Black Lives Matter: Trayvon Martin, the verdict that changed everything
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Black Lives Matter: Trayvon Martin, the verdict that changed everything

It is July 13, 2013, and I have stepped away from monitoring events at the trial of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, 17, a year and a half before. I had learned about Trayvon one day while I was at the Strategy Center in 2012 and going through Facebook. I came across a small article from a local paper. I read that a white man - that's how the killer was identified and self-identified until we raised the issue of race - had killed a Black boy and was not going to be charged.

At some point Al Sharpton hears about what happened to Trayvon and a huge rally is held in New York. An arrest is demanded. The demand is elevated in Florida by a group of brilliant and brave young organisers, the Dream Defenders, led by Umi Agnew, who occupy the governor's office, bringing direct action back into the fore for our generation. They use social media to amplify their voices, and they inspire a nation of organisers, including me, as I am working in LA to build out Dignity and Power Now.

Before the killer's trial begins, there were several things that we know: In July 2005, he was arrested for "resisting an officer with violence". According to Jonathan Capehart, reporting for The Washington Post, the man who was allowed to carry a gun and become a neighbourhood watch volunteer "got into a scuffle with cops who were questioning a friend for alleged underage drinking". The Post continued: "The charges were reduced and then waived after he entered an alcohol education program."

In August 2005, the killer's fiancee sought and received a restraining order against him because of his alleged violence against her.

A family photo shows Trayvon Martin, slain in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012.

A family photo shows Trayvon Martin, slain in Sanford, Florida on February 26, 2012.

Photo: MARTIN FAMILY
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Over an eight-year period, the killer made more than 45 unsubstantiated calls to the Sanford, Florida, police department about people he termed as "suspicious Black males". The killer's cousin had accused him of molesting her before the case made national news - meaning before any attention-seeking could have been her motive - and reported to the police: "I know George. And I know that he does not like black people."

On July 13, 2013, I am traveling to Susanville, California, to visit an 18-year-old young man named Richie whom I have known and cherished since he was 14.

Richie has been sentenced to a decade in prison for a robbery in which no one was physically harmed. What kind of time will Trayvon's killer get?

We have driven fully half a day to be here, to be with Richie, whom I met when Mark Anthony, Jason and I worked as youth counsellors at Cleveland. Richie stood out, even among a cohort of young people who were all standouts. He was part of a group of Black boys at the high school who couldn't stay out of trouble - we were told. But we believed punishment was the wrong interrupter for them.

George Zimmerman was acquitted in the high-profile killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

George Zimmerman was acquitted in the high-profile killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Photo: AP

Black children taught by white teachers were particularly at risk for suspension, the data showed again and again. (Although the reverse was not true. Black teachers did not move to suspend white children at higher rates.) Nearly 7 million kids in the nation, some as young as four, were suspended in 2011 and 2012, when we were at Cleveland. Still, suspensions, for as widely as they were used, were a failure. All they did, as the data indicated, was alienate young people from school, teachers and often their peers.

For a year our small team sat in circle with the young men. We talked about racism and homophobia.

An image of Michael Brown, who was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, on the tie of his father, Michael Brown senior.

An image of Michael Brown, who was killed by the police in Ferguson, Missouri, on the tie of his father, Michael Brown senior.

Photo: DEMETRIUS FREEMAN

We talked about classism and sexism. We pulled apart concepts of addiction, and not so much addiction as in drugs but as in all of the behaviours that can compel a person to behave in ways that are detrimental. Our vision was to interrupt the process that had led the young men to see themselves outside of their own dreams.

Richie eventually became the editor of the school newspaper and for the Valentine's Day edition one year, he supported a young woman writer who, like many of the students, had been reading Eve Ensler and wanted to proclaim V-Day as a day to celebrate and honour vaginas.

When They Call You A Terrorist by patrisse khan-cullors and asha bandele.

When They Call You A Terrorist by patrisse khan-cullors and asha bandele.

Photo: RYAN PFLUGER

Richie commissioned art to accompany the story and when the paper came out, he made it front-page news, along with a huge picture of a vulva. The school administration went wild, confiscating all the copies of the paper, threatening Richie with suspension. He stood his ground. He said it was their responsibility to talk about sexual assault, their duty to force people to think about women's sexual organs differently.

