How Trayvon Martin became a cultural touchstone

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On January 6, 2006, 14-year-old Martin Lee Anderson collapsed while on a required run at a Bay County, Florida juvenile boot camp. The A and B student had been caught joy riding in his grandmother’s car, and his gran had no intention of pressing charges. But police convinced his family to teach him a lesson, so he’d never again stray off the straight and narrow path.

In the opening hours of his very first day at the camp, Anderson and his group were told to run around a track, but after several minutes, he told the drill instructors he couldn’t run anymore. When he refused to get to his feet, a group that eventually included seven security guards began striking Martin Anderson with their batons in his legs and arms, applying pressure to his ears. As a female nurse looked on, the skinny teenager was beaten unconscious, then forced to inhale ammonia — the entire incident captured on a grainy security camera.

Anderson was eventually taken to an area hospital, where he died. The investigation into his death was ultimately moved to a neighboring county, because the Bay County had a close relationship to the sheriff who started the boot camp.

Anderson’s death caused a scandal in Florida, after a pair of state legislators from Miami, Gus Barreiro, a Republican, and Frederica Wilson, a Democrat, along with a lawsuit by the Miami Herald, forced the surveillance video into the public. Anderson’s family hired Ben Crump, a Tallahassee attorney whose has become well known for taking up, and publicizing, the causes of wronged black Floridians.

Large protests followed. Students walked out of classes on the campus of Florida A&M University. Demands for justice forced the state’s five boot camps — part of a broad juvenile justice initiative championed by former governor Jeb Bush — to close, and brought the whole notion of alternative punishment through such programs into question. In the end, the guards and nurse were acquitted of manslaughter charges. The medical examiner, who ruled Anderson’s death as caused not by the beating, but due to sickle cell trait, faced criticism, but no lasting consequences. Anderson’s family eventually received a settlement from the state of Florida, and, gradually, his name faded from memory. No movement — on juvenile justice or excessive force, or stereotyping a good child who’d made one mistake as a thug, or on the legal system’s failure to hold police authorities to account — would spring up around him.

Trayvon Martin’s death on February 26, 2012 in Sanford, Florida, at first seemed destined to be just another senseless killing of just another young black American. For ten days, it was a local news story, as the teen was mourned, his body taken back to Miami, and buried by his family in relative obscurity.

A few news items appeared — in the local papers, on news websites like and theGrio, and even in the London Daily Mail. But once the story broke through in early March, followed by the first large protests in Sanford on March 19, Trayvon Martin’s death became iconic. More than a month after he died, Martin has come to symbolize something much larger than himself, his death compared to that of Emmett Till, the teenager murdered and mutilated by a racist mob in the year of 1955 after he was accused of whistling at a white woman.

Like Till, whose open casket burial, at his grieving mother’s insistence, captured on the cover of Jet magazine, helped spark the civil rights movement, Martin has become the catalyst for a national conversation about racial profiling, and for many white Americans, a rare vessel for a glimpse into the reality of what it’s like to live in the skin of a young black man.

So why Trayvon Martin, and not Martin Lee Anderson? Both deaths inspired protests. Both families turned to the same attorney for aid, Mr. Crump. Both cases became a passion for Frederica Wilson — now a United States congresswoman. And both cases drew the advocacy of civil rights leader (and now MSNBC host) Rev. Al Sharpton.

Like Anderson, Martin isn’t the first young man to be killed in what seems like a case of stereotyping gone horribly wrong.
Sean Bell, shot to death in a hail off bullets on the night before his wedding by undercover New York police officers; Amadou Diallo, killed in a similar volley in the vestibule of his New York apartment in 1999,’ or Patrick Dorismond, a 20-year-old security guard killed by undercover cops in New York who mistook him for a drug dealer and shot him after he got into a scuffle with one of them, incensed that they’d asked him where to find drugs in the neighborhood — all could have been the catalysts for a national conversation on the potentially deadly consequences of profiling based on race. None were.

And on March 3, 2012 in Wisconsin, an unarmed black man named Bo Morrison was killed by a singe gunshot to the chest, by a homeowner named Adam Kind. The 20-year-old was hiding on the man’s porch after police raided a party where underage drinking was taking place, sending people scrambling through the neighborhood, including Morrison, who Kind said approached him in the shadows with his arms raised. Kind was cleared of the shooting under Wisconsin’s castle doctrine — a version of the same “stand your ground” law now under intense debate in Florida following the shooting death of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. Even after Trayvon Martin, Morrison’s case has failed to make a national splash.

What was it about Martin that made him such a compelling figure? Was it the simplicity of the headline: “Teen walking home with candy and iced tea shot by overzealous neighborhood watch captain who mistook him for a thug!” … Was it the photos that immediately surfaced of Trayvon — a baby faced, attractive boy who could have been any mother’s son; or a black president’s?

It’s a sad but very real fact of life that the media is visual — producers and editors react to an attractive face, a mainstream, relatable image, and a compelling narrative: the grieving divorced mom and dad, coming together to mourn their child and demand justice. Tellingly, the one photo the media had of Martin Lee Anderson showed him smiling, but his hair braided into cornrows, something that became a more pointed issue when another teen who had been confined at the Bay County boot camp with Anderson told his mom guards had pegged Anderson as a troublemaker because he wore braids.

The initial photos of Trayvon contrasted starkly with the first image we had of “Zimmerman”:; a mug shot from his 2005 arrest, which set the stage for a simple narrative of good and evil. It was that narrative that Zimmerman’s family and supporters soon reacted harshly to try and reverse, releasing information about Martin — his suspension from school, and his teenaged transgressions, to try and equalize the shooter and the dead in the public’s mind — to “thugify” him.

More than a month later, polls show the results of that effort, as the Trayvon Martin case is beginning to polarize the public along racial and even political lines, with blacks and Democrats following the case more closely, and whites and Republicans drifting away, and increasingly believing it has gotten too much attention.

Whether the national conversation sparked by Trayvon Martin’s death will continue, remains to be seen. Perhaps, like Martin Lee Anderson, his memory will recede into the rear view mirror of the public consciousness, as the media moves on and our collective, short attention span is sated by some other tragedy. But there can be little doubt that for whatever reasons — his telegenic face, the circumstances of his death, in a sleepy but otherwise quiet town in a southern state Americans aren’t accustomed to thinking of as “that kind of southern,” or something more intangible, Trayvon Martin seems, sadly, to have been the “perfect victim” for a unique period in American life when many people seem eager to confront a thorny issue of race that has been simmering among black Americans for generations.

Forty-one days after his death, Martin’s picture; hoodie clad, his baby face staring into the camera, captured in soft black and white, adorns T-shirts and protest signs. Twitter posts are peppered with the #JusticeForTrayvon hashtags. “I am Trayvon Martin” has become a catch-all phrase encompassing the psychic toll that the daily experience of profiling, whether by law enforcement or fellow civilian citizens, takes on young black men. YouTube videos and more than 2 million signatures on an online petition calling for Zimmerman’s arrest suggest that Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin’s youngest son will not be easily forgotten.

Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport