On February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed 70 yards away from his father’s townhouse at the Twin Lakes gated community in Sanford, Florida. Martin was returning from a late-night trip to 7-11, where he purchased a bag of Skittles and an Arizona watermelon drink.
Martin, who was unarmed, was shot once in the chest during a physical altercation with neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who followed the teenager into a courtyard. Zimmerman would eventually be acquitted under a controversial application of Florida self-defense laws.
Six days after the crushing verdict, President Barack Obama held a 20-minute speech in the White House Press Room, where he spoke on the trial and race in the United States. Obama said he identified with Trayvon. The president spoke softly, uttering words that would soon become headlines. “Trayvon Martin could’ve been me, 35 years ago.”
Martin’s death sparked a movement that still resonates with many across the world today: #BlackLivesMatter.
Alicia Garza penned “essentially a love note to Black people” on Facebook the night the verdict was announced. 300 miles away that same night, a close friend, Patrisse Cullors, started sharing Garza’s sentiment. Each time she reposted, she used the same hashtag: #BlackLivesMatter.
The next day, Cullors and Garza discussed creating a broader cause to action, and a campaign around those very words. Garza says their intentions were to “make sure we are creating a world where Black lives actually do matter.”
The women contacted Opal Tometi, an immigrant rights activist they knew. The three women began creating Tumblr and Twitter accounts, encouraging users to share why #BlackLivesMatter to them. Garza hung up signs in local store windows, and Cullors led a march down Rodeo Drive. Slowly, the slogan started building on itself.
Just over a year after Zimmerman was acquitted, another Black teenager was killed. This time, it took place on a hot summer day in Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis County. The victim was 18-year-old Michael Brown.
Darren Wilson, a White police officer, had fired 12 rounds at the unarmed highschool graduate. He would die face-down in the street, and his body would be left there for nearly 4 hours. The intense, bitterly-disputed circumstances surrounding Brown’s death gave birth to a second rallying cry: #HandsUpDontShoot.
The day after Brown was killed, protests broke out. Police officers with riot gear and tear gas took to Ferguson’s streets. The women were floored. They were witnessing an almost exact replay of the tragedy that they had witnessed a year prior. They organized a ‘Freedom Ride’ under their newly-founded #BlackLivesMatter campaign. Over 500 people from 18 cities attended. Garza was amazed to see that her rallying cry had extended all the way to Ferguson, being echoed in the streets and written on signs by people she had never even met.
Later, after a grand jury announced Darren Wilson would face no charges for killing Brown, the phrase got even bigger. Groups of protestors shut down a shopping mall, Hillary Clinton used the phrase in a speech at a Human Rights event, and by January of 2015, the American Dialect Society declared #BlackLivesMatter as their Word Of The Year.
In the years following the shootings, the phrase has only grown stronger with countless high-profile instances of Police Violence and racial injustice. Young men died in police custody; names such as George Floyd, Freddie Gray, and Eric Garner. Black women including Pamela Turner, Breonna Taylor, and Korryn Gaines were also killed by Police.
Now, there are over 30 individual Black Lives Matter chapters in the US. Overall, the movement is a decentralized organization with no formal hierarchy or headquarters. In September of 2020, support for the movement among American adults hung just around 55%, with noticeably low percentages of white adults, while support remained strong and widespread amongst Black adults.
The popularity and success of the movement shows us something. It shows us Trayvon didn’t have to die in vain. His tragic, wrongful death gave birth to something much bigger than he ever could’ve imagined: a worldwide cause dedicated to bringing awareness to the unjust deaths just like his, and the very real struggles Black citizens just like him face every single day.
Martin’s legacy lives on in remembrance of a stand-up young man who was taken off the earth much too soon. There was so much Martin had yet to experience – getting a driver’s license, graduating highschool, and getting married, just to name a few.
As long as someone cares, as long as there’s still good people in the world, Trayvon Martin’s memory will never die, nor will #BlackLivesMatter