African-Americans and law enforcement in the United States have long had a volatile relationship. Habitual is too diminutive, but the most accurate word to describe the constant beatings with billy clubs and the bullets that have pierced black skin. Yet at any given moment, in any far corner of the country, America repeatedly invokes the dangers of being born in a black body, and the justice system solidifies the unspoken second-class citizenship with acquittals and non-indictments as recompense for those sworn to protect, but trained to kill.
On Nov. 25, 2006, Sean Bell became the newest victim when on the morning of what would’ve been his wedding day undercover New York detectives shot the 23-year-old and his friends in a hail of 50 bullets, killing Bell and severely injuring the others. Three of the detectives involved faced criminal charges but were later acquitted, sending a nationwide slap in the face to Bell’s family and supporters. Three years later on New Year's Day in Oakland, Calif., Oscar Grant III was shot in the back while face down on a train platform. One month after Grant’s death, Trayvon Martin would turn 14.
BART officer Johannes Mehserle testified he mistook his revolver for his Taser when he shot Grant. He was later found guilty of involuntary manslaughter and served 11 months. Protests came and went, conversations about racism and police brutality were had, but life for black citizens in America returned to normal, with the occasional shaking-head-shoulder-shrug combination evoked when word of another injustice became the lead story on the evening news.
The racial undercurrent in America was ripe for combustion. Too many deaths had transpired and too many acquittals had been handed down. Whether spoken or simply understood, America was primed for a pivot.
And then February 26, 2012 happened.
George Zimmerman wasn't law enforcement. The 28-year-old didn’t have a badge or graduate from the police academy. He was a neighborhood watchman who took the authority of those sworn to protect and used lethal force.
Zimmerman wasn’t one of them. Zimmerman was a regular guy.
And now they were killing black people too.
On a balmy Saturday morning in Miami Gardens, Fl., residents stood on their porches in their pajamas and waved as a crowd of demonstrators walked north on 32nd Avenue. The smell of wet grass from the early morning shower filled the thick Miami air as homeowners—some simply gazing while others recorded with their phones—watched on. Mothers pushing strollers smiled and made small talk as their children waved and laughed with each other. Rambunctious little boys ignoring their parent’s instructions ran throughout the crowd sometimes stepping on the shoes of the adults they whisked by. The convivial mood was accented by the pulsating sounds of the Miami Northwestern Senior High Color Guard and marching band that trailed behind the crowd of 350 or so. Teens laughed and gossiped about the latest happenings, while the elderly marchers took in the comfortable 77-degree morning.
There was no shortage of smiles or sun as most used their hands as visors to block the rays. Every so often an older gentlemen unfolded a piece of paper towel he retrieved from his back pocket and gently pat away the beads of sweat on his forehead. A head nod of acknowledgment here and a smile there all encapsulated the jovial atmosphere. The chorus for justice and peace grew more intense as marchers entered the Betty T. Ferguson Recreational Complex.
Who are we?
What do we want?
When do we want it?
Attendees filled up the outside pavilion of the rec center—the final stop on the march--some wearing jeans or sweatpants while most wore a red T-shirt with Trayvon’s face and infamous hoodie. The Saturday in question was the day after what would’ve been Trayvon’s 21st birthday, and the crowd of people who gathered participated in the Fourth Annual Day of Remembrance and Peace Walk in his honor. Troy Wright, executive director of the foundation hosted the event, which included on site health care vendors, performances from community members and a visit from Uncle Luke who donated $1,000 to the foundation. The mile-long route was the trail Trayvon often rode on his bike, and the rec center was where he played football, and four years after his murder, Sybrina Fulton copes the best way a mother can after losing a child.
“This type of pain, when you have to bury your own child, it kind of interrupts your cycle of life. Your children are supposed to be burying you, you aren’t supposed to be burying your children,” Fulton said during our initial January phone interview. “It interferes with your heart. It interferes with your emotions so the best that I could be doing on my good days are probably not good for someone else. I don’t care if I say it 100,000 times, people won’t quite get it if it hasn’t happened to them.”
