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Criminal Justice

The Trayvon Generation: 10 Years After His Death, Classmates and Teachers Reflect on the Impact

People who knew Martin were “blindsided” by the racial justice movement his death sparked. But is America any different, 10 years later?

People call for justice in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a press conference on the steps of New York City Hall on March 28, 2012. (Photo by Allison Joyce/Getty Images)

Jerome Horton talks about the morning of Feb. 27, 2012, like he lived through it yesterday.

It started with a call from his longtime friend Tracy Martin, who wondered if Horton had heard from Martin’s son, Trayvon. The 17-year-old had gone to a nearby 7-Eleven in Sanford, Florida, the night before, but when Martin opened his bedroom door to ask if he wanted breakfast, Trayvon wasn’t there. His bed hadn’t been slept in.

Horton, Trayvon’s former football coach, hadn’t heard from him. Horton’s own son hadn’t spoken to the teen in two days. So Martin filed a missing person report.

“That’s when the police came in,” says Horton, 50. “They showed him pictures of Trayvon lying in the middle of the sidewalk.”

Ashley Gantt remembers the next morning with similar clarity. The young teacher had taken the day off from her job at Miami Carol City High School in Miami Gardens, Florida, and decided to check on her class. She texted one of her students, but the response she received wasn’t the one she expected.

“You remember that student, Trayvon?” the student texted back. “He was killed.”

Gantt went to her computer to search for news about a fatal shooting near Orlando, where the student said Trayvon had been. She found an article with a simple headline: “Man killed in Sanford.” 

“I know this isn’t about Trayvon. He’s a teenager,” she recalls thinking. “I didn’t believe that article was about his murder, but it was.”

Ten years after Trayvon Martin was killed while walking home from a corner store – carrying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of Arizona juice – the details of the aftermath are seared into the memories of those who were among the first to learn of his death: The former coach who cried with his father. The English teacher who comforted his classmates. The students who walked out of his school in protest.

For the rest of us, the details are familiar for a different reason. The elements of Trayvon’s story that launched a nationwide racial justice movement have replayed over the past decade attached to the names of other Black people killed by police or vigilante violence: Elijah McClain in Aurora, Colorado; Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Ohio; Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky; and Ahmaud Arbery in Brunswick, Georgia – to name just a few.

Arbery, 25, was killed almost exactly eight years after Trayvon, and the circumstances of their deaths were markedly similar. Both were traveling through familiar residential areas when they were pursued by armed white men who had deputized themselves to seek out burglars. Both cases ended with struggles – struggles that the Black men lost – and with the shooters claiming self-defense. In Georgia, the men said they were executing a legal citizen’s arrest against Arbery. In Florida, authorities said Zimmerman was protected by the state’s “stand your ground” law.

Georgia has since repealed its citizen’s arrest law. Florida’s stand your ground statute remains.

But the cases ended very differently. The three men involved in Arbery’s death have received life sentences for his murder, and a federal jury last week convicted them of engaging in a hate crime. George Zimmerman, the man who shot Trayvon, was acquitted of murder.

Still, Trayvon’s death launched what has been described as the largest social movement in U.S. history. Though the phrase “Black Lives Matter” wouldn’t be coined until after Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013, the protests demanding his arrest began soon after Trayvon’s killing. The teen’s classmates walked out of school. New Yorkers held a “Million Hoodie March.” And the digital social justice movement dawned: professional athletes, celebrities and politicians posted photos of themselves in hoodies on their social media accounts. 

Ten years later, for those who knew Trayvon and saw their private pain turn into a worldwide awakening, a question remains: Has anything changed?

‘Not that type of kid’

To Horton, it was clear from the beginning that the official narrative was being crafted against Trayvon.

According to reports at the time, Zimmerman told police that he got out of his vehicle when he saw a person walking and acting suspiciously in the gated community where Zimmerman lived and where Trayvon was visiting his father and his father’s girlfriend. After he lost sight of the teen and started walking back to his vehicle, Trayvon emerged from behind and attacked him, pounding Zimmerman’s head into the cement. 

Police told Trayvon’s family a similar story. And the same details were leaked to the public.

“They tried to make it like it’s self-defense, and we know that’s not Trayvon,” Horton said. He remembers encouraging the elder Martin to push back against that formulating narrative about his son. 

“You can’t let it go just like that. You have to fight this,” Horton told his friend. “He’s not that type of kid.”

People who knew Trayvon use many of the same words to describe him: easy-going, soft-spoken, smart, kind. That’s not to say he didn’t get into trouble, they say, but it was typical teenage stuff.

That trouble became a defining part of the early coverage of Trayvon’s fatal encounter with Zimmerman. As protests calling for Zimmerman’s arrest expanded across the country in March 2012, Trayvon’s school record was leaked to the Miami Herald. The teen had been suspended three times and was serving one of those suspensions when he was killed. 

In one case, a school security staffer wrote that Trayvon had “a burglary tool” in his backpack. The tool was a flathead screwdriver, the Herald reported. Months later, officials caught Trayvon with an empty baggie containing traces of marijuana.

