On July 13, 2013, a Florida jury acquitted George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin. Alicia Garza, a co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement, took to her Facebook page to respond. “Black people,” she wrote, “I love you. I love us. Our lives matter, Black Lives Matter.” Patrisse Cullors, another BLM co-founder, made the last line into a hashtag, and a movement was born.
I think of Trayvon Martin often, and I am thinking about him today. Black Lives Matter is now four years old. The verdict that inspired the hashtag remains a polarizing moment in our history. I still encounter those who say Trayvon’s death was justified, and I’m left struggling to find words. In the court of public opinion, Trayvon himself was put on trial, and to a large degree, he stays there. Was he smoking pot the night he died? What would that mean, anyway? Did he instigate a brawl with the man, armed with a gun, who was pursuing him? Isn’t it possible that Zimmerman feared for his life? These questions speak to the inability to see Trayvon as fully human; they seek to fold the tragedy into a system of reality where this sort of bloodshed is comprehensible, even justified.
In his life and death, we get a glimpse of our country.
The danger in trying to explain away Trayvon Martin’s death—or Eric Garner’s death; or Tamir Rice’s death; or Sandra Bland’s death; or Philando Castile’s death—is no less than the loss of our shared humanity. Their lives mattered. The swift attempts to justify their deaths reflects a country that can’t look at itself.
A few months ago, I met Trayvon’s parents. They were speaking at a book-signing event for their new book Rest in Power, which details their experience of raising, and losing, their child. I was struck by their courage; their rejection of despair. Even at this dire moment in the country’s history—Donald Trump in the White House and an ascendant white supremacy reasserting itself—they kept on moving.
“I don’t care who the president is,” Trayvon’s father Tracy said. “We’ll just work that much harder.”
Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mom, signed a copy of their book for me. “Dear Billy,” she wrote, “We love you!”
The Black Lives Matter movement is a complicated force in American politics. It can surely be credited with shifting the paradigm of the racial conversation in this country: during the Democratic presidential primary, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both affirmatively declared that “black lives matter,” marking a departure from a rhetoric of colorblindness.
But with the rise of President Trump, some have criticized BLM for its alleged obsession with “identity politics,” and the way such a politics alienated white voters. Just two weeks ago, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mark Penn and Andrew Stein, urging the Democrats to “go back to the center” on racial and cultural issues. They wrote, “Central to the Democrats’ diminishment has been their loss of support among working-class voters, who feel abandoned by the party’s shift away from moderate positions on trade and immigration, from backing police and tough anti-crime measures, from trying to restore manufacturing jobs.”
This argument makes sense only if you think “working-class” and “white working-class” are synonyms. What the argument betrays is the exact problem the BLM movement seeks to correct: the power of whiteness as an organizing force in American society. If the notion of whiteness weren’t so powerful—so powerful to move even the “white working-class” to vote for a plutocrat hell-bent on stripping them of health care—there wouldn’t be any need for a movement for black life. But this is America, and this is our story; and the Black Lives Matter movement unmasks the necessity of reopening parts of a discussion that started long ago.
“To be an Afro-American, or an American black,” wrote James Baldwin, in 1971, “is to be in the situation, intolerably exaggerated, of all those who have ever found themselves part of a civilization which they could in no wise honorably defend—which they were compelled, indeed, endlessly to attack and condemn—and yet who spoke out of the most passionate love, hoping to make the kingdom new, to make it honorable and worthy of life.”
The country has changed since Baldwin wrote these words. To have seen the Obama family in the White House for eight years is to understand that change sometimes comes to America—and that when it does, it is beautiful to behold. But not even a black president could prevent the miscarriages of justice we see daily, and that we saw in the case of Trayvon Martin, a teenager walking home to see his dad; nor could that president get the larger country to agree that this boy’s life mattered. And so the movement bloomed, and it continues.
May it make this kingdom new, for us all.