Richie was called for interviews from as far away as India. Eventually the school backed down from their censure of and threats against him. The experience changed him and by the time he was 18, he moved out of his parents' home. He found a small apartment in Reseda, not far from Cleveland, and got a job with the LA Unified School District, working with students not so different than the student he had once been. Life was going well.

September 2016: A program produced in memory of Terence Crutcher, the 40-year-old unarmed man   shot and killed by police officer Betty Jo Shelby, in the lap of a woman during his funeral in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

September 2016: A program produced in memory of Terence Crutcher, the 40-year-old unarmed man shot and killed by police officer Betty Jo Shelby, in the lap of a woman during his funeral in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Photo: ILANA PANICH-LINSMAN

Without warning, the district cut his hours. And that was that. Richie, a tall, young Black man who was living on his own and who had tattoos, and who was good enough to be hired but not good enough to really include and provide a career path for, was left in limbo and desperate. And his rent was due.

Later, after he was arrested, he said to me that when he felt desperate, the voice he heard in his head was the one he was raised with: men don't ask for help. Men make it happen.

You had already done so much for me, he said to me in the LA County Jail visitor's room.

I didn't want to hurt anyone. I just needed to pay the rent.

And in fact no one was physically hurt, although I'm sure they were terrified. But Richie was still handed a sentence of 10 years.

As I write these words, I don't only think about all the killer cops, the cops who lied, the cops who never got charged or when they were got acquitted. I also think about men like Brock Turner, the Stanford star swimmer, who raped a woman and got six months. Six months because the judge said Turner couldn't make it in prison, that prison wasn't for him.

But it was made for Richie?

November 2017: Officer Wayne Isaacs, centre, is found not guilty in the July 2016 shooting death of Delrawn Small, an unarmed black man, in New York.

November 2017: Officer Wayne Isaacs, centre, is found not guilty in the July 2016 shooting death of Delrawn Small, an unarmed black man, in New York.

Photo: New York Times

On this hot July day in Susanville we are talking about a million things, although eventually everything will come back to what is unfolding in Central Florida and Trayvon Martin's killer: will he walk?

The world knows that, against a 911 operator's orders, this man chased down and killed 16-year-old Trayvon Martin. A Black boy who was just walking home. Walking with a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a pack of Skittles he'd bought for his little brother. Walking and speaking on his cell to his friend Rachel, a girl who was bullied and a girl he protected. Walking and wearing a hoodie like teenagers everywhere wear hoodies.

We learn that the man was ordered by a police dispatcher to stop.

We learn that the man pulled the trigger on this unarmed child who weighed what, 20, 30 kilos less than the man with the gun?

We learn that the man believed he had a right to do what he did. And we are scared that a jury of this man's peers would agree.

We are scared because of the work and time it took even to get the man arrested.

We could be talking about Emmett Till. This is who I think about throughout the course of the trial and the weeks and months leading up to it.

When someone in my neighbourhood committed a crime, let alone murder, all of us were held accountable, my God. Metal detectors, search lights and constant police presence, full-scale sweeps of kids just walking home from school - all justified by politicians and others who said they represented our needs. Where were these representatives when white guys shot us down?

Mourners during a prayer at the funeral of Terence Crutcher.

Mourners during a prayer at the funeral of Terence Crutcher.

Photo: New York Times

Were it not for the brave and determined young people who formed the Dream Defenders joining forces with the brave and heartbroken parents of Trayvon, Sybrina Fulton and Tracey Martin, and had there not been sit-ins, protests, occupations, and Al Sharpton, this boy's name would be on no one's tongue, save for his family and the friends who loved him.

Seven hours after it begins, the visit with Richie ends, and we head back to the motel we are staying at in the small town. Of the just under 20,000 residents, nearly half, 46 per cent, live in one of the town's two prisons.

Once a place where loggers and miners worked, today Susanville's singular growth industry is prisons; roughly half of all the adults who live here work at one of the two facilities.

