How Trayvon Martin became a cultural touchstone
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 AM 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 faced 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.
The death of Trayvon Martin 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 CBS.com and theGrio, and even in the London Daily Mail. But once the story broke through in early March, followed by he first large protests in Sanford on March 19th, 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 Year 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 s 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.