Four years ago to the date, Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by George Zimmerman. For some in the nation, Zimmerman was an innocent man who found himself in an unfortunate situation that required his self-defense. For others in the nation, Zimmerman is a complex representation of anti-blackness, a vigilante, and a guilty man walking.
Martin’s case caught the attention of the nation in a way that many other cases of brutality towards black bodies did not, at least not at the time. The country seemed to take sides between those who believed Zimmerman feared for his life and had to “stand his ground,” as Florida law permitted, and those who saw the death of the 17-year-old boy as a reminder that America fears black bodies, especially black boys. A fear, that coupled with racist institutions and systems and people, can and has resulted in death.
In 2013, Zimmerman was found “not guilty,” by a jury that many believe did not do their duty in obtaining justice. Although Zimmerman would technically be a free man, one wonders how much freedom in body and mind and spirit he had then, and how much he has now. Does he not look over his shoulder and wonder what lurks in the shadows? Does his mind not replay the events of February 26, 2012 daily? Free, according to the law, one wonders if he is not in an intangible prison anyway.
Martin however, to those who saw his death as an injustice and a familiar one at that, would become a martyr for the cause of justice for black Americans. His death would be the catalyst to the cry that has become one of the most important movements of our time and a new civil rights cause: Black Lives Matter.
Black Lives Matter has changed the American conscience. Not only because of Martin’s death, and later Mike Brown’s, and Eric Garner’s, and Sandra Bland’s, and Walter Scott’s, and all the names of those who we have come to know because of the injustice surrounding their death. Black Lives Matter has shown the country a mirror of what it sometimes means to be black in America, and the reflection has been unsightly. Some of the country has gone to work, and some of the country has continued to deny what others see so vividly. And yet still, much of the country continues, their lives uninterrupted.
But for those of us whose lives were interrupted, Martin’s death changed the way we saw ourselves. Me, especially.
A black, African girl in the United States who had spent almost five years living here, it was an awakening of sorts. While I thought I was at the very least aware of all of America’s faces – good and bad – this one especially gave me a pause like none had before. I studied it, literally. It consumed me, figuratively. And most importantly, altogether, a realization dawned on me: That to be black in America – it doesn’t matter what kind of black one is, in all the ways one can indeed be black – your reality is that you can find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time, and your skin color could at the very worst, result in a premature death.
To those who do not understand, who cannot understand, these ideas are dramatic; theatrical. But to those who cannot help but understand, this notion is quite real.
America has changed since Martin’s death in ways that it otherwise might not have. The invigoration of a black consciousness in a new era, and one that is tied to the digital age we enjoy. A renewed fear among some in the country who believe that Black Lives Matter threatens white people, rather than threatens whiteness and its supremacy. The emergence of new activists in communities of color that seek change, and the emergence of new racialized political rhetoric that is based on ignorance, fairy tales, and fear.
Yes, things have changed. America has changed. But perhaps not fast enough, and in many ways, many things have also stayed the same.
When I think of four years ago and all that has subsequently occurred, I cannot help but wonder, perhaps even wish, that none of these events should have come to pass at all. Not because I do not enjoy the consciousness or the knowledge or the vocations I have found in these societal matters – I hope I would have found them anyway. But because I would rather Martin be alive, than be a martyr.