BY JENNY DEVRIES
On the evening on Feb. 26, 2012, in Sanford, Florida, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin journeyed outside in the rain to a convenience store that, unbeknownst to Martin, had experienced several robberies recently.
He was shot upon leaving the store by neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, who had called the police minutes prior on account of Martin’s ‘suspicious behavior.’
The story became national news almost overnight. U.S. media followed the ensuing trial, which saw Zimmerman acquitted, and launched discussion across the country about race relations.
The Coalition of Black Students (CBS) hosted Tracy Martin, father of Trayvon Martin, who spoke to students, staff and community members on Saturday, Feb. 13 in Sheslow Auditorium.
“We’re still fighting to be treated as equals,” Martin said. “Our young men and women are treated as suspicious because of the clothes they wear, because of the way they talk, the way they walk. Trayvon was basically killed for looking suspicious, and we need to change that narrative.”
Martin addressed three major changes that the U.S. specifically must change in order to improve race relations: society’s perceptions of African-American youth, media news reports and the legal system.
After the court’s decision on July 13, 2013, Martin realized he needed to be part of a positive change in the narrative of how black youth are treated, not only within society but within the justice system as well.
The injustice that Martin is fighting against is a large reason why Anthony Pawnell, vice president of CBS, said the organization wanted Martin as the figure to speak to Drake students.
“As we look (at) many of the protests that occurred in the last five years, Trayvon Martin’s death was the catalyst for most of them,” Pawnell said. “We thought it was only right to bring someone that pushes our thinking as we engage in social justice work.”
But changing society’s perceptions about African- Americans, as Martin points out, is an arduous process, one that has lasted for hundreds of years and continues to this day.
“I look back to 1863, when people point to Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves and they think that’s where the story ends,” Martin said. “But now, more than 100 years later, after the Emancipation Proclamation, you still have people being treated as second-class citizens.”
But Martin argues it isn’t just society that must change; it is also the media. He points out that there are topics not approached, proverbial “elephants in the room,” that need to be addressed if productive discussions about race relations are to continue.
“When you look at CNN or Fox, the issues that make the news are topics like sex trafficking or global poverty and there are two categories that America doesn’t want to talk about: prejudice and racism,” Martin said. “As African- Americans, we’ve never been afraid to talk about those issues because it’s a reality in our lives.”
That reality Martin points out is one that harms not just forward progress for race interactions, but particularly the families directly affected by media reports, with his family being no exception.
When asked about the most frustrating part of Martin’s experience after his son’s death, he explained it was that the media exploited the tragedy.
“The media focusing on a dead 17-year-old, that they didn’t know, the media tried to ruin his character,” Martin said. “It tore me apart. As a parent, you know your child. That was the hardest for me.”
Martin’s third point of changing the narrative surrounding African-Americans centered on the legal system. He cited the jury acquitting Zimmerman as evidence.
“The jury didn’t perceive the problem through an African- American’s eyes,” Martin said. “They didn’t understand the pain of a father losing his son’s life. Their decision had already been made.”
To address the changes Martin believes must occur within the legal system, he used a metaphor of a boy selling drugs to support his family. Martin argued that without opportunity to change, individuals will continue to act the same.
“If we want people to stop engaging in criminalizing behavior, we must change and create opportunity,” Martin said.
Part of that change is one the Drake community can take active part.
Melisa Klimaszewski, advisor for CBS, has worked with the organization and administration to provide opportunities for students and community members to come together to engage in race-related dialogues.
“At Drake, we’re becoming increasingly invested in making sure we have those difficult discussions around racial inequality and racism that students need to have,” Klimaszewski said. “These conversations are painful, but Drake is stepping up by saying we need to invest in them.”
By bringing in Martin, Pawnell argues that this has helped Drake take the first step in bringing attention to the acts committed against African-Americans and the long-lasting effects it has on the community.
“So far it seems that whenever we speak about tragedies resulting in the death of a young black person, we rarely speak about the deeper effect it has on the parents of those children and I think Tracy Martin provided that insight for us,” Pawnell said.
CBS plans to build off the momentum Martin brought to campus. Their ideas focus on high-quality events that spark deeper conversation about race interactions.
“These events will reveal more of African-Americans’ experiences in the U.S.,” Pawnell said. “I hope students find what Tracy said eye-opening, to say the least. These are people.
(They) aren’t just images on the TV or computer, they’re grieving fathers that can never get their sons back.”
Klimaszewski has similar faith in the power of conversation for students in regards to approaching the sensitive topic of racism.
“My greatest hope for the conversations that continue would be seeing more students comfortable talking directly about racism,” Klimaszewski said. “More students might invest in combating racism in all of its forms.”
Though the road to change is long, Martin finds peace knowing that it is possible through the younger generations who are passionate leaders.
He spoke specifically to the students in the audience, encouraging them to be the catalyst for change.
“You can continue to educate yourself,” Martin said. “We need young promising leaders to make these changes. They’re not going to happen overnight and we have to continue to be strong and engage each other. Use your whole community and be a champion of justice.”