The murder of Trayvon Martin and the birth of a movement

This article is part of the People’s World 100th Anniversary Series.

On Feb. 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was brutally gunned-down by self-appointed “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman. Martin’s murder set off immediate nationwide protests.

A national debate ensued around racial profiling and controversial “stand your ground” laws, which were cited by Zimmerman’s defense attorneys and essentially give a person the right to kill anyone they fell is threatening them.

Inept and blatantly biased investigatory practices by local police led to the federal government taking over the probe into Zimmerman’s crime. Despite the intervention of the Department of Justice in the case, on July 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of Martin.

That acquittal sparked a massive backlash among Black Americans and civil rights organizations around the country; protests even spread outside U.S. borders. Out of the outrage emerged a new movement—Black Lives Matter. It would go on to reshape U.S. politics, most strongly seen in the national uprising against police violence in the summer of 2020. The movement continues today.

As for Zimmerman, after being targeted by a shooter himself, he went on to be: arrested for domestic violence, become involved in another shooting incident, make racist attacks on President Barack Obama, and linked to other criminal activities.

The article below, part of People’s World’s ongoing coverage of the Trayvon Martin murder and its aftermath, appeared on March 20, 2012. It includes key details of the case and illustrates the early days of the emerging movement that would become Black Lives Matter.

Feds to investigate killing of Trayvon Martin

By Dan Margolis

People’s World, March 20, 2012

MIAMI—In a Southern town, a man shoots and kills an innocent Black youth he thinks looks suspicious. Witnesses report that they heard the high school student screaming for help before he was shot and shot again. The victim was unarmed and simply walking towards his family’s house after buying candy at a 7-11. The local police don’t charge, and even defend, the shooter without any real investigation. Any possibility to enact justice is left to the federal government, spurred on by thousands of angry citizens.

Sound like the 1960s? It’s not.

The Department of Justice, the FBI, and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement have announced that they will investigate the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, as local authorities seem to have failed at a proper investigation.

The parents of Martin, the African American youth who was shot to death on Feb. 26 in an Orlando suburb by self-described “neighborhood watchman” George Zimmerman, had asked the FBI to step in and investigate the shooting, and others called for an investigation by the Justice Department.

“The Department [of Justice] will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation,” the DOJ said in a statement. “The Department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident.”

Though there is no question that Zimmerman took the high school student’s life by shooting him in the chest, but Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime by the police in the Orlando suburb of Sanford, a situation that has raised a nationwide public outcry.

Martin was a student at Michael Krop High School in Miami. The youth lived in Miami Gardens and was in Sanford visiting a relative.

“It’s a shame that he’s not getting any justice,” Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, said at a March 16 press conference. “We’re not, as a family, getting any closure,” the elder Martin said. “I feel betrayed by the Sanford Police Department, and there’s no way that I can still trust them in investigating this crime.”

Across the country, many fear that Martin’s “crime,” for which he received a death penalty ordered by neither judge nor jury, was walking while Black.

Martin’s family hopes that the federal government will be able to bring justice to what many around this state see as a blatantly racist miscarriage of justice. This comes after weeks of public outcry, across the internet and across the country. A petition at has garnered more than 400,000 signatures already.

Even Republican Gov. Rick Scott was pushed to action by the outcry: He ordered the FDLE investigation.

Democratic Rep. Corrine Brown, who represents much of the area, met with the police chief and other city leaders on March 16 to “clarify the situation.” She later sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder calling for a federal investigation. She noted that a “history of racial tension” in the community could lend itself to the lack of a thorough local investigation.

“How police immediately concluded that he [Zimmerman] had a reasonable belief of imminent death or great bodily harm from a boy half his size remains unclear and three witnesses have publicly contradicted this version.”

Zimmerman, who experts say sounded drunk at the time, was never tested for drugs or alcohol, as is standard procedure.

Rep. Brown requested an emergency meeting with Holder or another official, and, in a strange twist, Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, on behalf of himself and the city council, agreed, sending his own letter to the attorney general.

Zimmerman spotted Martin walking towards his relative’s home. Police told him not to follow Martin and to stay in his car. He didn’t listen and confronted Martin, with whom he apparently provoked a fight. Zimmerman says, however, that he stepped out of his vehicle and that Martin attacked him, causing Zimmerman to fire his semi-automatic handgun. But many point out that this account simply does not fit with the facts of what happened:

There were cries for help. There was a shot, and then another. With that final shot, the pained screaming ceased. Zimmerman was unscathed.

Three separate witnesses said that the pleas for help were from Martin himself. This brings up more questions: If Martin was crying for help—until he was shot—how could he have posed any threat to Zimmerman?

Most of the facts in the case are clear: Martin was unarmed, was in the neighborhood for a legitimate reason, and Zimmerman fired the shots that killed the teen. However, because of Florida’s controversial “stand your ground” law, local police say they are unable to charge Zimmerman. According to the law, anyone has the right to use lethal force—to kill—a person they deem threatening.

All of this makes the case for the federal government much harder to prove. The Justice Department warned, “With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids—the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes, and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws.”

The local NAACP chapter will host a town hall meeting this evening in Sanford.

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Special to People’s World
Special to People’s World

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.