I was a relatively new parent when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed 10 years ago.
Although his death initially escaped the media radar, news of his shooting made national headlines a month later and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trayvon’s death touched me personally, and I have since been heartened to see the modern struggle for racial justice make its mark in Connecticut and across the country. But, while crime rates have risen, progress in the justice system remains not only incomplete, but also tenuous.
My second son was born a month and a day after Trayvon died. As I read the news of his murder, his spirit haunted me. I kept imagining someone seeing my boys, grabbing a gun, following them and killing them. The thought sent shivers down my spine, and to this day I find it difficult to speak publicly about the Trayvon Martin case.
Ten years are gone in the blink of an eye and as I question the white locks that spring from my temples and watch my eldest grow to his mother’s height, I wonder where the time has gone. It inevitably marched, leaving death after death of unarmed black men – and black women – in its wake. I think of their mothers and fathers, their children and their siblings and the years they lost with their loved ones.
These deaths have left a country changed – or, at least, a country in flux. For the first time in a generation, the land of the free has struggled with the fact that it has the highest incarceration rate in the world. The national media finally began exposing the glaring racial disparities in police shootings. Virginia banned the death penalty. Florida restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens.
Even the federal government found ways to pass the First Step Act. In sad echoes of the Trayvon Martin case, law enforcement initially failed to arrest Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, but after national attention shifted to the case, they eventually been charged and convicted. The Department of Justice has even found the strength to successfully prosecute the officers who refused to stop their colleague from killing George Floyd.
Change has also come to the land of stable habits. Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012, made it easier to get parole in 2015, banned chokeholds and enshrined de-escalation requirements into state law in 2020, and passed a bill to clean slate in 2021 which erased some previous convictions.
All of this may seem a long way from the events that claimed the life of a 17-year-old 10 years ago. But the case of Trayvon Martin laid bare the need to create justice worthy of the name. The assumptions that initially motivated police in Sanford, Florida not to charge George Zimmerman are the same ones that allow officers to escape the consequences of shooting unarmed black men. The harshness that categorizes the Stand Your Ground law that acquitted Zimmerman is of the same spirit that for decades scooped millions of black Americans into crack cocaine lawsuits while Wall Street bankers gleefully snorted cocaine with impunity. .
Public safety is a failing battlefield. The local crime rate can have a serious impact on the health of residents. But public perceptions of crime are also often in conflict with reality. For me, this tension has always been personal. I grew up in a neighborhood where criminal activity seemed to happen regularly somewhere just off-screen. I hated finding drug paraphernalia in my backyard or throwing condoms in the alley. My mother trembled with fear when my father knocked on the windows of cars idling on the road and asked them to pass. I was in middle school and home alone with my little sister one night when I overheard a man trying to break into our house. Few people were more grateful to see the police than we were.
But recognizing the negative impacts of crime doesn’t require a legal system that hands out the harshest sentences. Even the US Department of Justice has acknowledged that harsh sentences do not deter crime. And the severity does not lie only in the laws, but also in those who apply them.
I was also a federal prosecutor when Trayvon Martin was killed and I can attest to the deep resistance that lurks in the darkest recesses of law enforcement – the jokes that federal judges attending drug rehabilitation court were playing a game of “kissing a thug”; the coworker who told me I wasn’t safe riding my bike home in New Haven one night because there was going to be a Black Lives Matter rally; the knee-jerk sympathy many would express for police officers who shot unarmed citizens when they showed no sympathy for the families of the dead.
Black Lives Matter and the criminal justice reform movement have pushed back on this. In many ways, Connecticut has led the way in rethinking its legal system. But there’s still a lot of work to do – our bail system is unfair, taking advantage of an unfair tax on the lowest incomes, and the state is still too likely to view drug use as a law. penal rather than public health. And, although crime remains low compared to its peak in the 80s and 90s, the rise of the pandemic threatens the gains already made. This is true nationwide and in Connecticut. Just last year, anti-reform opponents in Connecticut attempted to use carjacking anecdotes to spur tougher criminal penalties, even though car thefts were down in 2021 compared to 2020.
May the memory of Trayvon Martin and all the other fallen keep us focused on progress. If we can do that, then we will really see them resting in power.
Liam Brennan is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.