Seven years ago today, a seventeen-year-old boy named Trayvon Benjamin Martin was gunned down on a dark street in what was supposed to be a safe gated community in Sanford, Florida.
Most know the story: We fought for justice and didn’t get it.
Trayvon’s killer is free to be a stain on humanity that still makes headlines and serves as a frequent reminder of the enduring failure that is the American justice system. It’s a story we’ve seen repeated so many times. But the people who fought for Trayvon and for all of our Black siblings taken after him have been seeking the answer to a fundamental question:
What does it take for our people to be safe in a world that doesn’t value all of us?
In 2012, I was a person who paid attention to the news and posted feverishly on social media on what I still called “race relations” in the country, but it was Trayvon Martin’s death in February of 2012 that catapulted me into the fight. Like many young Black people on college campuses at the time, I looked for ways to get justice for the boy who could have been my kin. Trayvon attended high school in Miami thirteen miles from where I grew up and my university was a two hour drive north of Sanford. He was a Florida boy and his death was literally close to home.
Protests and marches lit up my campus and I made signs and screamed until my voice was hoarse, but it was a conference call that a professor told me to get on that wound up changing the lives of so many Floridians—and mine. I got on that call. I dialed in with more than 70 other people and was greeted by a group of college alumni that had previously organized together a few years earlier over the unjust death of another Black teenager named Martin from Florida. And together, over the course of a few weeks and a dozen other calls, we became the Dream Defenders. We set out for justice for Trayvon Martin soon thereafter.
Forty new Dream Defenders convened in Daytona Beach and marched for three days into Sanford over Easter weekend weeks after Trayvon’s murder. We visited the gated community and cried over the teddy bears and flowers people had left for Trayvon and his family. Our idea of justice at the time meant the arrest of George Zimmerman, who had been allowed the same freedom we later saw given to Darren Wilson—Michael Brown Jr.’s killer—and others. So we descended onto Sanford’s brand new police department, demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. He was later taken into custody and charged with second-degree murder two days later.
Little more than a year after his arrest, Zimmerman was acquitted of the charges. People all over the country took to the streets and the Dream Defenders headed to Florida’s Capitol building in Tallahassee, where we began the longest occupation of the Capitol building’s history. Dream Defenders leaders like Phillip Agnew, Ciara Taylor, Ahmad Abuznaid, Jonel Edwards and others had identified the pieces of Trayvon’s tragic story that we could try to prevent from happening again in the future.
Stand Your Ground, the no-duty-to-retreat law that allows killing even in the most precarious instances of perceived threat that was passed in Florida with corporate backing and also the law that Zimmerman used as an early defense; racial profiling; and the school-to-prison pipeline, which targets young students of color for suspension and arrests in schools and statistically raises their chances of winding up in jail or prison as adults. After all, Trayvon had been in Sanford with his father while serving an out of school suspension for having an empty baggie of marijuana.
With those three systems and laws in mind, we demanded that Florida’s legislators call a special session to pass what we called “Trayvon’s Law,” which would repeal Stand Your Ground, and rid the state of laws that made it possible to racially profile and push kids out of school. After 31 days and 30 nights, we left the Capitol, and the state’s lawmakers, including then-governor and newly elected Senator Rick Scott, refused to call a session that could have made Florida safer for its Black residents.
Mike Brown was killed a little over a year later. The people of Ferguson, Missouri, made the whole world shake and pay more attention to Black lives and the lack of safety afforded to them. There has been no reprieve in the time that has passed.
Trayvon’s death, to many young people like me who entered this fight for justice, signaled the beginning of an uphill battle for justice with more questions than answers. Why are so many of our kids in danger? Who’s putting them in danger? Why would they want to? How do we stop them? How do we keep our babies safe?
Seven years isn’t long but we came up with some answers. We’ve taken time to analyze, grow, and learn. We’ve learned that corporations like those that run private prisons and the politicians they give campaign contributions to make bank when our people are thrown in jail. We know labor is damn near free with a workforce in prison. We’ve learned terms like surplus labor. We’ve learned that there is profit to be made when our people are criminalized and locked up.
We also took a great deal of time to listen. We’ve knocked on thousands of doors and had conversations with people in communities all over Florida and came to the same conclusions that have been made time and time again. Our people just want to be safe and thrive.
We took what people were most concerned about and boiled it into a forward-facing vision for what we should all be fighting for and named it the Freedom Papers. In the Papers, we wrote that we don’t have to lose any more children needlessly to violence, racism, or greed. If we fight to secure everyone’s basic needs we can have freedom and safety.
Every person has the right to water, housing, healthcare, work and living wages; freedom from police violence and a prison system that swallows our people whole; a right to learn from mistakes, make amends and gain healing; the access to free public and high quality education where teachers are valued and our education isn’t determined by zip codes; a democracy that values each of our votes, opens access to voting and encourages us to participate in the process; we have the right to move freely, to immigrate and in turn be safe from the ills of gentrification, the right to remain; we have the right to be safe from violence everywhere; the right to a land and a planet that isn’t being ruined by corporations; and we all have the right to be the people we are called on to be, to be fulfilled and whole and part of a community that values us, regardless of color, religion, gender or who we love.
The Freedom Papers were born out of trying to figure out what the world has to look like in order for us to never have to bury another child like Trayvon again.
Revolutionary Cape Verdean organizer Amilcar Cabral once said, “The people are not fighting for ideas, nor for what is in men’s minds. The people fight and accept the sacrifices demanded by the struggle in order to gain material advantages, to live better and in peace, to benefit from progress, and for the better future of their children.”
If we are to honor Trayvon Martin, then we must all be committed to seeking safety and a more just world for our children.
Safety and freedom for our people does not mean walls or gated communities. Safety doesn’t come in handcuffs and a sentence. And to honor the legacy of a child taken too soon, we have to fight like hell against the people who have made sure for so long that safety and freedom are strangers to us.
The Freedom Papers, like our sit-in of the Capitol, may only be a stepping stone for this movement, but with 2020 looming, we hope that people can read its pages and be reminded that we deserve so much more than we’ve been given.
In the world we’re fighting for, Trayvon Martin would have been offered a ride home instead.
Nailah Summers is a co-founder and current communications director for the Dream Defenders.