Trayvon Martin: Killing of an unarmed teenager sparks a movement for justice

Trayvon Martin, 17, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012.

The African American teenager was shot by Zimmerman, a man of multi-ethnic heritage, who was patrolling a gated community in Florida. Martin had been walking back from a 7-Eleven where he had bought a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.

Speaking on his cell phone to his girlfriend, he was spotted by Zimmerman who called Sandford police to report a "suspicious person" in the Twin Lakes neighbourhood where he was leading neighbourhood watch.

Martin was unarmed when he was shot by Zimmerman's semi-automatic. He can be heard begging for his life on the police dispatch recording of the incident.

Martin's only crime was, as Zimmerman described to police dispatch, "This guy looks like he is up to no good. He is on drugs or something." Martin was wearing a hoodie at the time of his death, with the hood pulled up to keep out the rain.

Trayvon Martin could be any black youth in America.

U.S. President Barak Obama, commenting weeks after the shooting on the concern of African American parents, said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon Martin."

The details of the shooting

On February 26, 2012, during a break in the NBA game Trayvon Martin was watching from his father's fiancé's house in Twin Lakes, he left to make a quick run to the local 7-Eleven to pick up an iced tea and a bag of Skittles. It was early evening and raining.

Martin was talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone on his way back to the house when he noticed a man tailing him -- this man turned out to be George Zimmerman. His girlfriend [name withheld] claims to have heard Martin say, "What are you following me for?" followed by a man's voice responding, "What are you doing here?" She urged Martin to run.

She has further stated that she heard the sound of pushing and that Martin's phone suddenly went dead, leading her to believe that he had been knocked down. She attempted to call him back immediately, but was unable to reach him again.

She couldn't reach her boyfriend because he was dead.

For Zimmerman's part, that night while on patrol, he had contacted Sanford Police Department at 7 p.m. from his cell to report a "suspicious" person walking in Twin Lakes.

According to the police recording released on March 17, 2012 -- eventually made public after pressure from family and rights advocates -- after Zimmerman alerted the authorities regarding the "suspicious" person, he stated he was in pursuit. The dispatcher advised Zimmerman to cease the chase.

Within that phone call to police lies the clue to potential motivation and any possible racist undertones to Zimmerman's assertion that Martin was someone "suspicious," which led him to tell police, "This guy looks like he is up to no good." Martin was a black youth in the U.S. South. He was wearing a hoodie with the hood pulled up. He had no police record (though it was later discovered that Zimmerman did).

In audio from that call to police, at the 1:40 mark, you can hear Zimmermann say, "Fucking ---- !" Many assert that what Zimmerman is saying is in fact "Fucking Coons!" Again, you can access the audio by clicking on the link and hear it for yourself. After the recording was released, the Sanford Police Department admitted that they might have missed the potential racial slur on the call.

That night, Martin's girlfriend heard the beginning of the scuffle between her boyfriend and Zimmerman but what happened next can and should only be determined in a court of law, though at this time -- despite intense public pressure and numerous rallies across the United States titled "the million hoodie march" -- Zimmerman has not been charged with Martin's death.

Please note that Martin was shot on February 26, 2012, so the case for justice has been slow to build. This slow burn is similar to what social justice advocates witnessed with the case of Troy Davis and Martin's case risks becoming the same.

Due to increased public pressure which caught fire last week, it was announced on Wednesday March 21, 2012, that both a federal probe and an investigation by a state grand jury will be carried out.

Conflicting witness accounts

What did occur, and this is indisputable, was that Zimmerman -- who was carrying a registered firearm -- shot the unarmed teen in the chest. You can read a copy of the Sanford Police Department's initial report here.

By the time police responded to the scene that night, they reported finding Martin face down on the ground and unresponsive, suffering from a single gunshot wound to the chest. The police report states that they first attempted CPR, then paramedics arrived and continued CPR, but Trayvon Martin was declared dead at 7:30 p.m.

Reports from the scene also state that Zimmerman had grass on his back and his back was wet. Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and the back of the head.

One witness at the scene at the time gave an account to police that satisfies Zimmerman's description of events that he was defending himself from an attack. But another witness -- Mary Cutcher -- gives an account differing from the shooter.

Cutcher and her roommate later told CNN of the police that, "they were siding with him [Zimmerman] from the start" and that they themselves heard the pair in their backyard and a "very young voice" whining, but with no sounds of a struggle. Then they heard a gunshot and the crying stopped immediately. Looking out, they saw Zimmerman on his knees pinning Martin down on the ground.

Zimmerman has claimed self-defence in the shooting of the unarmed teen. In the state of Florida, there is the "stand your ground" law when it comes to self-defence, but lawyers for Zimmerman told CNN News on March 24 that this law doesn't apply to the Martin shooting.

"In my legal opinion, that's not really applicable to this case. The statute on 'stand your ground' is primarily when you're in your house," said Craig Sonner, attorney for George Zimmerman. "This is self-defence, and that's been around forever -- that you have a right to defend yourself. So the next issue [that] is going to come up is, was he justified in using the amount of force he did?" he said.

