When attorney Benjamin Crump first got a call from a grieving father whose son had been murdered, Crump refused to take the case. “You’ve got a person who has the proverbial smoking gun in his hand, with an unarmed dead teenager on the ground,” he told the man. “You don’t need me on this case.” Crump’s certainty echoes what most of us believe, or would like to believe, about the way the American justice system works: the police had the murder weapon, the suspect had admitted to the crime, and the shooting had even been captured on a 911 call: an open and shut case of murder, guilty as charged.
But, as Tracy Martin writes in his memoir Rest in Power, co-written with his ex-wife Sybrina Fulton, about the killing of their son, Trayvon, the case would blow apart everything we like to think about race and justice in our country.
In alternating chapters, Martin and Fulton detail the days, then weeks, then finally years they spent pursuing justice for their son. They open the book with the moment they heard the news – Trayvon, an African American who had turned seventeen a few weeks before, had been walking to his father’s girlfriend’s home in a Sanford, Florida townhouse complex with a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles in his pocket when a neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman stopped him, pursued him, and finally shot him in the heart. Because Florida has a law called Stand Your Ground, Zimmerman was not arrested for the crime, and Martin and Fulton were offered little more than condolence for their loss, and the expectation they go about their lives as quietly as possible.
That didn’t happen. When Martin called Crump again and explained that there still hadn’t been an arrest, Crump apologized, agreed to take the case, and helped Martin get his story in the press. Martin, a truck driver unaccustomed to public speaking, and Fulton, a government worker so undone by grief she could barely get out of bed, began a publicity onslaught, traveling around the country, appearing on every TV show that would have them, speaking to every reporter who would listen.
Their message: their son had not been shot in self-defense, as Zimmerman claimed, but in cold blood, because of the color of his skin.
Their demands: the release of the 911 calls recording the shooting, and the arrest of Zimmerman.
Activists took up Trayvon’s cause, holding rallies, marches, and starting online petitions calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. President Obama spoke about the case, one of the first times he’d addressed race directly since his re-election, saying “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” With the entire country watching and demanding action, it still took the Sanford police department forty-five days to issue a warrant for Zimmerman.
Sanford was a town historically beset by racial strife: Jackie Robinson was refused a hotel room and had to be escorted out of the dugout when he came to the city to play baseball in 1946, and in the 1950s white politicians used gerrymandering and redistricting to give white citizens the majority vote, even though they were a demographic minority. In the 1960s, black students were arrested when they tried to integrate an all-white party at the Civic Center, and the state of Florida didn’t integrate schools for another decade.
Although progress had been made since then, the impending trial of Zimmerman set old tensions aflame, and Martin and Fulton received death threats. As Martin writes, “Once you throw race into the equation, mothers in the white community that could identify with Sybrina’s pain of losing a child are left to choose: am I loyal to my motherhood or am I loyal to my race?” As Obama said in his address, Trayvon’s death proved we are far from the postracial society we’d like to think we’ve become.
The second half of Rest in Power details the trial, and it is a frustrating, if eye-opening, description of the criminal justice system. The defense attorney for Zimmerman opened with a knock-knock joke, then repeatedly claimed that, rather than being defenseless, Trayvon was armed with a “deadly weapon:” the concrete sidewalk Trayvon allegedly bashed Zimmerman’s head into – despite the fact that Zimmerman refused medical treatment at the scene and sustained no serious injuries.
Rachel Jeantel, the last person to speak to Trayvon alive, was questioned by the prosecution for thirty minutes – then grilled by the defense attorney for over seven hours over minor discrepancies in her testimony, such as why she hadn’t gone to Trayvon’s wake. While Martin and Fulton don’t blame their attorneys for mishandling the trial, Sybrina writes that, at the conclusion of the trial, “I looked over at Tracy, and, somehow, we each knew what the other was thinking. We had lost.” The state, she writes, failed to prove its case beyond reasonable doubt.
George Zimmerman was, as Fulton predicted, found not guilty, but in a larger sense Trayvon’s parents accomplished something far greater than a single verdict. They began a national conversation about race and the groundswell of a movement that played out across the country over the following years, as more and more young black men were murdered:
seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis, shot for playing music in his car; eighteen-year-old Michael Brown, shot by police; twelve-year-old Tamir Rice, shot by police while playing with a toy pistol… the list goes on, but, with important books like Rest in Power, we can work towards a way to make it stop.
Source: Jennie Yabroff/Signature