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How cell phones changed the social justice movement
05:22 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Peniel E. Joseph is the Barbara Jordan Chair in ethics and political values and the founding director of the Center for the Study of Race and Democracy at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, where he is also a professor of history. He is the author of “Stokely: A Life” and “The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.” The views expressed here are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.

CNN  — 

Ten years on and Trayvon Martin remains a tragic icon. His killing on February 26, 2012, was a hinge moment in American history, a turning point that inspired a decade of racial and political awakenings that continue to shape the nation’s social and political landscape.

In Black communities across the nation, his surname is often absent. Simply saying “Trayvon” is enough to elicit a knowing nod of recognition, trauma, grief and sadness.

Peniel Joseph

In the time since his death, I have often been reminded of this grief in conversation with a student, friend or family member. The word “Trayvon” in Black communities has become a one-word poem that evokes a bittersweet kinship around both the painful, premature loss of another Black life and the hope in the collective response designed to ensure that his life matters still.

Martin was just a sweet-faced Black teenager visiting his daddy in Florida on one of the last days of Black History Month when George Zimmerman, a one-man self-appointed neighborhood security guard armed with a gun, shot him. The claim of self-defense, using Florida’s “stand your ground” law that allows citizens to deploy lethal violence in every instance they feel their lives threatened – even if and when they provoked the events that led them to feel their lives were in danger – ended with Zimmerman’s acquittal.

As so many in our communities look back on a decade of saying “Trayvon,” we are also feeling his presence in significant moments unfolding in the present day. President Joe Biden’s historic nomination of DC federal appellate Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to be the first Black woman on the Supreme Court, also reminds us of how moments of glorious racial progress can exist alongside the continued perpetuation of racial trauma. After all, a little over eight months after Trayvon’s death, Barack Obama was re-elected.

On Tuesday, three White men convicted for the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia were also convicted on federal hate crimes charges. On Thursday, three former Minneapolis police officers were found guilty of depriving George Floyd of his civil rights by showing deliberate indifference to his medical needs as their former colleague Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd for nearly 10 minutes, ultimately killing him.

“This is just accountability, but it can never be justice because I can never get George back,” Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, said Thursday. He’s right. And that feeling of being alienated from justice forever is exactly what sparked so many of us when Trayvon Martin was killed. It’s why that moment triggered action.

His death occurred in what we might retrospectively see as a time of racial political limbo. America’s first Black president, Barack Obama, managed a high wire political act during these years; his very presence a symbol of astonishing racial progress just as surely as Martin’s death remained a testament to how much further the nation still needed to go. Less than a month after it happened, Obama stepped into the fray at a White House press conference at the Rose Garden.

By this time Martin’s death had prompted national news stories, protests and comparisons to Emmett Till, the Black 14-year-old from Chicago murdered by racial terrorists in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly speaking rudely to a White woman. “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” said Obama at one point.

Obama’s words produced controversy among some critics who interpreted the president’s efforts to express empathy for the lost life of a young Black boy as placing the considerable weight of his office on the scales of justice. They needn’t have worried. It took a jury a little more than two days to acquit Zimmerman in July 2013.

Amid the shock, anger and desperation that followed, Alicia Garza, then a 32-year-old activist based in Oakland, California, penned a Facebook post that pointedly juxtaposed the outpouring of grief over Martin’s death with the celebrations witnessed in some quarters over Zimmerman’s freedom. “Our lives matter,” she wrote. Patrisse Cullors, a friend of Garza’s and an activist based out of Los Angeles, read the post and transformed those three words into #BlackLivesMatter.

Opal Tometi, a Brooklyn-based immigration activist who also knew Garza, rounded out the trio of Black women activists who would help to popularize, promote, and organize around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. The movement would take off the next summer in the aftermath of the 2014 police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri – and would surge again, this time around the world, after Derek Chauvin’s murder of George Floyd in 2020.

In that sense, it’s clear how Martin’s death was a beginning. But it was also an ending. The same summer Zimmerman was acquitted, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case to outlaw Sections 5 and 4(b) of the Voting Rights Act, a decision that touched off waves of legislation restricting voting rights, fundamentally transforming the landscape of American politics with suppression and gerrymandering tactics.

The end of the Voting Rights Act, as previously constituted from 1965-2013, concluded an era of (conflicted) national consensus on racial justice in American history. Members of the Black Lives Matter movement saw this coming in a way. They anticipated the old rules – ones forged in the crucible of civil rights demonstrations and the protests of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., the late Rep. John Lewis, and others – no longer applied in the same way. The loss of bipartisan support for the fundamental right to vote reflected, in transparent legal and legislative strokes, the absence of justice for Black people that BLM activists decried at the grassroots level.

Trayvon Martin died in a country that would re-elect Barack Obama but proved unable to hold anyone accountable for the lost life of a Black teenager in Florida visiting his father. Obama’s attempt, both before the Zimmerman acquittal and after, to proclaim that Martin represented a kind of fictional kin to him and by virtue of this, not only the current occupant of the White House but also the entire American family, strained to reconcile the best parts of the nation’s history with its most grotesque.

And in the decade since, the failure of accountability – and the somber realization that even accountability will never feel like true justice – has only intensified. In 2012 who could have imagined the election of President Donald Trump, the proliferating threat of White supremacist and White nationalist groups, and the January 6, 2021 insurrection at the nation’s capital? Yet, if we are honest with ourselves, the seeds to our current toxic era of polarization and political disinformation can be found in the political ferment of a decade ago, when the death of an innocent Black teenager in Florida became a touchstone for two alternate, conflicting and antagonistic visions of America.

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    Proponents of what might be called the Stand Your Ground Generation offered no empathy for Martin, his grieving parents or the communities across the nation who viewed his loss as a tragic reminder of their own disposability.

    The Trayvon Martin Generation interpreted these same events much differently. Trayvon became, for a new generation of multiracial activists, the canary in the coal mine. What good was having a Black president, they pondered, if electing one could not achieve justice for the least of these? This generation argued and grappled with their elders and with White-led institutions, insisting all Black lives should matter and that, in the process of guaranteeing this, we could finally achieve the country America always dreamed (and in their estimation bragged and lied) about being.

    The recent verdicts against police accused of killing Black people exemplify one kind of hard-won progress since the death of Trayvon Martin, as does the elevation of previously marginalized Black voices to the upper echelons of American power. Racial progress continues its unsteady, sometimes vertiginous, movement alongside of the politics of backlash and intolerance. ‘

    But none of this – the political and racial reckoning of 2020 and the backlash against this awakening –would have been possible without Trayvon Martin, who deserved so much more. He will always be a cherished symbol of a history that we cannot, no matter how hard we try, run away from. It’s been 10 years, but we still must confront it together.