Patrisse Cullors is one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement, a movement which began after unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman nearly six years ago. Today, NBC News has published a piece by Cullors which repeats some false claims about Martin’s death, foremost among them that he was murdered in “cold blood.”
February 5th marks five years and 339 days since Trayvon Martin’s memorial service; it would also be his 23rd birthday.
The day is necessarily somber. Nearly six years ago, Trayvon’s death at the hands of white supremacist vigilante violence indicated the beginning of an escalating attack on Black lives and demanded that this nation confront its overtly racist past and present. The urgency of #Justice4TrayvonMartin turned into a global urgency to fight for Black lives — one which persists today.
What we acknowledged as a nation during the one-and-a-half year trial of George Zimmerman is that the white majority’s public imagination of Black people was based on their fear of us, not the reality of who we are. Trayvon Martin was a teenage boy literally walking in his own neighborhood doing what most teenagers do: Wearing a hoodie, buying snacks and talking on his cell phone. His family and Trayvon would not know that his life would end that night because a white vigilante would be empowered by his own racist beliefs and murder a 17-year-old boy in cold blood.
That link at the top of the piece goes to a piece Charles Blow wrote in March 2012, after Martin’s death but before months of media reports and a trial that revealed much more about what happened that night. Blow wrote at the time:
The two allegedly engaged in a physical altercation. There was yelling, and then a gunshot.
When police arrived, Trayvon was face down in the grass with a fatal bullet wound to the chest. Zimmerman was standing with blood on his face and the back of his head and grass stains on his back, according to The Orlando Sentinel…
Yet the questions remain: Why did Zimmerman find Trayvon suspicious? Why did he pursue the boy when the 911 operator instructed him not to? Why did he get out of the car, and why did he take his gun when he did? How is it self-defense when you are the one in pursuit? Who initiated the altercation? Who cried for help? Did Trayvon’s body show evidence of a struggle? What moved Zimmerman to use lethal force?
At the time, there weren’t answers for most of those questions, but in hindsight, there are answers for many of them. For instance, Martin was aware someone was following him. He could have gone home and avoided Zimmerman. Instead, he apparently turned back and confronted him.
Up to this point, no one involved had committed a crime. It was a misunderstanding which should have been easily resolved. But then the misunderstanding became a scuffle. Who was responsible for that transition to violence? Zimmerman says it was Martin, as you might expect he would. But Martin’s girlfriend, Rachel Jeantel, who was on the phone with him just before the shooting, told Marc Lamont Hill in 2013 that she thought it was likely Martin who had thrown the first punch.
Eventually, Zimmerman wound up on the ground getting hit. Injuries to his nose and the back of his head matched his account of what happened. At least one witness said it was Zimmerman on the ground and screaming for help while Martin appeared to pound him from above. Zimmerman eventually pulled his gun and shot Martin.
This was not a cold-blooded murder. Zimmerman did not see a stranger and cooly shoot him in the back. He was beaten and fired his weapon in self-defense. That’s not just my conclusion. A jury looked at the evidence and concluded Zimmerman was not guilty of murder.
That doesn’t mean Martin’s death isn’t a tragedy and a terrible event for his family. But it’s irresponsible for activists like Cullors to keep spreading falsehoods about this case in order to bolster her significance and that of the group she founded. As with the deaths of Michael Brown and Sandara Bland, one can wish things had gone very differently in each case without veering into “hands up, don’t shoot” conspiracy theory territory.