We are all still Trayvon Martin

On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking back from the store through a mostly white gated community in the central Florida town of Sanford when he was stalked and stopped by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman. Minutes later, Trayvon was dead of a gunshot wound.

It took some weeks for the story of Trayvon's murder to capture national attention, but when it did, it was a galvanizing event, drawing attention to the fact that racism was alive and well in 21st century America. Anti-racist protests took place around the country, calling for justice for Trayvon, but also casting a spotlight on other instances of racist violence, particularly those carried out by police.

On the one-year anniversary of Trayvon Martin's death, Khury Petersen-Smith reflects on the crime and the national and international outrage against racism that it spurred.

Thousands came to Sanford for a demonstration to demand justice for Trayvon Martin (Gary W. Green | MCT/Newscom)Thousands came to Sanford for a demonstration to demand justice for Trayvon Martin (Gary W. Green | MCT/Newscom)

ONE YEAR after the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by vigilante George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, it is worth taking stock of what this racist crime and the events that followed taught us about race in the U.S. today.

Perhaps more than anything else, the idea that the U.S. had somehow become, since the election of the country's first Black president, a post-racial society was shattered in ways that no one but the most bigoted, delusional people could deny.

The facts of the murder of Trayvon in 2012 read like those of a crime committed in 1962: A young Black man in a Southern town is perceived as a threat by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman in a largely white neighborhood; the vigilante stalks and murders the young man; despite the fact that the murder is witnessed by neighbors, the local police determine that the vigilante did nothing wrong, deciding to not even arrest him; the town establishment rallies around the cops to defend their decision and, above all, deny that the town has any problems with racism; even when the reality that a racist murder had taken place enters into the national conversation, media personalities argue that it was Trayvon's own poor decisions, particularly his choice to wear a hoodie and "dress like a thug," that led to his being killed.

It was partially the starkness of the crime--and the decisions of cops and town officials afterward--that inspired so much anger and unabashed support for Trayvon and his family.

But instead of focusing on the racism of cops and officials in a small and backward Southern town, we should remember the reaction outside of Sanford as well. Instead of springing into action to cover an obvious hate crime, in which the murderer was allowed to walk free, the national news media ignored the case of Trayvon Martin--until the protests of students at Florida public universities.

The weeks that followed witnessed racist hate inspired by support for George Zimmerman in plainly Northern cities like Columbus, Ohio, where the exterior of the Hale Black Cultural Center at Ohio State University was vandalized with pro-Zimmerman graffiti.

However, the most powerful feature of the aftermath of Trayvon's murder was the outpouring of protest in cities across the country. Tens of thousands of people--mostly African American--mobilized in outrage at the murder of Trayvon, the fact that his killer was protected by cops and politicians, and the bitter knowledge that any Black youth could easily suffer Trayvon's fate.

Trayvon's murder opened up a national conversation about the racist murder of Black people, by vigilantes and law enforcement. Police murders of African Americans in cities and towns across the country, previously treated as "local news," came to be understood as the local symptoms of a rampant, national problem. The names of other unarmed Black victims of police and vigilantes--such as DJ Henry in Westchester County, N.Y., Dane Scott Jr. in Del City, Okla., Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Ramarley Graham in New York City, and Bo Morrison in Slinger, Wis.--came to be known by people around the country.

In April, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement released a report revealing that one Black person was murdered by law enforcement in the U.S. every 40 hours. The group later revised to statistic to every 36 hours.

Far from Sanford, Florida's problem alone, or even just a Southern problem, deadly racism against Black people came to be understood as an American problem. This is why Trayvon's murder struck such a chord with so many African Americans in particular. The popular slogan "We are Trayvon Martin" was not just a statement of solidarity, but a recognition that what happened to a 17-year-old in Florida could happen to any of us.

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ONE ASPECT of the murder and the events that followed that it is worth focusing on is the discussion of Trayvon's innocence.

The fact that Trayvon was an unarmed high school student, murdered on his way home from a trip to the store to buy candy, helped stir the tremendous sympathy for him. Subsequent efforts by racist defenders of Zimmerman to make Trayvon out to be a drug user and a delinquent failed in the face of evidence that Trayvon was a good student with no criminal history and a loving son.

But what if he hadn't been? Among the Black people who are murdered by vigilantes or cops, as among the population at large, are those with criminal records, and with problems at school, work and home.

Such records and problems don't justify neighborhood watch racists or law enforcement acting as judge, jury and executioner in the streets. It is the role of anti-racists to build a movement to demand justice for victims of racist violence, regardless of the circumstances of their lives.

The reaction of President Obama to the murder of Trayvon Martin offered another set of lessons about race in the U.S. today.

Despite the fact that the loyalty of Black voters played a decisive role in his election in 2008, Obama had said almost nothing about racism since taking office. When he held a press conference about the U.S. Justice Department's investigation of the shooting in Sanford and said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," it was understood by everyone that Obama was acknowledging the color of Trayvon's skin.

This was only the second time during his first four years--and the last time, as it turned out--that Obama would comment on race in light of current events. The first moment was when Black Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates was arrested in his own home in Cambridge, Mass., for disorderly conduct when a cop confronted him after witnessing him enter his own house.

At that point, Obama acknowledged the racist context in which Gates was arrested, rightly saying, "There's a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately." But Republicans and the media whipped up a circus about how Obama was disrespecting police--and the president caved to the pressure.

Eventually, Obama hosted Gates and Sgt. James Crowley, the white Cambridge police officer who had arrested Gates, at the White House for beers. The meeting of the three men, in which Crowley refused to apologize for arresting Gates, suggested that the problem was simply a misunderstanding to be talked out, instead of an example of racist policing so rampant that even one of the most prominent Black intellectuals in the country can't escape it.

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DESPITE OBAMA'S general silence on the issue, the last four years have seen a new conversation take place in the U.S. about racism, and how it is manifested in the criminal justice system against Black people.

The discussion has been aided tremendously, and a generation of anti-racists both politically armed and given a voice, by Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow, which details the ways that the criminal justice system buttresses a system of de facto racial apartheid in modern-day America, through the mass incarceration of Black people.

In light of this discussion, the silence of Obama and his Justice Department on mass incarceration and police violence has been deafening. Whereas most people, Black and otherwise, expected Obama to improve conditions for African Americans during his presidency, all indicators--from Black unemployment, to foreclosure rates, to public school closings, to the still-growing prison population--suggest that this has not happened.

That it took mass rallies and marches across the country for weeks to push Obama to acknowledge Trayvon's murder should be a lesson: Instead of waiting for Obama to lead a fight against racism, we need to do so ourselves. Protest won't guarantee a response from Obama or any politician, but it's clear that they won't acknowledge racism at all if we don't protest.

Our movement, however, shouldn't be guided by how to gain the attention of those in positions of political power. Rather, we need to consider the question of how to build the greatest possible mobilization against racism.

Throughout the past, the only force that has achieved major victories against institutionalized racism--winning the right to vote, creating social programs like affirmative action to ameliorate the effects of racism and poverty, desegregating the schools, colleges and universities--has been mass struggle.

The fact that it took weeks of protest just to win the simple victory of getting Trayvon's murderer arrested shows for certain that the struggle against racism isn't outdated simply because a Black president sits in the White House. One year after Trayvon's murder, our fight against racism is still just beginning.