Trayvon Martin's girlfriend, who was on the phone with him just as the confrontation started, has stated she is willing to step forward to prove that Zimmerman killed the unarmed teenager "in cold blood."

Martin's girlfriend, "completely blows Zimmerman's absurd self-defence claim out of the water," lawyer Benjamin Crump told reporters at a news conference on Tuesday, March 20.

While Trayvon Martin had no criminal record, Zimmerman had a previous charge in 2005 of "resisting arrest with violence and battery on an officer" -- while interfering with the arrest of a friend. He subsequently entered a pre-trial diversion program, which is not considered a conviction on his criminal record. Zimmerman had previously been accused of domestic violence by an ex-fiancé (Veronica Zuazo), who had filed for a restraining order against him. Zimmerman counter-filed for a restraining order. A judge eventually ordered them both to stay away from each other for at least one year.

Zimmerman was enrolled in the Seminole County Sheriff's Office citizens' law-enforcement academy, a four-month-long course, at the time of the shooting but was expelled due to the controversy.

Some residents of his gated community declared that Zimmerman was known for being strict and that he went door to door asking them to be on the lookout for "young black men who appear to be outsiders," while others regarded him as "normal," "helpful" and "passionate about neighbourhood security," having supposedly thwarted a previous burglary attempt.

The community reportedly experienced numerous instances of burglary, theft and one shooting in 2011, with a total of 402 calls made to the Sandford Police Department.

According to the Miami Herald, Zimmerman had placed 46 of those calls since the beginning of 2011, "to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents. Nine of those times, he saw someone or something suspicious."

The morning after the fatal shooting, Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, called missing persons after his son did not report home. Officers were dispatched to the home, where they showed his father a crime scene photograph of Martin for identification purposes. Martin's body had been taken to the medical examiner's office as a John Doe.

'Million hoodie' marches demand justice

Community- and Internet-based organization to demand justice for Trayvon Martin and the arrest and trial of George Zimmerman has been steadily growing since February but has only caught fire in the past couple of weeks.

Over Twitter, #Trayvon and #MillionHoodieMarch have been the main organizing vehicles. On both Twitter and Facebook, call-outs have gone through asking users to replace their profile photo with one of them wearing a hoodie.

The Million Hoodie March -- a play on the Million Man March on Washington from 1995 -- has a theme of African American empowerment. In this case, one of the stereotypes leading to Trayvon Martin's death was that he was wearing a hoodie and had the hood pulled up to stop the rain.

Zimmerman characterized this behaviour and style of dress as "suspicious." If he did in fact use a racial slur to describe the situation to police dispatch officers, then to Zimmerman wearing a hoodie and looking suspicious was linked to being a black youth in America.

Geraldo Rivera of Fox News fame stated on March 23 that Trayvon Martin wouldn't have been shot if he hadn't been wearing a hoodie. He went on to say, "[I] am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin's death as George Zimmerman was."

His comments caused a firestorm on the Internet.

This includes John Hudson's article for the Atlantic Wire on Friday, March 24, 2012, where he suggests other people who by Geraldo Rivera's standards are asking to be shot. These include Elliot from ET, Rupert Grint (a.k.a. Ron Weasley) and Justin Bieber, who have all worn hoodies. In fact, the post includes a picture of Geraldo Rivera himself wearing a hoodie.

Million Hoodie Marches were held from South Bend, Florida to Atlanta, Georgia; from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, California. In New York at Union Square on Wednesday, March 21,Trayvon's father, Tracy Martin, addressed the crowd saying, "My son did not deserve to die." His mother, Sybrina Fulton, told the crowd, "My heart is in pain, but to see the support of all of you really makes a difference."

In another example of community response, members of the New Black Panther Party announced on Saturday that the group is offering a $10,000 (U.S.) reward for the "capture" of George Zimmerman. The group called for the mobilization of 5,000 black men to capture George Zimmerman, saying that their own local members would scour the Maitland and Jacksonville areas.

In an NPR story filed on Thursday, March 22, 2012, reporter Mark Simpson describes a tiny town with a history filled with racial tension in the "Deep South." You can listen to the audio here. You can also hear local residents describe their lives in Sanford, Florida at this link.

On Wednesday, March 21, Sanford City Council voted 3-2 on a "no confidence" vote regarding Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee. Chief Lee later "temporarily" stepped down from his position until the investigation was over. He has been grilled over his department's handling of the case; most notably the failure to arrest Zimmerman as a suspect or treat local witnesses fairly. The next day, Seminole County State Attorney Norman Wolfinger recused himself from the case to investigate the Martin shooting.

All across the United States, people and pundits alike are asking how a 17-year-old kid who went out to buy a bag of Skittles ended up dead.

As mentioned, even U.S. President Obama has weighed in on the question.

Time Magazine's Touré wrote the piece, "How to Talk to Young Black Boys About Trayvon Martin."

As his first point, Touré states:

"It's unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It's possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity. Being black could turn an ordinary situation into a life-or-death moment even if you're doing nothing wrong."

Krystalline Kraus writes the Activist Communiqué blog for rabble.ca.

Further Reading

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