This year, February 26 is the tenth anniversary of the murder of Trayvon Martin. As Solomon Jones lays out in these passages from Ten Lives, Ten Demands: Life-and-Death Stories, and a Black Activist’s Blueprint for Racial Justice, there is a path to get rid of the anti-Black stand-your-ground laws that took Trayvon’s life. Jones also honors his life with a snapshot of his relationship with his father, Tracy Martin.
The pain of that night was still fresh in Tracy’s mind when I interviewed him in 2015, three years after George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon. Tracy also remembered the good times he’d shared with his son, and he freely shared all he could recall.
Tracy, a truck driver who grew up in the impoverished city of East St. Louis before moving to Miami in his early twenties, lit up when he talked about Trayvon. He recalled meeting [Trayvon’s mother] Sybrina Fulton at a Christmas party—how they had dated for a year and half before they married. Sybrina cursed Tracy’s name while going through the pain of childbirth, he said, but when Tracy cut the umbilical cord and heard their child yell in the nursery, Tracy knew he and Trayvon would have much in common.
“He was stubborn,” Tracy told me. “And from the moment I really got to embrace him, I knew that this was a part of me that would just, kinda . . . do certain things that I did, because he wouldn’t stop hollering and my mother said when I was born, I wouldn’t stop hollering. So, I knew right then, this kid is gonna be like me. . . . From early on we built a friendship. We built a bond.”
Tracy played baseball, Trayvon played football, and the father and son spent many long days on the playing field. But after one such day, when Trayvon was nine years old, tragedy struck. Tracy and Trayvon had been on the field all day, and when they got home, they were exhausted. Trayvon was hungry, though, and he wanted to eat before they settled down to watch the Miami Hurricanes play the North Carolina Tarheels on television.
Tracy put grease in a pot on the stove to fry chicken wings, but as the grease heated up, both he and Trayvon fell asleep.
“The grease had actually been on from 9:30 at night and I woke up coughing,” Tracy told me. “The grease had started spilling out over the pot and the kitchen cabinets caught on fire. My first instinct when I saw the fire . . . I took a towel and threw it over the pot, but I didn’t know how heavy the towel was. The towel dragged the pot off the stove and the grease hit my legs. I had third-degree burns from my knees down to the bottom of my feet and what happened was my body instantly went in shock.”
Trayvon dragged his father to safety that night. Then, when the ambulance came and the paramedics told Trayvon he couldn’t ride with them, the boy displayed the stubbornness Tracy knew. “He was like, ‘No, I’m riding in the ambulance with my dad,’” Tracy recalled. “This is the personality that I know he had in him that I had in me.”
Trayvon’s personality was grounded not just in genetics, but in a determination to win that was nurtured on the playing fields of South Florida.
“In Miami we have an atmosphere,” Tracy told me. “When you play sports, sports don’t really see Black, brown, white, or yellow. He was raised on the park with a lot of Latin kids, a lot of Jewish kids, a lot of white kids.”
But ultimately, the young man who played defensive end and wide receiver on a youth football team, who dragged his father to safety after a grease fire, and who grew up around kids of every race and ethnicity, was profiled by someone who believed a Black boy in a hoodie looked suspicious.
Trayvon, like any seventeen-year-old boy, was not perfect. He’d recently been suspended after school officials found a bag containing traces of marijuana in his backpack, but Trayvon had no criminal record, and his father said he wasn’t a bad kid by any stretch of the imagination.
That’s why, on the night Trayvon was shot, Tracy knew that his son would’ve come back from the store if he could have, so at four in the morning, Tracy called the police. Then he filed a missing person’s report.
“They ended up calling me back about six thirty in the morning, and they told me they were going to send a patrol unit out to the house,” Tracy told me. “It hadn’t dawned on me that something was wrong. I’m thinking the unit’s coming out to get more information about him being missing. So it was three cars pulled up. The first car was a community service car, the second car was a uniformed officer’s car, and the third car was an undercover car.
“So, they get out. They introduce themselves, and it didn’t dawn on me that the first person to introduce himself to me was the—he was sort of like the chaplain for the police department. And he introduced himself as—he said, ‘I’m the chaplain of the Sanford Police Department.’ And then the detective came up. He introduced himself. He said he was with the Major Crimes Unit. And it’s not registering.
“So, he asked me did I have a picture of Trayvon. I told him, ‘Yeah I had a picture.’ I had just taken a picture of him and two more of my kids playing around two days before. So I showed him the picture and he told me I’ll be right back. And it was drizzling outside. He asked if I minded if we went in the house.
“He asked me when was the last time I seen Trayvon and what did he have on and he went through the formalities, and then he said, ‘I’m going to show you a picture. You tell me if this is your son.’ And he pulled out a picture, and it was him on the ground dead.”
Zimmerman was found not guilty, and according to at least one of the six jurors, the stand-your-ground law played a major role in the decision.
The woman, known only as Juror B-37, told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that “because of the heat of the moment and the ‘stand your ground,’ he had a right to defend himself. If he felt threatened that his life was going to be taken away from him or he was going to have bodily harm, he had a right.”