Sybrina Denise Fulton will tell you she didn’t live an arduous life. Growing up in Miami, Fulton originally wanted to be a teacher, and then entertained the idea of becoming a broadcast journalist. She abandoned that dream to raise her sons Jahvaris and Trayvon and later decided on being a program coordinator for Miami Dade County, assisting low income and no income residents in public housing and Section 8. Fulton will also tell you she didn’t encounter much tragedy in her life, but Fulton, like any parent, didn’t plan on her youngest son being racially profiled, followed, gunned down, and then for his death to catapult her and Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, onto the national stage.
At the urging of their attorney, Martin and Fulton created a Change.org petition to bring attention to Trayvon’s murder, and to also prosecute his killer. Within weeks the petition received more than two million signatures.
“Initially, I told Tracy he needs to handle everything there and just bring my child home so we can have a home going service, and I told him I was never going to that area again. That was Sanford, Kissimmee, Orlando, none of that. I didn’t want to have any parts of that Central Florida area,“ Fulton recalls. ”Once I got a call back from Tracy and the attorney a few days later they said, ‘Listen, we’ve got to let you know, they’re not going to arrest the guy who shot and killed Trayvon.’ Oh, we were packed up in a couple of hours and headed that way.”
That sense of fight, fire and resilience Fulton mustered up in the midst of her avalanche of anguish have become a part of her, almost a visible armor. Fulton was perplexed, maybe even taken aback when asked how has she become stronger without becoming harder. After Trayvon’s death, Fulton has simply adapted as best she could.
“I had to pick up my broken pieces, and I still have broken pieces but I’m recovering and I’m restoring and I’m learning how to adjust to my to new lifestyle. This is a new life for me because my previous life I had two sons, and so now the work that I do is on behalf of both sons. I wanted to make sure that this doesn’t happen to other people’s children and that our kids are growing up and able to grow up.” She stops and then takes a big sigh. “I’m just doing my part.”
Fulton is warm, endearing at times, yet direct. After spending years in the spotlight and becoming the spokesperson/mother for a movement aimed at stopping police brutality against unarmed black men and women, the 50-year-old activist is deliberate with her words, and speaks candidly from a place of sorrow that still, some 1500 days after her son’s murder, lives with her. She was never a shy person, yet footage from her first television appearance up until now depicts a woman who has blossomed in her new position. As an unofficial ambassador of loss, Sybrina Fulton has emerged as proof you can come out on the other side alive.
“I never thought that we would meet Sybrina, but as fate would have it, we came together and now we have a bond, and we stick with each other and we talk with each other along with other mothers,” says Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, the Staten Island man who was placed in an illegal chokehold and killed by a New York cop in 2014.
I believe that in due time I would have to forgive, but I’m not there yet. Some people, when their loved one is murdered they automatically say, ‘I forgive the person.’ Maybe they have, but I have not. I have not gotten to that point yet. —Sybrina Fulton
“She just told me you have to keep your head up, you have to go on. You have to be the voice of your son. At first I was so devastated by the death of my son that I just thought that I would take to my bed forever,” Carr said at the peace walk. “But with help from some very helpful people like Sybrina, like the National Action Network and my family, I was able to lift myself out of that.”
Trayvon Martin’s memory is further cemented when names such as Jordan Davis (who was killed nine months after Trayvon), Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, John Crawford, or Ramarley Graham are brought into the conversation. Martin’s death, one of the nation’s most high-profile cases of racial profiling, acted as a benchmark for this generation. Trayvon wasn’t the first unarmed black teen shot and killed, but his death proved to be a violent awakening and the beginning of a wave of gun violence--an open hunting season of sorts--for unarmed black and brown men and women at the hands of law enforcement.
