The most unlikely people make history. Trayvon Martin was a 17-year-old boy man in a hoodie, a beloved son and imperfect in the way of many teenagers. He could not possibly have known as he wandered through a modest Sanford, Fla., gated community on his way home from a convenience store one February night, Skittles in hand, that he was not only about to violently lose his life, but that he would enter American racial annals as a potent symbol of injustice and the power of protest.
His parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, likewise could not possibly have envisioned what the past six weeks would demand of them. They had the challenge of coping with grief and deep frustration over the baffling circumstances of their son’s death. As well, they were suddenly catapulted onto the public stage, where their dignity, determination and composure probably did more than anything else to bring about the first step toward justice for their late son.
This week, two moving press conferences marked a definitive turning point in Trayvon’s saga, which has sparked a fierce civil-rights style protest movement that involved everyone from the Miami Heat NBA basketball team to students at Montreal’s McGill University demanding justice and wearing hooded sweatshirts in solidarity with the teenager, whom some said looked “suspicious” in a garment that even I wear regularly.
The case prompted a searing look at Florida’s bizarrely accommodating Stand Your Ground self-defense law, which apparently allows you to stay in place and use deadly force if you fear for your life, instead of retreating (if you can) to safety. The case also focused fierce attention worldwide on the deficiencies of justice in what was supposed to be – but never was and probably never will be – the idealistic post-racial America of Barack Obama.
When Florida special prosecutor Angela B. Corey stepped to the microphone to announce that the state was finally laying a second-degree murder charge against George Zimmerman, a 28-year old neighbourhood watch captain of part Hispanic background responsible for Trayvon’s shooting death, she used some potent phrases – “the never-ending search for the truth,” and “a quest to always do the right thing for the right reasons.”
But her words couldn’t disguise what had been a lamentable lapse in the American justice system: A young unarmed man with no criminal record had been killed, and another man whose actions and gun had resulted in the teenager’s death had not been charged for more than six weeks. Still, Ms. Corey also talked softly about Trayvon’s “sweet” parents, and how she had not promised them anything but had “prayed with them” for a just outcome. This is America. Call it Prayer and Prejudice.
Now the case will likely go to court, and the prosecutors, who in the surprised words of CNN’s legal analyst Jeff Toobin “threw the book” at Mr. Zimmerman, will have to painstakingly prove a very difficult case. They will have to prove that a possibly misguided, overzealous Mr. Zimmerman, in a “depraved mind,” followed, shot and killed Trayvon because he just didn’t like the look of him in his neighbourhood. If convicted, Mr. Zimmerman could face life imprisonment. Yet even Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, was musing yesterday on the Today show that it might have been an “accident.”
That wasn't her initial reaction at a press conference after the charges were laid and Mr. Zimmerman was in custody. Ms. Fulton, her low voice quavering, said, “we just wanted an arrest. And we got it. And I say, thank you, thank you Lord, thank you Jesus.”
She wanted, she added, to say “thank you from my heart to your heart.” And a heart, she pointed out “has no colour.”
Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, spoke of “compassion,” of “holding hands, white, black, Hispanic, Latino” – to “march and march and march until the right thing is done.”
What remarkable parents. And what remarkable language they used. Words of gratitude, peace and hope.
They had had to contend with the kind of nullification of their son’s death that would be unthinkable in most democratic countries. You don’t need to consider Mr. Zimmerman guilty to be outraged that a police chief would consider, in the shooting death of an unarmed teen, closing the case summarily without a charge and a trial. Any human life deserves more investigation than that. Ending a life as tender and unformed as Trayvon Martin’s was an act that cried out for accountability.
There has been belief that Mr. Zimmerman, hunted and haunted these past weeks, an equally unfair bounty put on his head by a new and not necessarily very helpful Black Panther party, cannot get a fair trial in Florida. But the prosecutor’s well-thought-out decision to lay this very serious charge has not only tamped down the rage, but probably made it easier to treat Mr. Zimmerman fairly.
There must have been a sigh of relief in Barack Obama’s White House. Even he had entered the fray, saying that if he’d had a son, “he would have looked like Trayvon.” That was an assertive moment for a President who has, perhaps, been too diffident in office about America’s racial problems.
Those two press conferences, evoking justice, prayer and the promise of a thorough trial, took the Trayvon Martin case off a dangerous public trajectory and put it where it has always belonged: in the American justice system, in a court of law.
There was no other way for any of the surviving principals – including George Zimmerman – to get on with their lives. Alas for Trayvon Martin, he doesn't have that privilege. His undeserved fate was to make history.