not necessarily mean the denial of white privilege. With that said, it is unfair to assume that all conversations about race are, shall I say, "black and white." Simply acknowledging one's own white privilege (if one is white) does not mean the automatic erasure of racism in the U.S. and anywhere else, for that matter.

George Zimmerman identified himself as a "white Hispanic." Is this because he is not fully of Latin@/Hispanic descent? How much white does George Zimmerman have in him for anyone to argue that he is a white man who simply got away with killing a black man? Does having some degree of whiteness (e.g., "mostly white") automatically preclude the not guilty verdict reached by the mostly white and all-female jury? What if Zimmerman were "poor white trash" and the shooting took place in a less than economically secure ("privileged") community? Would this trial have received the attention it did?

My overall point is that the issues associated with the Trayvon Martin case are multi-faceted. The case is not solely about race; it is also about class and gender. These intersect, yet some intersections hold more precedence over another. Think of it terms of a "trump" card. Would we really want to pull up a card and argue that we were targeted and, hence, treated unjustly because of only one specific aspect about our own identity? This can apply to several aspects--again: race/ethnicity, class, gender and, furthermore, sexuality, dis/ability (physical and/or mental), and even age. Each and every single human being has each of these facets woven into the fabric of everyday life. If we ignore how inter-related these identity categories are, we are not getting to the root of the problems attached with racism. I repeat, racism is not simply a "black and white" issue. It is not even solely about race. Making the conversation solely about race means that we only focus on ourselves and, in turn, it reinforces the ideological rhetoric that we are only in it for ourselves. That is NOT how you stand in solidarity with another human being. In fact, that is NOT how you stand in solidarity with all living things. As a result, I believe it is time to reconsider what we mean when we demand justice.

No it doesn't "erase" history.

<blockquote><i>"For me (and many others) to chant "I am Trayvon Martin" erases the very real history of racism and racial profiling against black people. So why were so many white people taking up that cry?"</i></blockquote>
It may ignore the effects of history, but it does not change the proverbial "dialog" or change people's concepts of what happened. If Victoria Law is trying to say that people who are not black cannot truly understand the African American experience, then she should say <i><strong>that</strong></i>. Not understanding is a completely different concept from "erasing history".

"Erases" obfuscates the issue.

The actual slogan "I am Trayvon Martin", is one of identity, but in the sense that the person is identifying with Martin; not that they are necessarily in the same circumstance of Martin.

Tired of Trayvon Martin

In a couple of months, this will all disappear. Thankfully. Look, there is a country full of people out there. This is one incident and the media is stirring it up continually! There are countless people shot and killed every day on Chicago's streets. No one bats an eye. Most of it is gang activity. No one bats an eye or remembers the names of those victims.. Kids get killed by errant shots or whatever. No one bats an eye or remembers the names of those victims because the stories come and go and disappear.. The Trayvon Martin case (I am sick of this guy's name, honestly) would be wiped off the headlines and out of the news if something big happened in this country (like a major terrorist attack or something of that sort). Remember the Colorado theater shooting a year ago? Can you name any of the victims (without looking it up on the Web, I mean)? Remember the school massacre in Connecticut last December? Can you name any of those kids (without looking it up and then posting a list you got off some web site)? You can't. But the name Trayvon Martin saturates the news. Can you guess why? I can. The others are as dead as he is and frankly, I am tired beyond belief of hearing about it. However, as the summer fades so will the story. Count on it. The heat and the media get people in a tizzy. The court system did what it could and acted within the law. Time to move on. Next.

black on black

What cracks me up is blacks kill blacks everyday at an unbelievable rate. No one cares. But if a white or hispanic does it lawdy lawdy its on. Plus dont even get me started on how many racist crimes are perpetrated by blacks. can tell you that one. Bottom line blacks are where they are at in society for a reason.

Go away racist troll

Your analysis is non-existant. You hurt other people with your racist drivel. You embarrass yourself.
Goodbye, and if the door hits you in the ass on your way out, consider it a wake up call to learn something outside of your comfort zone!

Pretty telling that your

Pretty telling that your reaction to people murdering other people is to crack up. Really shows what kind of vile human being you are.

What Trayvon means to Interracial Couples

I really appreciate your perspective. I am a white woman dating a black man. If we have kids, our kids will have brown skin. I will always have white privilege in our racist society but my kids won't. This case really hit home for me. I felt like "I am Trayvon Martin" really was true for me. My kids won't be safe in countless places where I would be safe, simply because of their skin color. I agree with your criticism of the co-opting of social justice causes by whites who benefit from the very systems of oppression we claim to stand against. I'm sure some white folks wearing these signs were unaware of what they were doing in their effort to simply show solidarity. However, there are some of us out there who are affected by it directly.

Not a Race Issue

George Zimmerman is half white, raised by a mother and her family who are proud to be South American Native Americans. Did everyone miss that. Nor was Trevon Martin a child; 17 and 50 weeks old, 5'11, 158 lbs. Nor was he going home. His father could not have been expecting him or he would have heard all the police commotion; under 18 years of age, Condos have policies about such "children" being under adult resident supervision when on Condo property.. Moreover Trevon had 4 minutes to go 340 ft to his father's house while Zimmerman was on the phone with the police. AND Police cannot and did not tell him not to follow or intercept. When one is on own private property without police as yet present, it is the owner's right to do just that. there WERE 14 CRIES, MANY IN PAIN FROM THE PERSON UNDERNEATH TREVON, THE PERSON WHO HAD THE INJURIES EVIDENT FROM THE BEGINNING BUT THE LOCAL PRESS REPORTED FALSELY THAT Zimmerman HAD NO INJURIES AND THAT GOT THEM TO A NATIONAL NEWS EVENT. JUST WHAT TV LOCAL NEWS HOPES FOR. tHEN THE MAYOR PLAYED THE RACE CARD. This was never anything but the wrong case to make racial.. And we don't practice cruel and unusual punishment in this country which has been done to Zimmerman even before he was accused or tried. EVERYONE STOP YOUR RACISM. ENOUGH LIVES HAVE BEEN RUINED AND PEOPLE DRIVEN OUT OF THEIR JOBS AND HOMES. .

Seriously get the fuck over

Seriously get the fuck over what happened to blacks when they were slaves. It hardly matters anymore. I'M tired of black mother fuckers thinking the world owes them something for that shit. Newsflash. EVERY RACE HAS BEEN ENSLAVED BEFORE. THE FIRST SLAVE TO BE SOLD WAS SOLD BY A BLACK MAN.

Dammit, man. No wonder we still have so many racists around still. It's because of people like you who want the world to give them every thing they want because something may or may not have happened to their fucking grandfather.

Shut up. Seriously.

Oh and by the way, around the same time of trayvons death, a white boy was jumped by two black boys and beat to death. Where is HIS protest?