TV Series Examines The Significance Of Trayvon Martin's Death

Jul 30, 2018
Originally published on August 1, 2018 7:15 am
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It has been six years since Trayvon Martin was shot and killed while coming back from a trip to a convenience store in Sanford, Fla. Martin was 17 years old and unarmed. The shooter was a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer named George Zimmerman. Martin's death and Zimmerman's eventual acquittal became national news.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "REST IN POWER")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Suddenly everybody knew who Trayvon Martin was.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Trayvon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Trayvon.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Trayvon Martin.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It was like an explosion.

MARTIN: That's a clip from a new documentary series called "Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story." The series looks back on Zimmerman's trial and explains why Martin's death is relevant today. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: "Rest In Power" begins with a great deal of national sympathy for young Trayvon Martin. Then-President Barack Obama held a press conference and uttered these words.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

BARACK OBAMA: You know, if I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon.

BATES: Director Julia Willoughby Nason.

JULIA WILLOUGHBY NASON: Identifying race, you know, in a compassionate way is just not done in this country. And I think Obama was very compassionate and straightforward in saying that he - that Trayvon could have looked like him.

BATES: But, says series co-director Jenner Furst, that simple observation immediately alienated many white Americans.

JENNER FURST: The second that Obama said that Trayvon could have been his son, it became a window for right-wing commentators to start evolving their coverage.

BATES: Like Bill O'Reilly, then the star host of Fox News.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BILL O'REILLY: Zimmerman is not being treated fairly.

FURST: Now George Zimmerman was the victim of a president who was overreaching.

BATES: Tracy Martin, Trayvon's father, told me last week he felt the change immediately.

TRACY MARTIN: Trayvon was the victim in this case. And so they tried to make him be the villain in this case.

BATES: Now it wasn't George Zimmerman who was on trial but Trayvon and his family and friends. He was criticized for skipping school and getting suspended for writing on a locker. A forensic report revealed he had marijuana in his system the night he was killed. In a jury selection scene from the 2013 trial, one potential juror seemed to think poor parenting is what led ultimately to Trayvon's death in her town.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Being a single parent with two boys of my own, I don't want to judge. But I just want to say that this could have been prevented if he'd not been up here.

BATES: The televised cross-examination of Rachel Jeantel, the young woman who was the last person to talk to Trayvon, was brutal. And it doesn't get any easier when the series replays it. Jeantel, a reluctant witness for the prosecution, came across as a surly 19-year-old who answered the defense's goading questions in mangled, short sentences. Trayvon's mother, Sybrina Fulton, still resents how Jeantel was treated.

SYBRINA FULTON: I just felt that she was somebody's daughter, she was somebody's sister. She was, you know, somebody's friend. And she deserved that respect.

BATES: One defense lawyer questioned Jeantel's literacy on the stand and made an oblique, snide reference to her weight. Meanwhile, support was building for George Zimmerman. He was adopted by white nationalists and the alt-right as a martyr who'd been sacrificed to politically correct liberals. He didn't testify on his own behalf, but a police interview used in the series gives his explanation of events. In it Zimmerman, who didn't participate in this series, says he was ambushed by Trayvon Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "REST IN POWER")

GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: And he said, what the [expletive] your problem, homie? And I said, hey, man, I don't have a problem. And he goes, no, now you have a problem. And he punched me in the nose.

BATES: Later police footage shows Zimmerman with bandages on his nose and head as he shows police where the fight occurred. Directors Nason and Furst made Florida's "stand your ground" law, the ability to shoot and kill in self-defense, a major character in this series. They say the NRA has successfully used white anxiety about perceived black violence to grow and keep its membership for years. Here they show NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre taunting the media at a convention.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "REST IN POWER")

WAYNE LAPIERRE: Go ahead, write about our paranoia. But there is no greater freedom than the right to protect our families with all the rifles, shotguns and handguns we want.

BATES: "Stand your ground" was not cited specifically by George Zimmerman's lawyers, but Jenner Furst says that doesn't mean it wasn't there.

FURST: There's a common misconception that "stand your ground" was not involved in this case. And I think that that is a really dangerous thing.

BATES: In fact, although the defense did not lean on "stand your ground," it was included in the judge's final instructions to the jury. Most of us remember how this ended. George Zimmerman was acquitted. The six-person jury said the state had not adequately proved its case for second-degree murder. Although she was bitterly disappointed, Sybrina Fulton told me she was heartened to see the diversity of people who came out to protest her son's death and to demand justice for him.

FULTON: We didn't get into this situation with just African-Americans, and we're not going to get out of this situation with just African-Americans. And I think all races see that it's not necessarily about civil rights, but it's about human rights.

BATES: One of her child's favorite articles of clothing took on an importance none of them could have guessed. On camera, Angela Davis explains.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "REST IN POWER")

ANGELA DAVIS: Trayvon's hoodie became a symbol and helped create the sense of community and the sense of a community in struggle.

BATES: The hoodie was worn by street demonstrators, by a legislator on the floor of the U.S. Congress and by professional athletes like LeBron James, silent indicators of common support. Tracy Martin says his son's death became a rallying point just as another black boy's murder did in 1955.

T. MARTIN: Back in the Emmett Till days, that was our call to action. And so 2012, Trayvon Benjamin Martin became our call to action.

BATES: The abduction, torture and ultimate murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Miss., was a catalyst for the modern civil rights movement. Sybrina Fulton says the growth of Black Lives Matter after Trayvon's death is often countered with pushback that all lives matter. Why only black lives? She has a response.

FULTON: It's not taking away from anybody else's life. It's just putting emphasis on black lives because black lives seem to be so disposable.

BATES: Tracy Martin says when Trayvon first died, he and Sybrina thought their case was an isolated one. But as time has passed and as so many other black males have been killed - Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling and on and on - he understands there is a connection. He and Sybrina have established a foundation in Trayvon's name to provide emotional and financial support to families who have lost a child to gun violence. Tracy Martin.

T. MARTIN: Even though we know we can't save our son, we want to save someone else's son or daughter.

BATES: "Rest In Power: The Trayvon Martin Story" airs in six episodes beginning tonight on the Paramount Network. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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