By Janeece Woodson, Staff Writer
On February 26, 2012, an unarmed African American 17 year-old named Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by a 28-year-old volunteer neighborhood watchman, just 75 feet from the safety of the Sanford, Florida townhome in which he was staying. Much attention has since been given to the ensuing trial and the political ideologies of the shooter; the event sparked millions of responses on social media, both in dissent and in support of the proceedings.
Five years later, several organizations at University of Missouri-St. Louis feel that the community can benefit from a representative voice for the victim; a voice that transcends the circumstances of his death. The Office of Student Involvement (OSI) and the Associated Black Collegians (ABC) hosted a presentation by Martin’s mother on Wednesday in the JC Penney Auditorium. Brandi Fields, senior, nursing, and president of ABC, remarked, “Despite the intense struggle of losing a child, Fulton has become a role model to many by turning her grief into advocacy.”
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin and Jahvaris Fulton, focused upon the happiness Trayvon brought to her life as a child and young man. Fulton recalled that her son was steadfast in his affection, even as he got older. “It didn’t matter if he was in the grocery store, he was at the park, or he was at the school; if he wanted a hug and a kiss, he got a hug and a kiss,” she said.
The audience chuckled as Fulton remembered her son’s excitement about getting older, growing a sparse beard, and being noticed by girls. Fulton recalled that Martin would make soup for her when she was sick, was always playful with his cousins, and was quick to help people with things they could not do themselves. Fulton acknowledged that her son’s character, corroborated by many who knew him, does not fit the narrative that he was a ‘thug,’ as some media outlets presented him. She said, “If me saying my son’s name—Trayvon Martin— and what happened to my son makes you uncomfortable, then I guess you’ll be uncomfortable.”
Many of Trayvon Martin’s happiest moments in life are recorded in a book titled “Rest in Power,” co-authored by Fulton and Martin’s father, Tracy Martin. According to Fulton, the book also discusses the failures of the American legal system to procure justice for people who are prey to common racial and linguistic stereotypes. “Trayvon was not on trial, which a lot of people don’t understand,” Fulton said. She also discussed her dissatisfaction with the treatment of Rachel Jeantel, a friend of Martin’s who spoke to him on the phone seconds before his death. Jeantel’s Haitian Creole and variation of English led prosecutors to largely discount her statements. Fulton expressed her disappointment that the court lessened the credibility of Jeantel because she came from an unfamiliar linguistic background. Although translators are typically brought into court for cases that involve people speaking languages other than “standardized” American English, the court made no accommodations for Jeantel, despite alleged language barriers.
“What people wanted us to do was just to go back home and be quiet. They didn’t want us to speak out on behalf of Trayvon,” Fulton said. She continued to praise social media as a medium for the victims of senseless shootings to be kept alive, and as a platform for support.
Fulton recalled feeling heartened as thousands of teenagers posted pictures of themselves wearing hoodies on social media sites, in order to express solidarity. She stated that in a way, the pictures showed that the fact that her son was wearing a hoodie at the time of the shooting, did not justify the shooting because any young person can wear a hoodie, and many do. “It’s not about the hoodie,” she said. “It’s about the ugliness that’s going on in this country.”
As Martin had been suspended from school during the week of his death, Fulton addressed those who attempt to justify the shooting of her son with this information. “Of course he needed to be in school. Of course he needed to be getting his education. Of course those things. But a lot of times, the system just is not fair.” She turned once again to social media, stating that mobile devices provide a way for minorities to protect themselves.
“A lot of people do not experience racism on a daily basis, and so they don’t understand, and for a long time they thought that African Americans and Latinos were just complaining. […] They can’t get a good education. They can’t get jobs. They can’t get housing. What are they complaining about? Well, now […] we can show you what we’re complaining about,” Fulton said.
Fulton also expressed the need for people to educate themselves on the issues and events that do not make it to the public’s view. She stated that many victims, such as Emmett Till and Eric Garner, have become icons, but there are many other needless deaths that go largely unnoticed. Social media, Fulton suggested, is an excellent way to raise awareness of senseless violence and to show support for the victim’s families. She also implored the audience to vote as frequently as they can; she reminded the audience that the presidential election is not the only important time to vote. “You need to know what’s on the ballot,” she said. “Find out who’s running for office, what their agenda is [and] what their concerns are.”
Fulton said, “The worst day of my life was Trayvon’s home-going service, when I had to sit in the front of my church and see my seventeen year old son…laying in the casket with all white on, as if he was going to a prom. And he had this smirk on his face as if he was trying to tell me that he was going to be okay. But as a mother, the image still bothers me today, and it’s something that compels me to continue to speak out for my son, to continue to be the voice for the voiceless.”