A phone call placed to the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund confirmed there’s no accurate tally of police shootings, even fatal ones that occur across the country. Despite the FBI database, police departments aren’t mandated to keep it updated. The Washington Post reports although black men make up only six percent of the United States population, they’ve accounted for nearly 40 percent of the unarmed men shot to death by police in 2015.
“When people say the struggle is real, it’s true. It’s really real. It’s not something that you just read about, it’s something that’s really going on,” Fulton’s voice becomes more pronounced as she recalls the manner with which some African-American victims were killed.
“How do you stop all these murders from happening? How do you stop someone from getting shot in the back? How do you stop a 12-year-old at a playground from being shot and killed by the police? How do you stop those things? Are we going to tell our kids don’t wear hoodies? Don’t have your pants sagging? Don’t have your music on? Don’t play with toy guns? Don’t pick up a gun in Walmart? Don’t sell loosie cigarettes in front of a store? If you tell people all these things of what they can’t do, then they have no clue of what they can do. So our young people are afraid. Our young men and women are afraid.”
I arrive at the Trayvon Martin Foundation located inside the library of Florida Memorial University 20 minutes before it closes. It’s the day before the peace walk and the sky is gray and the humidity is high. The slight swaying of palm trees is the only indicator of a faint breeze. I introduce myself to Fulton who looks at me with a stoic face, which is then juxtaposed with a warm, “Yeah, c’mon in. Look around.” She’s dressed in a purple button down shirt tucked tightly in dark denim jeans and black suede shoes with purple lining across the sole. Her nails are painted a glittery silver and her trademark braids have been substituted for shoulder length dark brown hair with cinnamon highlights. Fulton leads me into her corner office, which is a serene palette of lavender, purples and plums. Her arms spread wide as to welcome me and showcase the breadth of it all.
“This is just some of my stuff. I have more in storage that I’m paying $300 a month for,” Fulton says with a chuckle. She bends down to show me the coffee table with the magazines her son is featured in or she’s interviewed for. On top of the couch is a portrait of her smiling with Jahvaris and Trayvon on both sides of her. Supporters nationwide have gifted Fulton with murals, paintings, hoodies and shoes. She smiles when speaking of the extra space needed as if proud the love and memory for Trayvon is still overflowing.
The Trayvon Martin Foundation was established in March 2012, just one month after Trayvon’s murder. The non-profit organization’s intent is to bring recognition to the effects of gun violence on the victim’s families, and act as an advocacy group for those struggling with the loss.
“We are about bringing awareness to profiling and senseless gun violence and we reach out to families who are victims of senseless gun violence and we just offer them words of encouragement. We can’t get to everybody, you know, that’s impossible, but we try to touch those different communities. Although I’m from right here in Miami, I do a great deal of traveling and I am trying to do my part. It’s a very meaningful work that I do because I feel like it’s leaving a legacy for Trayvon Martin’s name.”
The Foundation offices are small. There are three cubicles and two offices for both Fulton and Tracy Martin, yet it acts as a time capsule for the nation’s reaction to Trayvon’s murder.
Magazine and newspaper clippings are framed while Trayvon’s image is plastered everywhere. A blanket hangs on the far wall with the image of a youthful Trayvon smiling and wearing a burgundy Hollister T-shirt. Next to it is a darker, dour image of Trayvon in a gray hoodie. The American flag is painted across his face and full nose. His thin oval shaped eyes piercing through the red stripes with the stars covering his mouth. Under the grim image are the words, “One nation, under God indivisible, with liberty and justice for some.”
Trayvon Benjamin Martin, who was given his name by his father, was born February 5, 1995 to Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, who would later divorce. It’s reported that Trayvon had a natural aptitude for English, even taking honors classes, but he also enjoyed math. Yet, despite his natural academic ability, Trayvon received several school suspensions. On his third suspension, Trayvon visited his father in Sanford, three and a half hours north of Miami Gardens where he lived with his mother and older brother, Jahvaris.
