This Day in History: George Zimmerman Acquitted for Shooting Trayvon Martin
Three years ago today, a jury acquitted George Zimmerman on charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Seventeen months earlier, Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, 17. Martin was young, unarmed and black; Zimmerman saw a non-white kid in a hoodie walking through a mostly-white gated community and acted on the assumption that such a kid must be dangerous.
Three years ago today, #BlackLivesMatter was born — a hashtag that has since evolved into a movement protesting the devaluation of African-Americans by systems of power, or otherwise, within the United States.
Last week, BLM staged a peaceful demonstration in Dallas, Texas, in response to the back-to-back shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, respectively the 114th and 115th known black men killed by police officers in 2016 alone. That demonstration ended in the deaths of five Dallas police officers, forcing BLM into the news cycle as people accused the movement of promoting violence.
But, as Mic's Jamilah King wrote, it's not violence they're promoting. BLM is fighting for "the radical belief that black people deserve to live." It's the response to a case that, to many, suggested the criminal justice system believed exactly the opposite.
On February 26, 2012, Martin left his father's house in Sanford, Florida, to buy Skittles and iced tea at a nearby 7/11. On his way back, he encountered Zimmerman, then 29, who had been tracking Martin. Allegedly acting in his capacity as neighborhood watch captain, according to CNN, Zimmerman called 911 to report "a suspicious person," and was instructed to stay in his car and not follow Martin. Zimmerman didn't comply. He got out, approached Martin and a physical confrontation ensued. Zimmerman walked away with a broken nose, but not before he shot and killed Martin.
Initially, Zimmerman wasn't charged: His was the only version of the story available, and authorities reasoned that no one could disprove it. But more details quickly surfaced: The accounts of the evening Zimmerman provided didn't match, and they didn't add up with what Martin's girlfriend heard on the phone just before her boyfriend was shot. The case went from a local to a national conversation in which the Department of Justice and the FBI got involved, and Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder on April 11, 2012.
Zimmerman claimed self defense, opting not to pursue the case under Florida's "stand your ground" law, which allows people to resort to deadly force if they believe that their lives are at stake. At the time, attorney Benjamin Crump, representing Martin's family, said he thought Zimmerman waived his right to a pretrial hearing because he didn't want to take the stand, revealing "the many inconsistencies" in his testimony. The trial began on June 24, 2013.
On July 13, 2013, after over 16 hours of deliberation, an all-female jury found Zimmerman not guilty. Zimmerman had argued that Martin attacked him and began beating him, and that he shot the teen because he feared for his life. The acquittal sparked nationwide protest, but largely, the marches, demonstrations and sit-ins were peaceful. It re-inspired non-violent, community-level activism and challenged people to think frankly about the reality of racial equality in the U.S.
While Zimmeman was not a police officer, his acquittal echoed the acquittals of so many officers who have shot and killed black men in recent years, and served as a reminder that blacks in America still seem subject to a lesser quality of justice. It also pushed lawmakers and authorities to acknowledge the fact that black lives have value.
But even three years after the hashtag first gained traction, people continue to insist that #AllLivesMatter, showing a fundamental misunderstanding of the movement. And Martin's life — and his death — serve to teach us a lesson: As long as the shooting of black people persists without conviction, the U.S. simply can't claim that everyone is equal, in the eyes of the law or otherwise.