I was a relatively new parent when Trayvon Martin was fatally shot 10 years ago.
Although his death originally flew under the media radar, reports of his shooting made national news a month later and the acquittal of his killer, George Zimmerman, helped spark the Black Lives Matter movement.
Trayvon’s death personally touched me and, in the time since, I’ve been heartened to see the modern-day fight for racial justice make its mark in Connecticut and around the country. But, as crime rates have risen, the advances made in the justice system not only remain incomplete, they are also tenuous.
My second son was born one month and one day after Trayvon’s death. As I read the news about his killing, his spirit haunted me. I kept imagining someone seeing my boys, grabbing a gun, following them, and killing them. The thought gave me chills and, to this day, I find it difficult to speak about the Trayvon Martin case publicly.
Ten years have vanished in a blink and as I interrogate the wisps of white that sprout from my temples and watch my eldest grow to his mother’s height, I wonder where the time has gone. It has inevitably marched on, leaving in its wake death after death of unarmed Black men – and Black women. I think about their mothers and fathers, their children and siblings and the years they have lost with their loved ones.
These deaths have left a changed country – or, at least, a changing one. For the first time in a generation, the Land of the Free grappled with the fact that it has the highest prison incarceration rate in the world. The national media finally began to expose the gross racial disparities in police shootings. Virginia outlawed the death penalty. Florida restored voting rights to formerly incarcerated citizens.
Even the federal government found the wherewithal to pass the First Step Act. In sad echoes of Trayvon Martin’s case, law enforcement initially failed to arrest Ahmaud Arbery’s killers, but after national attention came to the case, they were eventually charged and convicted. The Justice Department even found the strength to successfully prosecute the police officers who refused to stop their colleague from killing George Floyd.
Change also came to the Land of Steady Habits. Connecticut abolished the death penalty in 2012, made it easier to gain parole in 2015, outlawed chokeholds and wrote de-escalation requirements into state law in 2020, and passed a clean slate bill in 2021 that wiped out certain prior convictions.
All this may seem very far from the events that took the life of a 17-year-old 10 years ago. But Trayvon Martin’s case laid bare the need to create a justice system worthy of its name. The assumptions that initially motivated police in Sanford, Florida not to charge George Zimmerman are the same that allow police officers to escape consequences for shooting unarmed Black men. The harshness that categorizes the Stand Your Ground law that handed Zimmerman his acquittal is of the same spirit that, for decades, scooped millions of Black Americans up in crack prosecutions while Wall Street bankers gleefully snorted cocaine with impunity.
Public safety is a potholed battleground. Local crimes rate can have serious health impacts for residents. But the public’s perceptions of crime also often conflict with reality. For me, this tension has always been personal. I grew up in a neighborhood were criminal activity seemed to regularly occur somewhere just off screen. I hated finding drug paraphernalia in my front yard or discarded condoms in the dead end. My mother would shake with fear when my father would knock on the windows of cars that idled in the road and ask them to move along. I was in middle school and home alone with my little sister one night when I caught a man trying to break into our house. Few people have ever been more thankful to see the police than we were.
But acknowledging crime’s negative impacts does not require a legal system that doles out the most severe penalties. Even the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized that harsh penalties do not deter crime. And severity lives not just in the laws, but also in those who enforce them.
I was also a federal prosecutor when Trayvon Martin was slain and I can attest to the deep resistance that lurks in law enforcement’s darker corners — the jokes that the federal judges participating in a drug rehabilitation court were playing a game of “hug a thug;” the colleague who told me I wasn’t safe biking home in New Haven one evening because there was going to be a Black Lives Matter rally; the instinctual sympathy many would express for police officers who had shot unarmed citizens while they showed no sympathy for the families of the dead.
Black Lives Matter and the criminal justice reform movement have pushed back against this. In many respects, Connecticut has led the way in rethinking its legal system. But much work still remains – our bail system is unjust, leveraging an unfair tax on the lower-income, and the state is still too likely to see drug use through a criminal law, rather than public health, lens. And, although crime remains low compared to its peak in the 80s and 90s, the pandemic uptick threatens the gains already made. This is true around the country and in Connecticut. Just this last year, anti-reform opponents in Connecticut tried to use anecdotes about car jackings to revive harsher criminal penalties, even though car thefts declined in 2021 compared with 2020.
May the memory of Trayvon Martin and all the other departed keep us focused on progress. If we can do that, then we will truly see them rest in power.
Liam Brennan is a member of the Connecticut Mirror’s Community Editorial Board.