COMPILED FROM WIRE
AND STAFF REPORTS
SANFORD – In 2012, Francis Oliver took to the streets of Sanford with more than 8,000 other people at a rally demanding the arrest of the man who killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black 17-year-old.
Martin was gunned down on a rainy night by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator in a gated community in Sanford. Feb. 26 was the fifth anniversary of the tragic homicide.
Martin was visiting his father and was walking back from the store when, despite requests by local police not to do so, Zimmerman began following Martin because he appeared “suspicious.” The two ended up in a physical confrontation, and the unarmed Martin was shot in the chest and killed.
Black firm retained
A few days after the shooting, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s father and mother, retained the Tallahassee-based law firm of Parks and Crump as the family’s attorneys. They went on national television with their story: An unarmed Black high school kid who was doing nothing unlawful was fatally shot, and Sanford police wouldn’t arrest the light-skinned Hispanic man who did it.
Zimmerman went into hiding, but cooperated with police. He told them that he shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense after the Miami Gardens teenager punched him, knocked him to the ground then climbed on top and begun hammering his head against a sidewalk.
Photos showed him with a swollen nose and blood coming from the back of his head.
Story picked up
Attorney Benjamin Crump was concerned that Trayvon’s killing was not getting national attention. He called Florida Courier Publisher Charles W. Cherry II – who was in West Africa at the time – to ask for coverage in the state’s largest Black media outlet.
Eighteen days after Trayvon was shot to death, the Florida Courier wrote the first of what was to be many front-page stories on Trayvon’s death and the aftermath.
Soon thereafter, Crump, the Rev. Al Sharpton and former New York Gov. David Patterson participated in an exclusive one-hour telephone conference call with Black journalist George Curry and more than three dozen publishers from the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA), the trade group of Black-owned newspapers in America.
Trayvon’s death was then widely publicized in Black-owned media and on Black Twitter before going ‘mainstream.’
According to the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, for two weeks, when the people it polled were asked to name the most important story in the news, the No. 1 answer was the Trayvon Martin shooting.
After three weeks of mobilizing on social media; more mass rallies that were organized locally, but were attracting protesters from multiple states; keeping the story alive in Black newspapers and African-American radio – mounting pressure forced Sanford officials to release the 911 tapes.
Those tapes – which show that Zimmerman disobeyed the 911 dispatcher’s directive that he not follow Trayvon – along with the decision not to arrest Zimmerman, eventually forced Police Chief Bill Lee to step down as police chief. Lee said at the time that there wasn’t enough evidence to justify an arrest, but that his investigators were still working the case.
Ese Ighedosa, 29, now an attorney for the NFL, was a protester and a student at the Florida A&M University College of Law in Orlando at the time of the shooting. She was at Sanford City Hall with Martin’s parents the night city officials played the 911 call that captured cries for help – and then a shot.
“This was really the resurgence of the civil rights movement,” Ighedosa said.
Skittles, the type of candy Martin had in his pocket when he was shot dead, became one of the symbols of a wide-ranging protest movement calling for justice in the tragic shooting.
When Zimmerman shot Martin, Barack Obama had been in the White House for three years and, “Many Americans … felt that we were in a post-racial era,” said Sharpton, who came to Sanford twice in March 2012 to participate in rallies calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.
Sharpton got involved, he said, because “I realized how vulnerable we were, that this guy wasn’t even a policeman, and he could just kill this kid and not even be arrested. … That’s what outraged me.”
Sharpton said he doesn’t think young Black men are better off now than they were when Martin was shot, but there is one big change: The movement led to accountability. He said people now demand answers when police kill young Black men, and they’re willing to take to the streets in protest.
“The demonstrations, the rallies that many of us came and started led into what later happened two years later around Ferguson (Mo.), around Eric Garner; but it started, the seeds of that started in Trayvon Martin, so Trayvon Martin energized a renewal of civil rights activism in the 21st century like Emmett Till energized it in the 20th century,” Sharpton said.
On March 19, 2012, Ighedosa, the NFL lawyer, and about 75 other protesters marched outside the Seminole County Criminal courthouse. They insisted upon – and got – a sit-down meeting with the county’s lead prosecutor.
The shooting and protests surrounding it were “life-changing. … That showed me how powerful my voice is and also what my responsibility is to speak out.”
On March 22, 2012, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor – Angela Corey of Jacksonville – and three weeks later she charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder.
Zimmerman hired Orlando lawyer Mark O’Mara to defend him. The experience changed his life, O’Mara said. He got a national reputation, and CNN hired him as a legal expert, a contract now in its fourth year.
Cooked for parents
When Zimmerman went on trial in 2013, Francis Oliver cooked meals for Trayvon’s parents and let them take naps at her home.
“Black Lives Matter was not created before Trayvon Martin,” Oliver said. “Black Lives Matter was created after Trayvon Martin.”
Specifically, the phrase was coined on July 13, 2013, the day a Seminole County jury acquitted Zimmerman. The verdict unleashed a firestorm of public protest, not just in Sanford, but in major cities across the United States and beyond: in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and London.
Zimmerman, 34, would not comment to the Orlando Sentinel about the anniversary of Martin’s death. He was also cleared of federal civil rights charges following a grand jury investigation.
Curtis Hierro, 29 of Orlando, took part in a 31-day sit-in at the state Capitol in Tallahassee shortly after Zimmerman’s acquittal.
“I see the murder of Trayvon Martin as an awful moment that I think stirred many folks to action,” he said.
He and other protesters were calling for the repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which provides immunity to anyone who uses deadly force as long as they have a reasonable fear of imminent death or great bodily injury.
Their efforts failed. This year a measure is moving through both houses of the Legislature that would strengthen the law and make it harder for prosecutors to win Stand Your Ground hearings.
Government data indicates that in Central Florida, life has improved for young Black men in some ways but gotten worse in others since Martin was killed.
Their unemployment rate in Orange County is down 38 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the rate at which they graduate from high school is up sharply in Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Lake, Volusia and Brevard counties, as it is for all students, according to the Florida Department of Education.
The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity had no unemployment numbers for Black men ages 15 to 25 in Seminole County in those years. But the poverty rate for Black males, ages 15 to 25, is 3 percent higher in those same six counties, the census bureau reported.
The number of Black males ages 15 to 25 who are the victims of homicide in Central Florida has seesawed since 2012, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. That year, Martin was one of 31. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, the number was 35.
Rene Stutzman and Gal Tziperman Lotan of the Orlando Sentinel / TNS contributed to this report.