It feels like we are trapped in a black-and-white photograph from the Deep South in the 1950s. All you can feel are the walls and the bars, the gun towers and barbed wire, which is only offset by the random appearance of soldiers who are based near Susanville. The sense of impending war.

What must it be like to live hoping for and invested in war and crime because without them the people of Susanville must believe that the world would collapse?

The motel has a microwave. We eat and we get on my laptop. Eating and waiting for the verdict to come in.

I start seeing the timelines update. The killer is acquitted of the first charge. And then he is acquitted of all of them. I go into shock. I lose my breath.

No! This is impossible.

But as soon as I deny it I know that it is true, and I am overcome with embarrassment and shame. And then I start crying. And I feel wrong about crying. My tears make me want to hide. I feel the weight of being with two Black women who are younger than me in this prison town, and I wonder if it came down to it, would I be able to protect them, protect us?

And then my friend Alicia, who I'd known for seven years at this point, writes a Facebook post:

btw stop saying that we are not surprised. that's a damn shame in itself. I continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter. And I will continue that. stop giving up on black life. black people, I will NEVER give up on us. NEVER.

And then I respond. I wrote back with a hashtag:

#BlackLivesMatter

Alicia and I brainstorm over the course of the next few days. Alicia reaches out to her friend Opal Tometi, a dedicated organiser who ran Black Alliance for Just Immigration, based in Brooklyn. Opal develops all the initial digital components we need to even get people to feel comfortable saying the words Black Lives Matter, for even among those closest to us, there are many who feel the words will be viewed as separatist, that they will isolate us.

Co-founders of Black Lives Matter, from left, Alicia Garza, patrisse khan-cullors and Opal Tometi at

Co-founders of Black Lives Matter, from left, Alicia Garza, patrisse khan-cullors and Opal Tometi at

Photo: New York Times

After a few days I return to Facebook and I begin to post. I write that we are going to begin organising.

I write: I hope it impacts more than we can ever imagine.

Telling the story of black people and police

Another story that does not get told when they tell the story of California is the story of occupation, of what it means for so many of us who are Black or Latino to live unable to escape the constant monitoring by police, the idea that your very existence, the brown of your skin, is enough to get you snatched up, enough to get you killed.

We've always known this but in 2012 and 2013 we were able to use to social media to animate a national conversation.

We knew it when Oscar Grant was killed in Oakland, sitting still and compliant on the floor of the Fruitvale BART station.

We knew it when Amadou Diallo was killed. Forty-one bullets. Some through the bottom of his feet.

We knew it when Sean Bell was shot and killed getting into a car after his own bachelor's party in New York.

We knew when we read about Clifford Glover, a boy of 10 living in Queens, New York, in April 1973. Little Clifford was shot by police while simply walking with his stepfather down a street in their South Jamaica, Queens, neighbourhood. The killer cop, Thomas Shea, who was acquitted, simply offered as his defence that he didn't see anything except the child's colour.

July 2015: Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died after a police officer used a choke hold on him in 2014, holds a photo of him at a news conference in New York.

July 2015: Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, who died after a police officer used a choke hold on him in 2014, holds a photo of him at a news conference in New York.

Photo: New York Times

In the state of California a human being is killed by a police officer roughly every 72 hours. Sixty-three per cent of these people killed by police are Black or Latino.

Black people, 6 per cent of the California population, are targeted and killed at five times the rate of whites, and three times the rate of Latinos, who have the largest number of people killed by police.

Who is protected? Who is served?

I wonder if any of our kids ever get the proverbial slap on the wrist. The "C'mon son. You can do better than this." The, "Let's go talk to his parents. Maybe he needs therapy." Did anyone in law enforcement ever say about one of our kids, "Jail would destroy him, so let's find another way to help."

Did we ever get a first chance, let alone a second? What did Trayvon Martin get? What did Clifford Glover? Rekia Boyd, who was sitting in a Chicago park with friends in 2012, talking and laughing, when an undercover cop accosted them and shot her 22 years of life and possibility into oblivion?

April 2015: A protest in Baltimore over the death of Freddy Gray in police custody.

April 2015: A protest in Baltimore over the death of Freddy Gray in police custody.