Gantt remembers hearing Trayvon had been suspended and immediately getting angry. She had been his 10th-grade English teacher at Carol City High, a predominately Black school. When he told her that he was transferring to Dr. Michael M. Krop High – a school in north Miami-Dade County with a larger proportion of white and Hispanic students – for his junior year, she had mixed feelings. Krop was a good school, but she hated to lose a good student. 

Gantt didn’t originally know the reason behind Trayvon’s suspension. Now a criminal defense attorney, the former teacher says Trayvon’s experience is evidence of the unequal ways Black students are treated at schools where they are not the majority. 

“When it’s a Black student accused of using marijuana, it’s criminalized,” said Gantt, now 36. “But when it’s a white student, it’s kids being kids.”

Trayvon’s family confirmed the media reports about his suspensions but argued they were irrelevant to what happened the evening of Feb. 26, 2012. They noted that Trayvon had no criminal record, a fact that Sanford police refused to confirm publicly.

“They killed my son and now they are trying to kill his reputation,” Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, told reporters.

Eventually, details about Zimmerman’s background began to emerge. In 2005, he had been charged with assault on a police officer at a bar, several news outlets reported, but he avoided more severe consequences by entering a pre-trial diversion program. A girlfriend accused him of domestic violence that year, as well.

Reports also emerged that Zimmerman had called police nearly 50 times since 2004, largely to report minor concerns like open garage doors and loud music.

In the years after Trayvon’s killing, Zimmerman was again accused of domestic abuse, though charges were later dropped. He also sued Trayvon’s parents for defamation and conspiring to have charges filed against him, seeking $100 million in damages. A judge recently dismissed that case.

“I knew who this person truly was back then – a guy with a gun who saw a Black kid walking through a nice neighborhood,” Horton said. “He wanted to be known as the guy who stopped an assailant – a young, Black kid who was up to no good. But you stopped an innocent kid who was up to nothing.”

Walkouts and wake-up calls

One of Saige Mills’ strongest memories after Trayvon Martin’s death is of being kicked out of class for goofing off during the moment of silence for his classmate.

Krop High School had been doing its best to stay out of the rapidly intensifying political firestorm around the death of its new student. Mills recalls there was a candlelight vigil, and many students wore hoodies in Trayvon’s memory. But by the time Krop held a moment of silence through the PA system, about a month after Trayvon was killed, Mills was already disconnected.

“It was not a thing to me. It happened, but it doesn’t directly affect me,” said Mills, now 24 and living in Hollywood, Florida. “It was the space I had in my privilege.”

Krop was a diverse school, almost equally divided between white, Black and Hispanic students. Mills was one of the Black students, and he had shared a Spanish class with Trayvon. He remembers him as “a casual dude … the quintessential cool, Black kid,” often seen with his hoodie and headphones.

He also remembers the implicit pressure from adults to behave in ways that are “acceptable.” He learned to code-switch; he became adept at shifting between his authentic self and “palatable Black” – presenting in ways that are less threatening to white people. 

Elsewhere in the district, hundreds of Black students from Carol City High, Trayvon’s previous school, walked off campus in a spontaneous demonstration on March 22, 2012. They marched through the street shouting “Justice for Trayvon!” as district officials deployed school buses to retrieve them.

Some of the Black students at Krop held a similar, if less dramatic, walkout. Melesia McCants, who had known Trayvon since middle school, was one of them and remembers school officials initially resisting the students’ plans. Her white classmates were hesitant to get on board, too, she said.

“It was only the Black students who wanted to push the issue; our counterparts did not,” McCants said. “They cared, but they didn’t have that connection with him. So they didn’t understand why it affected us the way it affected us.”

For Mills, it would take time to fully understand the moment’s influence. After a decade of protest, a decade of seeing videos of Black people killed, a decade of experiencing microaggressions and racism in the real world, he says his perspective has evolved.

“I’ve gone through so many anxieties being a Black man in America,” he said. “I wish I would have gotten it back then. I would have been angrier; I would have handled it differently.” 

Mills was “blindsided” by the global racial justice movement that emerged from Trayvon’s death. McCants calls it “an eye-opener.” Horton calls it “amazing.”

“I was thinking it was going to be a spur-of-the-moment thing. That it was going to fall off,” Horton said. “But people kept pushing. It never stopped.”

Horton said he is heartened by the change he has seen in the U.S. Unlike Zimmerman, three men received life sentences for Arbery’s murder. Three of the police officers who were involved in George Floyd’s death have been convicted of violating his civil rights. A fourth, Derek Chauvin, was convicted of his murder. 

There’s progress, Horton says, awareness that he attributes to the proliferation of smartphones used to record these encounters. Trayvon, he notes, only had a flip phone.

But McCants is less convinced that there’s been real change. The convictions are little comfort when the deaths are still happening. The young mother knows she’ll have to have conversations with her son and daughter to ensure they get home safely. She knows that, when they get older, she’ll have to tell them about Trayvon.

“Unfortunately he didn’t get to live out his dreams. But he became a catalyst. His story will live on for generations,” McCants says. “I hope that we eventually will have the change we need, but I’m glad the story is being heard.”