When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was gunned down three years ago this week in Sanford, Florida, his tragic death breathed life into a dormant civil rights movement.
While many associate the Blacks Lives Matter movement most closely with the fatal shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in many ways it was Martin’s death that first inspired a new generation of activists to take to the streets and protest against a system they felt held the lives of African Americans in small regard and was in desperate need of legislative change.
“Trayvon Martin will be remembered as someone who died too soon, one of the first martyrs of our generation,” said Phillip Agnew, the 29-year-old executive director of the Dream Defenders, a Florida-based collective action group.
“He was murdered just for existing,” Agnew said. “His murder brought racism and the culture of hatred towards black bodies in our society from an invisible place to a very visible place, and he’ll never be forgotten because of that.”
But three years on, with the movement’s young leaders remaining resolute, few – including, apparently, the president of the United States – believe that enough has changed or that much justice – if any – has been served.
On Tuesday, just two days before the anniversary of Martin’s death, the US Justice Department announced there was “insufficient evidence” to charge George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch captain who shot Trayvon, in a federal civil rights investigation.
Outgoing attorney general Eric Holder, in a series of exit interviews on Thursday, expressed his own frustration: “We do need to change the law. I do think the standard is too high,” the nation’s top law enforcement officer told NBC News . “There needs to be a change with regard to the standard of proof.”
Holder told Politico there should be “serious consideration” to lowering the bar for such investigations. There are many ongoing – just like the protests led by people with increasingly lower expectations of the government but insistently high hopes for a grassroots movement they say is just getting started.
“Sadly, I wish I could say I was surprised,” Ashley Yates of Millennial Activists United said of the Martin investigation. “This is yet another example of how the American justice system, as it stands, does not work for black people.”
Calls for the implementation of a so-called Trayvon’s Law, drafted by the historic National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and supported by the thousands of young protesters, have also fallen flat in states around the country.
The draft law called for an end to racial profiling, a repeal of so-called “stand-your-ground” laws, which contributed to Zimmerman’s self-defense claims, and an end to the “school-to-prison pipeline” by rolling back on zero-tolerance disciplinary proceedings in education.
The Justice Department decision – based on the high threshold for federal charges – has not just dealt a blow to Martin’s family, who have maintained their fight for justice for going on 1,100 days. So have the families of many other young people. But coupled with the lack of progress on other reforms both locally and nationally, the end of the federal investigation into Martin’s death has raised an occasion for questions about whether the ongoing movement will be able to achieve its goals, and if it does, what the next steps might be.
Dream Defenders formed in the wake of the Martin killing. Agnew, then a pharmaceutical salesman, organised a small march of around 50 people from Daytona Beach to Sanford, the city where Martin was killed. Now the group is widely credited with bringing activism surrounding the case into the national spotlight. Agnew himself was one of seven young leaders to meet with Barack Obama as the president’s policing task force set to work. (Its first set of recommendations is expected on Monday.)
Agnew’s organisation boast chapters in seven cities around the state. It staged the largest sit-in in Florida’s history, a 31-day protest outside Florida governor Rick Scott’s office in July 2013 after Zimmerman’s acquittal and sent a representative to the United Nations calling for an overhaul of “stand your ground”.
Yet calls for legislative change in Florida have failed and stand-your-ground laws have been expanded . At least 22 US states still have stand-your-ground laws on their books, according to a report released late last year by Everytown for Gun Safety .
For Agnew, who is resolute that this week’s justice-department decision will not signal an end of organising around Martin’s case, the legislative setbacks are emblematic of a wider political gulf.
“Now we will decide what justice looks like,” he says, “It will no longer be up to prosecutors, district attorneys, the DOJ, institutions and people that specialize in [political] theatre nor have any regard for love and justice to decide what ‘Justice for Trayvon’ means.
“The center of the matter now, is that we have lost faith in these institutions that readily serve false hopes and promises.”
But just what that new form of justice might look like – with demands often as unclear as their responses – remains vastly unclear.
“Unfortunately, this movement is fighting for a lot of the rights our elders thought they had secured during the wins arising from the civil rights movement,” said Yates, who also met with Obama at the White House late last year. “But we have sadly seen … the wins obtained through Brown v Board, the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act have been circumvented by failing school systems, the school to prison pipeline, red-lining, gentrification, voter ID laws.”