Photo: New York Times

The raid ... and the stench

Outside my door, there are at least a dozen police in full riot gear. I am a single woman, unarmed and 157 centimetres. Every single one of the people standing before me, their faces disguised by helmets, their bodies shielded in Kevlar, has a weapon trained on me or on my home.

A Latino officer is the one who engages me.

Someone tried to shoot up the station, he begins. We think they may be hiding in one of the Village cottages.

No one is here, I say.

Why are you shaking then? he pushes, aggressive but not nasty.

Because all these guns are pointed at my home, I say, and gesture with my eyes not with my arms, a lesson from Know Your Rights.

I open the door and re-enter, and back inside JT grabs me and hugs me and together we try to breathe.

Minutes pass, who knows how many, but we hear the police again. They are speaking right outside our window and, it seems, as loudly as possible. I recognise the voice of the Latino officer who had been the one to address me.

I think she's afraid because someone is inside. Like influencing her, he says. I inhale deeply.

They are inventing a reason to come in even though they don't have a warrant, I say to JT, who agrees.

The banging on my front door begins again, and this time we are told that we are to come out.

JT and I look at one another and we look at his tiny six-year-old girl. I wonder, is this how it ends for her, for us? I don't say this, of course. What we do say to one another is that we need to get out of this alive.

August 2015: Police on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, during demonstrations the night after an 18-year-old black man, Tyrone Harris, was shot and wounded by police during protests marking the first anniversary of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

August 2015: Police on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, during demonstrations the night after an 18-year-old black man, Tyrone Harris, was shot and wounded by police during protests marking the first anniversary of the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown.

Photo: New York Times

As protective as he is of me - JT will become one of the first Black Lives Matter organisers - I know his dark-skinned, 193-centimetre, 90-plus-kilos frame will present as an opportunity, an excuse for violence.

We decide that JT and Nia Imani exiting first followed by me is the safest way to leave. We pray that they will not harm a father and daughter but we know that if at any moment JT is alone, they will kill him.

Immediately, the police surround the three of us, who are not armed and who are dressed like three people who were sitting in their house and planning out their day.

Ten, maybe a dozen, cops force us at gunpoint - and by we, I mean also six-year-old Nia Imani - into the courtyard in front of our cottage while the others swarm past us and enter my home like angry hornets. They are in my home for hours.

Later when I hear others dismissing our protest for equity by saying All Lives Matter or Blue Lives Matter, I will wonder how many white Americans are dragged out of their beds in the middle of the night because they might fit a vague description offered up by God knows who. How many skinny, short, blond men were rounded up when Dylann Roof massacred people in prayer? How many gawky white teens were stopped and frisked after Columbine or any of the mass shootings that have occurred in this nation, the immeasurably wide margin of them by young, white men.

August 2017: After gridiron footballer Colin Kaepernick begins protesting the slaying of black youth by police, a counter-protest outside the National Football League's headquarters in Park Avenue, Manhattan, condemns "Colin the Commie" and displays the Israeli flag and the "Thin Blue Line" flag in support of police.

August 2017: After gridiron footballer Colin Kaepernick begins protesting the slaying of black youth by police, a counter-protest outside the National Football League's headquarters in Park Avenue, Manhattan, condemns "Colin the Commie" and displays the Israeli flag and the "Thin Blue Line" flag in support of police.

Photo: New York Times

Try to imagine this with me: You are a graduate student whose work is in Chinese medicine. Your dream is to be a healer.

And maybe while you are sleeping in your wife's bed, which is in a cottage that is part of a cooperative village where artists live and children come for free painting classes, maybe you are dreaming that you are saving a life, and in the midst of that dreaming, you are yanked out of bed by armed men dressed in riot gear, who possess no warrant, who have snuck into your bedroom through an unlocked back door. Their only reasoning is that you "fit the description".

Who exactly gave that description? What other proof did they have? How did they know you were even sleeping in that bed, since the cottage is not in your name but your wife's, how is this different from tactics used by the SS, the KGB, the Tontons Macoutes? And who is the real criminal, the real terrorist, and how will they be held accountable?

To this day, the stench of these questions linger.

This is an edited extract from the book When They Call You a Terrorist, published by Allen & Unwin in Australia.

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