In September 2011, as a response to a rash of burglaries and robberies in the area, the residents of The Retreat at Twin Lakes where Tracy Martin’s fiance resided, established a neighborhood watch with then 28-year-old George Zimmerman selected as the watchmen. On the night of Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon returned from a nearby convenience store after buying Skittles and iced tea. At approximately 7:11 p.m., Zimmerman called 911 from his SUV to report “a real suspicious guy.” Ignoring the dispatcher's instructions, Zimmerman pursued Trayvon, setting off a confrontation that ended with his death.
It took more than six weeks, but on April 11, 2012, George Zimmerman was formerly charged with second-degree murder. In between Trayvon’s death and the actual trial, the nation became divided on the night in question. Geraldo Rivera ignited controversy during a sit down with Fox and Friends when the talk show host said, “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.”
Sybrina Fulton: When I go to the airport, I count how many people are walking through the airport with a hoodie on.
SF: Because at one point in time, I listened to the media say the reason why Trayvon was shot and killed was because he had on a hoodie on.
VIBE: Geraldo said that.
SF: And I’m looking, and saying to myself, ‘Does this person look suspicious?’ No. You don’t look suspicious because you have on a hoodie. [Trayvon] looked suspicious because of the color of his skin. The media wanted you to believe it was about the hoodie. It was not about the hoodie because Mark Zuckerberg and Anderson Cooper have both said that they have and wear hoodies faithfully. They wear it all the time and nobody looks at them like they’re suspicious.
On March 23, 2012 President Obama came as close to taking a stance on the issue as he could (or would) when he addressed the nation boldly saying, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Yet after close to a 17-hour deliberation by an all female jury, five white and one Latina, on July 13, 2013 George Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter. Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton were not in the courtroom when the verdict was read, but took to Twitter to voice their immediate gut-punching reaction.
Lord during my darkest hour I lean on you. You are all that I have. At the end of the day, GOD is still in (cont) http://t.co/enQjZ3bZk2
— Sybrina Fulton (@SybrinaFulton) July 14, 2013
God blessed Me & Sybrina with Tray and even in his death I know my baby proud of the FIGHT we along with all of you put up for him GOD BLESS
— Tracy Martin (@BTraymartin9) July 14, 2013
A call for calm was asked for after the verdict was read. Media and news outlets continued with their reaction coverage, clamoring for an interview with Trayvon’s parents, but in the weeks that followed camera crews soon packed up and left Florida. However, Fulton’s pain was potent. It stung and wouldn’t go away simply because the lead news story was put to bed.
“Sometimes you have to have a word, and you tell yourself that word and mine is Proverbs 3:5-6. I use it to lift myself up because at one point, I had a whole train of people around me and they were praying for me and supporting me and lifting me,” Fulton said. “So what happens when I’m at home, and I’m by myself, and nobody’s around and I break down? I have to learn how to come back up from my downtime.”
“That’s Trayvon Martin’s brother.”
Jahvaris and his brother bear a striking resemblance. They share the same full nose, thin lips and slanted eyes. Trayvon’s brown skin is a shade lighter than Jahvaris’ maple syrup complexion. Yet, in the wake of Trayvon’s passing, Jahvaris is now revered in such a way as if he’s the youngest. As he walks the grounds of the recreational center, peace walk attendees stare at Jahvaris as if he’s the living proof of what Trayvon could’ve been.
Just a day prior inside his mother’s office, I ask—briskly, and admittedly with little initial regard for the sensitivity of the moment—for a five-minute interview to color the story. “I’ll think about it,” he says, leaning on his mother’s office chair. My rushed request was never granted. Lesson learned. Next time, I’ll be sure to pepper my requests with as much empathy and manners as I did urgency.
However, at the peace walk, Jahvaris was more elastic in his emotions as he granted several requests for photos. He shook hands with elders, small talked with attendees and high-fived small children. Since his brother’s passing, whether spoken or not, Jahvaris has learned the condolences will never end.
