(NEW YORK) — It was five years ago this month that Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American 17-year-old from Miami Gardens, Florida, was shot and killed by neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman.
Since his death, Trayvon’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin have been at the front of the charge to stem the wave of gun violence in the United States – a role they never expected to take on before their son was killed.
Across the country, an average of 309 people are shot every day, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Zimmerman’s subsequent trial and acquittal transfixed the nation and sparked the rallying cry now called “Black Lives Matter.” Many equate Trayvon’s death as the Emmett Till case for a new generation of activists. Till was a 14-year-old African American from Chicago when he was killed in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
“I think that Trayvon certainly re-energized a civil rights movement in this country,” Tracy Martin said. “This was a child who lost his life to a senseless act of violence. Gun violence. To someone who wanted to be a vigilante. And so it came to a point where people were just saying ‘enough is enough.’”
Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin recently penned a powerful memoir called Rest in Power: The Enduring Life of Trayvon Martin, a look back at the son they raised and the tragic event that would change their lives.
Trayvon would have been 22 years old this month. His mother said she has her “good days and bad days” when she thinks about him.
“I still think about him and cry. I also think about him and smile too,” she said. “If he was still with us, he would be graduating from college this year.”
His father described him as “fun, energetic” and an “innovator.”
“He was very outgoing. ‘Outdoorsman’ I used to call him,” Martin said. “He loved doing things outdoors, and so just to have his life cut short and taken away from him and not to see him continue to do the things that he liked, it was very devastating.”
Six weeks passed before Zimmerman was arrested for Trayvon’s death. He argued he acted in self-defense, citing Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows citizens to use deadly force if they feel threatened.
The case divided the nation, with many Americans asking, “What if Zimmerman had been black?” Celebrities and citizens alike launched protests and took a stand. The clinched fist that had been a symbol of solidarity during the Civil Rights Movement in 1960s was now the hoodie, like the one Trayvon was wearing the night he was killed.
The message eventually made its way to the White House, and President Obama delivered a personal statement about the case, saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
“Trayvon was dead on the ground at 17, unarmed, and he was given a drug and alcohol test and background check,” Fulton said. “But the person who has shot and killed him, who was still holding the gun … he went home. My son went to the medical examiners and this person went and got in his bed like as if nothing happened.”
Fulton and Martin painted a painful picture of the confusion and frustration that immediately followed their son’s death.
“When I returned to the residence that night, the crime scene tape had been taken down,” Martin said. “There was no sign of any altercations on the scene. And so … it still isn’t clear to me.”
They said they weren’t initially given access to their son’s body and he was initially listed as “John Doe.”
“We had to fight just to get Trayvon’s body back so that we can have the body shipped home,” Fulton said. “We didn’t ask for anything that any other parents wouldn’t have asked for a 17-year-old.”
Once the Zimmerman trial was underway a year later, Trayvon’s parents had to grapple with another difficult challenge – facing the man who killed their son in court.
Zimmerman was eventually found not guilty of all charges, which would mark the beginning of Martin’s and Fulton’s new life as activists.
They founded the Trayvon Martin Foundation at Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens. Fulton spoke at the Democratic National Convention last summer and campaigned heavily for Hillary Clinton’s presidential run. Fulton said she’s even thinking of running for office herself.
“Five years ago … I would not have imagined this,” she said. “But sometimes your life, you are dealt cards and you need to make sure that you are playing the hand right.”
When it comes to the current president, Fulton said, “We don’t know what to expect from President Trump.”
“We don’t know what his plans are for gun violence,” she continued. “We don’t know what his plans are for [the] African-American community.”
This past weekend, Fulton and Martin participated in a “remembrance march” that commemorated the life and death of their son. Just hours before, in that same neighborhood, three teens were shot on their way home from school in a drive-by shooting. All three are expected to make full recoveries.
“It’s something we need to deal with as citizens,” Martin said. “We just have to work at it piece by piece by piece.”
Although they are energized by Trayvon becoming the face of a movement, in many ways it is a tremendous burden. Fulton said she struggles because she would much prefer to have her son at home and thriving.
“I would much rather prefer that life to the life that I have now,” she said. “But I know … it’s not just about Trayvon Martin. It’s about so many other Trayvon Martins. It’s about our young ladies being shot and killed. It’s about our teenagers being shot and killed. Men being shot and killed.”
She went on, “It’s so much bigger than Trayvon that we didn’t really understand initially. But I think we kind of get it now that it’s very important that we continue this fight.”
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