Ultimately, the juror said, they had no choice but to acquit.
Therein lies the problem. Stand-your-ground laws not only give murderers the legal justification to kill others. These laws also signal to jurors that killers have a right to take lives under the vague notion that they feel threatened.
This kind of legal sleight of hand, which allows perceived threats to be viewed as real, jeopardizes the lives of Black people, and, according to recent research, it particularly endangers Black men.
In a 2017 study, researchers found that people see Black men and boys as larger and more threatening than their similarly sized white counterparts. They sometimes use those stereotypes to justify using violence against Black males, and Trayvon Martin was no exception.
Black men are not the only ones facing a more dangerous world with stand-your-ground laws. Black women are too, and in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal, it was three Black women—Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors—who created the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag, which has since grown into an international movement to protect all Black lives, including those in the LGBTQ community.
However, as the movement has grown, so has the threat of stand-your-ground laws. As of 2020, legislation similar to Florida’s has been adopted by twenty-seven states with the help of two powerful forces—the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
“ALEC seized on the Florida law, which became part of ALEC’s ‘model legislation’ portfolio,” writes Rukmani Bhatia of the Center for American Progress. “The result was widespread efforts for state legislatures across the nation to enact these laws.”
The results have been devastating for Black people.
In November 2012, when a white man named Michael Dunn claimed he was threatened after confronting a group of Black teenagers over loud music in a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station, he fired into their car, killing seventeen-year-old Jordan Davis while claiming self-defense. Dunn was eventually convicted.
In February 2020, when Gregory and Travis McMichael, both white, confronted a twenty-five-year-old unarmed Black jogger named Ahmaud Arberry, they initially avoided arrest by claiming they were standing their ground and acting in self-defense. The McMichaels, along with William “Roddie” Bryan, a third white man who filmed the encounter, are awaiting trial after being charged with Arberry’s murder.
“These tragic deaths are not outliers,” writes Bhatia. “Researchers at American University found that approximately 30 people die each month in a ‘stand your ground’-related incident in states with these laws enacted. Data show that states with a version of ‘stand your ground’ laws see increased rates of homicides and injuries related to gun violence.”
Behavioral scientist Andrew Morral and economist Rosanna Smart, writing for the RAND Corporation blog, reviewed available research on stand-your-ground laws and arrived at similar conclusions. Their review found “‘moderate’ evidence—the second strongest level of evidence—that these laws are associated with an increase in homicides. Since publication of RAND’s report, at least four additional studies meeting RAND’s standards of rigor have reinforced the finding that ‘stand your ground’ laws increase homicides. None of them found that ‘stand your ground’ laws prevent violent crime. No rigorous study has yet determined whether ‘stand your ground’ laws promote legitimate acts of self-defense.”
Then, of course, there is the racism. John Roman, of the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, analyzed data from the FBI’s Supplemental Homicide Report for 2005–2009 in states with stand-your-ground laws. “The odds that a white-on-black homicide is ruled to have been justified is more than 11 times the odds a black-on-white shooting is ruled justified,” Roman told Bloomberg News. “No dataset will ever be sufficient to prove that race alone explains these disparities. But there are disparities in whether homicides are ruled to be self-defense, and race is clearly an important part of the story.”
It is indeed, which is why, in the interest of Black people’s survival, stand-your-ground laws must be challenged in courts, overturned in legislatures, and ultimately erased from the books.
If there is any doubt that these laws are meant to target Blacks, one need only examine a November 2020 proposal made by Florida governor Ron DeSantis. The governor, a white conservative, proposed an update to Florida’s stand-your-ground law in the wake of a summer of protests seeking racial justice after George Floyd and others were murdered by white police officers.
In an effort that seems to target the very Black Lives Matter protests that began with the killing of Trayvon Martin, DeSantis’s proposal would update the law to justify lethal force in instances of looting, criminal mischief, and arson “that results in the interruption or impairment of a business operation.”
DeSantis called the proposal “anti-mob” legislation. But neither DeSantis nor other conservatives proposed similar edicts after a largely white mob attacked the US Capitol in an attempt to overturn an election, killing a police officer and causing four other deaths in the process.
Thus, we must call stand-your-ground laws what they are: anti-Black laws. We must fight them with every fiber of our being.
The Demand: Eliminate stand-your-ground laws, which have served to justify the murders of Black and brown people, beginning with Trayvon Martin. These laws, which expand the definition of self-defense to a level that endangers all citizens, and especially people of color, have been shown to increase homicides rather than prevent them. Therefore, they must face legal challenges until they are wiped from the books at the state level and prohibited by federal law.
About the Author
Solomon Jones is an award-winning columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and morning host for WURD radio in Philadelphia. He is also a host for Classix 107.9 and a blogger for NPR affiliate WHYY. Jones is an Essence best-selling author who has been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, Nightline, and CNN. In 2019, Jones formed the Rally for Justice Coalition with a multitude of civil rights organizations. The coalition’s efforts resulted in the firing of over a dozen Philadelphia police officers who espoused racist rhetoric online. Connect with him on Twitter @solomonjones1 or at solomonjones.com.