After the peace walk, the annual Trayvon Martin Foundation Dinner was held at the Doubletree by Hilton Miami Airport And Convention Center. The event, which doubled as Trayvon’s 21st birthday party, honored activist and entertainer Harry Belafonte and Bishop T.D. Jakes. Of the 250 guests, Fulton brought out a who’s who of victim’s families including Gwen Carr and Jordan Davis’ father Ron Davis. Fulton maintained a brave front throughout the ceremony, never physically crying but appearing emotionally spent after the evening. Despite being flanked with support by attendees along with her oldest son and Tracy Martin, Fulton is a firm believer women heal best with other women.
The media wanted you to believe it was about the hoodie. It was not about the hoodie because Mark Zuckerberg and Anderson Cooper have both said that they have and wear hoodies faithfully. They wear it all the time and nobody looks at them like they’re suspicious. —Sybrina Fulton
“With women, when we come together we are able to laugh together, we cry together, we hug together. Men are not built to do those things together. If I’m at an event, and I see another mother sitting in the corner crying, I’m going over to talk to her. I’m going over to hug her. I don’t have to know her. She might say something that touches me and I might cry along with her. We’re just different. I think we hurt differently, and so we have to heal differently.”
The foundation’s Circle of Mother’s Restoration Weekend, taking place May 20 through May 22 in Ft. Lauderdale, has given women the needed space to grieve in a way that feels natural. Fulton says there’s never a shortage of families. According to Fulton past attendees have included Usher’s ex-wife Tameka Foster, as well as families who lost loved ones in the Aurora, Colo. and 2012’s Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedies. These women, along with the mothers of Oscar Grant, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Hadiya Pendleton, have all sought the comforting refuge of the retreat. Fulton herself has been able to lean on the help of prominent women such as the late Afeni Shakur, who delivered the keynote address in 2014, along with Myrlie Evers-Williams, wife of slain Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers.
“I’m still healing, I’m still hurting and on my bad days are when I feel like my spirit cannot handle somebody else’s issues, I just stay home,” Fulton said.
In the months since I last spoke with Ms. Fulton a lot has transpired. Her endorsement of Sec. Hillary Clinton—a backing that came after Fulton reached out to Clinton’s camp, not the other way around—was made public. Her appearance in Beyonce’s hour-long HBO Lemonade special caused the entitled Piers Morgans of the world to react, and Peter Liang, the former rookie cop who fatally shot and killed Akai Gurley inside a stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project, was spared jailed time.
With all that’s taken place, I ask what kept her in Florida and why she never took flight.
“By design, I am a fighter. I feel like if I were to move because of this situation and I move to another state, they might have some of the same bad laws and I find myself needing to move again and again and again and again. No. I’m going to stay here in Florida. It took time to get in this mess and it’s going to take time for Florida to get out of this mess.”
The interview winds down. She tells me she enjoys shopping, going to the spa and good music (particularly gospel), and of course Beyonce, who has become a gospel onto herself. Throughout the interview, I notice she never once mentioned Zimmerman by name. I’m not sure if it was subconscious or intentional, but I also referred to him as “your son’s killer.” I ask if she’s forgiven him, and for the first time, Fulton’s justifiable anger appears.
“Absolutely not. I can’t say that I’m a very religious person but I am a very spiritual person and I believe that in due time I would have to forgive, but I’m not there yet. Some people, when their loved one is murdered, they automatically say, ‘I forgive the person’ and maybe they have, but I have not. I have not gotten to that point yet.”
The phone goes silent. Fulton regains her composure and returns to her normal speaking voice. Before the interview comes to a close Fulton admits that four years later, the emotions are still as fresh as the night she learned Trayvon was killed.
“Sometimes I can look at his pictures and be perfectly fine and I tell him, ‘Wait until I catch up with you, son,’ ” she says with a laugh. “And sometimes I look at him and I’m like, you were just too young. You had your whole life in front of you to be taken like that so senselessly. It just bothers me and when I think about other young people it just hurts. It still hurts. So yeah, I cry. I’m not ashamed. I’m broken, but I’m not ashamed.”