The anger that seethed outside the Florida courthouse when a jury acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder on the hot summer’s day in July 2013 reverberated a year and a half later on the streets of Ferguson when a grand jury declined to charge a white officer over the shooting death of Brown, and just days later on Staten Island, where a grand jury there decided to bring no charges against a New York police officer for the chokehold death of Eric Garner.
Black Lives Matter emerged as the most cohesive movement, with membership across the country and sweeping demands – if not exactly an organisational structure as familiar as establishment civil-rights groups. Many smaller groups and coalitions also formed in the wake of the 2014 police killings, but have failed, at least so far, to bring about major changes to local and federal law.
Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace and a member of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, remains optimistic about institutional and legislative change. He cited the long history of the civil rights movement as evidence that such cultural shifts take time.
“We like to romanticize the civil rights movement, but it took over a decade to really manifest itself to where the kind of changes we needed to see happen actually happened,” McPhearson said. “You’re not going to see a movement succeed in seven months or a year.”
The demands of the Don’t Shoot Coalition, which was formed in the aftermath of Brown’s death, are local and threefold: end racial profiling in the St Louis metro area, bring in better tools to hold law enforcement officers accountable, and build police departments that reflect the communities they serve.
McPhearson said he was not discouraged by the slow and piecemeal progress, legislatively or otherwise, that’s been made in the years since Martin’s death.
“The struggle is long,” he said. “And post-civil rights movement, this is clearly the most activity that you’ve seen from a large swath of the black community, taking interest and actually being very active in the streets and demanding changes. I really don’t think that that’s going to go away.
“I’m not expecting there to be a savior,” McPhearson said. “Change has to come from us.”
A single gunshot wound to the chest meant Martin would never realize his college dreams.
The teenager was walking back from a convenience store in Sanford, where he had gone to buy a packet of Skittles and a can of iced tea.
Zimmerman, who saw Martin walking through his neighborhood in a now infamous grey hoodie, called 911 and associated the innocent 17-year-old with a recent spate of crime in the gated community he patrolled. He pursued him against the advice of officers who picked up the emergency call and shot him dead from near point-blank range after an altercation.
“He took a life, carelessly and recklessly, and he shouldn’t deserve to have his entire life walking around on the street free,” Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, told the Associated Press on Wednesday . “I just believe that he should be held accountable for what he’s done.”
On Thursday, Obama once again made reference to the case , as Fulton and Trayvon’s father, Tracy, were received at the White House for a Black History Month event.
“Showing all of our kids – all of them, every single day – that their lives matter, that’s part of our task,” Obama said. “Where we are today didn’t come easy. It came through thick and thin.”
Following Zimmerman’s acquittal, Obama unexpectedly compared the 17-year-old to himself at the same age. “Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” he said. The president hasn’t said anything quite so strident on the killing of young black men since.
Three years later, the end of the federal investigation into Zimmerman will probably be the final formal attempt for a conviction. Martin’s parents, through their civil-rights attorney Benjamin Crump, told the Guardian they had no plans to launch a civil claim. Fulton said she would prefer to channel her grief into the foundation she established in her son’s honor. The Trayvon Martin Foundation helps support and advocate for families who have lost children to violence.
Crump himself has gone on to represent the families of Brown and Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old boy shot dead by Cleveland police, whose case has also been taken up by the Black Lives Matter movement.
And though change will certainly be hard-fought, the protesters’ regular marches, “die-ins” and events continue – and their demands are being heard. Earlier this week, the head of the nation’s largest police force, the New York police commissioner, Bill Bratton, told an audience during a Black History Month event that “many of the worst parts of black history would have been impossible without police, too.”
Just days earlier, the director of the FBI, James Comey, acknowledged in a major speech on race and law enforcement that Americans must accept that racism is the country’s “cultural inheritance” and that police officers must “get out of their cars” to overcome deep mistrust between minority communities and officers. During the address, Comey also called for better federal data collection, admitting that he couldn’t say with certainty how many Americans are shot by police each year.
A federal investigation into Brown’s death at the hands of white police officer Darren Wilson is ongoing but news reports indicate the case will result in no prosecution . The Justice Department has also opened an investigation into Garner’s death at the hands of white police officer Daniel Pantaleo.
As Agnew, the Florida activist, said: “This country is not ready to acknowledge that George Zimmerman may have murdered Trayvon Martin and that this country made it possible.”
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