Art by Emily Bao
On February 26th, 2012, 17-year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida. Trayvon and his father Tracy Martin were there to visit Tracy’s fiance and had visited the neighborhood multiple times beforehand. Zimmerman was a watch coordinator, who had been reporting break-ins and thievery in his community for the past several months. Late that night, Zimmerman, who thought that Trayvon was trying to steal from one of the houses, chased him down and got into a fight which ended in Trayvon’s death. Although Zimmerman claimed he shot Martin in self-defense, Trayvon had no weapons (and had never owned any), had never committed a crime, and was not attempting to burglarize any homes. Zimmerman would eventually be acquitted of any and all charges relating to Trayvon’s death.
Now, many more Americans know Trayvon Martin’s name: the outrage at his killing and the way the justice system handled his case ignited the Black Lives Matter movement into its current form. That being said, we don’t really know him. We don’t know Trayvon’s favorite color, what video games he liked to play, or what he aspired to be. And although we can ask George Zimmerman what he was thinking on that February night, we’ll never know what Trayvon Martin was thinking in his final moments. The only thing we do know is that an innocent young man was killed and our justice system allowed the perpetrator to avoid any consequences. Since Trayvon’s death, too many men, women, and children like him have been murdered, and each time it happens some people try to dismiss them as isolated incidents for various reasons. “He looked suspicious.” “He wasn’t complying with the officer.” “The officer was frightened.” “He didn’t look like he belonged in this neighborhood.” All of these excuses are missing the point: Trayvon Martin is a symbol. When protesters march with his face on their signs, they’re trying to show that behind the list of countless names, there are countless lives. Thousands of thoughts, dreams, emotions, friendships – ended in the snap of a finger. Trayvon Martin was 17 when he died, only a few months older than me. He was wearing a dark-colored hoodie while he was walking home, just like how me and so many of my classmates wear our grey Nobles hoodies. Trayvon Martin matters because he could be any young man of color: any of your friends, family, teachers, or classmates. So when people focus too much on the personal details and circumstances of people of color murdered by police, they, intentionally or unintentionally, refuse to acknowledge the deeper systemic problems that allow these tragic acts to keep occuring.
In recent months, I’ve struggled to process the injustices occurring in cities around the country. Protesters who are angry at a system that swallows them and their loved ones up and and discards them clash, physically and metaphorically, with police officers who are struggling to both maintain order and understand their support of that system. I continue to be a strong believer in the idea that a strong and fair policing and justice system are necessary to make this country work. I empathize with officers who are forced to make difficult, often fatal decisions on a daily basis. But when those same officers and the system that supports them don’t recognize their own faults and biases, and others in their communities don’t encourage such change, then that endangers us all. Yes, police officers need to be able to do their jobs, but working to solve the racial inequities in our justice system could make their jobs easier. In a world where people of color, people like me, no longer view every encounter with law enforcement with suspicion, officers are more likely to have more community cooperation during their work.
For the past several years, Black Lives Matter and their detractors have clashed in the news, in the courtroom, and on the streets. Black men and women have been gunned down for driving, going on a run, or even sleeping, and the justice system continually refuses to prosecute those responsible. With so much violence happening, is it any wonder that no one stopped and asked another person, “Why?” Why did Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, and countless more people like them die? And why are we fighting each other when we all want the same thing: for the violence to stop. Black Lives Matter has, in my opinion, a very simple core message: “We are not expendable. We matter, even though you treat us like we don’t.” The more innocent Black people are gunned down, and the more that both sides fail to see their common goal to live in a community that is both safe and equitable, the larger and larger the divide in our nation grows. If we want to have any hope at reconciliation, we have to address the systemic issues of bias and distrust that makes it so hard for a young Black man like Trayvon to walk home at night without fearing for his life.