Sybrina Fulton says she could barely catch her breath at the moment thousands of thunderous chants exclaiming “I’m Trayvon” began to fill the chilly night air in New York’s Union Square late Wednesday night.
“I was simply overwhelmed by the moment,’’ Fulton told The Daily Beast shortly after attending the “Million Hoodie’’ rally in her son’s honor. “To hear so many people that don’t know me and never met Trayvon come out to support his family and our fight for justice for him is something I never could have imagined.’’
In a case that continues to surprise, stun, and anger the country, Fulton’s 17-year-old son, Trayvon Martin, was killed last month in Sanford, Florida, when an unregistered neighborhood watch leader shot the teenager to death after deeming him ‘suspicious looking.’’ The man, George Zimmerman, 28, reportedly told police he killed Martin in self-defense following an altercation. He has not been arrested or charged with any crime.
The now controversial killing of Trayvon garnered virtually no mainstream media attention in the days immediately after he was fatally shot, but that all changed when the teenager’s parents decided to hire civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump and his law firm to get more answers on exactly how and why their son died.
“They called me the same day they were notified that their son was dead,’’ Crump told The Daily Beast. “When I heard their unarmed teenage son was shot to death, I just knew there’d be an arrest shortly. There wasn’t an arrest 48 hours later, and then I knew we’d have to take this outside of Sanford if we wanted justice.’’
Trayvon’s parents were told by the Sanford police that Zimmerman wasn’t arrested in their son’s death because the facts of the case did not dispute his claim of self-defense.
For Crump, taking the Trayvon Martin story outside of Sanford simply entailed dialing up a few well-placed friends such as the Rev. Al Sharpton. Crump worked closely with the civil rights leader in 2006 on another racially charged case—the controversial death of a 14-year-old, African-American inmate of a Florida boot camp.
“I had to call people like Sharpton and a few other black civil rights leaders and the black media to tell them about this story,’’ said Crump. “I had to get them to understand what happened to this young man and what hadn’t happened in his case so they could spread the word.’’
Historically, cases of murder and violence against blacks in the United States rarely have been given the same amount of attention as cases in which the victims of crime are white—and often go unnoticed and unprosecuted.
Just days after hearing the details of Trayvon’s death, Sharpton arranged to have Crump and the teenager’s parents, Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, on his syndicated radio show and his popular MSNBC show, Politics Nation, to tell their story.
“I was fresh off my march from Selma to Montgomery for voters’ rights when Benjamin called me,’’ says Sharpton. “He told me about this unarmed teenager and I asked him—was he a good kid? When I heard the full story, I knew I had to use my access to radio and television to find justice for Trayvon.’’
Sharpton has featured Crump and the Fulton-Martin family several times on both of his shows since mid-March, and says he plans to continue to highlight the story with every rally and march connected to the teenager’s death.
“The difference in the way Travyon Martin’s story has been handled is that we (minorities) simply have more access to the media today,’’ says Sharpton. “Five or 10 years ago, I didn’t have a show to talk about these issues nationally. I do now, and I’m using it to keep a story like this alive for weeks and months to come. I have two daughters and I worry about them. Trayvon is anyone’s child.’’
“I do think this story will alter the landscape in the way the media covers victims of color and possibly the way the police handle the cases as well.”
In the wake of non-stop media attention from the likes of Sharpton and CNN’s Don Lemon concerning the Trayvon Martin case, black media blogs such as MediaTakeOut.com and Huffington Post Black Voices also began publishing accounts and editorials about the Florida case—daily. Almost instantly, readers of all races, ages, and backgrounds began tweeting and posting on Facebook their outrage over how the police have handled the case, and the lack of an arrest in the shooting. To date, almost 1 million people have signed a Change.Org petition to have Zimmerman arrested. In response to the widespread outrage, the Justice Department has opened an investigation into the shooting.
“We ran a story about a day or so after the first stories came out about Trayvon,’’ said Fred Mwangaguhunga, editor of the top-rated African-American website, MediaTakeOut. “We had Florida readers send it in and I knew it had the potential to grow, given the details.’’
Mwangaguhunga suggested that the mainstream media may have been hesitant to report on the facts of the Trayvon Martin shooting early on for fear of alienating their law-enforcement contacts.
“Reporters depend on the police for many things in their work, so I can see this story being one they’d be hesitant to do,’’ said Mwangaguhunga. “I think that’s where social media is so powerful, because it doesn’t have those same limitations.’’
Low ratings that typically accrue to crime stories involving blacks also may have played a factor in the media’s slow boil on coverage, but that all may change with the tragic tale of Travyon Martin.
“I do think this story will alter the landscape in the way the media covers victims of color and possibly the way the police handle the cases as well. This case proves there is interest in seeing justice for people who look like Trayvon, and that these incidents can’t just be swept under the rug.’’
Still, for Sybrina Fulton, a positive change in the media’s coverage of minorities and crimes against them will be small comfort if her ultimate goal of an arrest is not realized.
“I’m so thankful for the love and support of people everywhere,’’ said Fulton. “It’s helping me deal with the pain. But there has to be an arrest. Someone must be punished for my child’s death.’’