A year after Trayvon Martin death, families reflect

USA TODAY, February 26, 2013

By Yamiche Alcindor

NEW YORK — Robert Zimmerman wears bulletproof vests when he goes outside his house. He doesn’t greet neighbors or look grocery store cashiers in the eye. Once, angry customers at Starbucks confronted him over one of the nation’s most controversial cases.

Zimmerman is not a suspect, but his brother, George, is the man accused of murdering Trayvon Martin a year ago Feb. 26. Like Trayvon’s family, Zimmerman’s family has been forever changed since the night Trayvon, a teenager whose parents say was racially profiled, was fatally shot in a dark Florida subdivision.

Amid plans for a vigil in memory of Trayvon in New York City, the families of George Zimmerman and Trayvon are speaking as publicly about the case as ever.

“George’s entire family was smeared by proxy,” said Robert Zimmerman, 31, who moved from Virginia to act as a full-time spokesman for his family. “The situation goes from peaceful to anxious, having uttered the Zimmerman name in public.”

Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, 46, continues to be haunted by the moment he identified his son’s dead body. For him, Feb. 26, the day of the shooting, and Feb. 27, the morning he identified his son, mark the worst days of his life.

“I just want to erase those two days,” he said. “No healing has been done inside my heart.”

Martin, a truck driver, hasn’t gotten a chance to grieve because of his public battle to get George Zimmerman arrested and charged. Instead of grief counselors and moments of reflection, the last year has been about speaking out against the racial profiling he says led Zimmerman to target his son. For Martin, peace may begin if a jury convicts Zimmerman.

In the weeks after Trayvon’s death in Sanford, Fla., the nation focused on the narrative of a young unarmed black man who was killed while walking home with a bag of Skittles and iced tea. People — fixated on Trayvon, Zimmerman and Sanford, Fla. — debated about race, gun laws and the meaning of self-defense.

Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who called the police after seeing what he said was a suspicious character in a neighborhood with a history of break-ins, pleaded not guilty to a second-degree murder charge and said he acted in self-defense. He remains free on $1 million bond.

Robert Zimmerman hopes a judge and possibly jury will look past the public discourses that tied this case to race and gun laws and see it for what he says it is — straightforward self-defense.

“George had to do what he did to save his life, and that tragic reality is a situation no one wants to find themselves in,” Robert Zimmerman said.

He said Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is Afro-Peruvian, grew up appreciating diversity among Spanish-speaking family members and Peruvian customs and festivals. Robert Zimmerman insists his brother did not act based on any racial notions the night of the shooting.

The death threats against Zimmerman and family have continued all year — spiking on Feb. 5, what would have been Trayvon’s 18th birthday. The Zimmerman family spends most days holed up, talking about developments in the case.

There are small traditions, such as Sunday Salsa nights when homemade appetizers ease the isolation. However, it’s in this recluse setting that George Zimmerman has gained more than 100 pounds.”We don’t even say hi to the next door neighbor or look at the cashier in the eye or talk to the guy at the gas station,” Robert Zimmerman said. “Your entire human interaction is the people you grew up with. It’s this survivor island.”

For Trayvon’s family, there obviously is no interaction with the young man who died before realizing his dreams of fixing and flying planes. For the teen’s family, there are only days filled with sadness and the building of Trayvon’s legacy.

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon’s mother, has spent the year trying to heal and working with other families whose children have been killed. She tells parents about her experience and lobbies for changes in “stand your ground” laws across the country.

“The first six months, we were crying a lot,” Fulton said. “But we can’t continue having our kids die for no reason. We have to come up with some plan to stop this violence. I don’t know if it’s gun control or educating people with guns.”

Dozens of people gathered in Union Square Park Tuesday to mark the night Trayvon was killed. Many in the large crowd carried signs displaying the late teen’s face, small white candles, and wore hoodies during the chilly, rainy event.

Surrounded by supporters, Trayvon’s parents, both donning black hoodies, and their attorneys reiterated their interest in seeing the murder case against George Zimmerman move through the courts. The two parents thanked supporters and blew out candles at 7:17 p.m., the exact time Trayvon died.

Meanwhile some well- known faces, Jamie Foxx and Michael Eric Dyson, also spoke through megaphones at the park.

“It’s the one year anniversary of the forced martyrdom of a young man who sought nothing more than to exercise his right to breathe and exist,” Dyson said, later calling Trayvon a “hate crime victim.”

Foxx later added that people should think of Trayvon as a typical teen who enjoyed his family and adolescent activities.

“The simple thing is allow the court system to work and allow a person to have their day and trial,” Foxx said.

The vigil, which lasted about an hour and a half, did not attract the same massive number of people as the rally held in New York for Trayvon last year.

Mikey Jay, 34, a rapper from the Bronx, offered his take on the smaller numbers. “People are probably just worried about themselves,” he said. “But me? I still care.”

Experts say this case will continue to hold the nation’s attention because of the public conversations it sparked.

On the surface, Sanford, Fla. looks normal. Weekly block parties have resumed, and residents stroll in and out of the downtown’s cafes, antique furniture stores and quirky bookstores. But people still quietly talk about the case in barbershops, church meetings, and living rooms.

No doubt, across the nation, the case has polarized people.

Supporters of Zimmerman have continued to donate his legal defense fund, giving more than $300,000. There are also online postings that argue Zimmerman should never have been arrested and that the murder charge he faces is an attack of self-defense laws.

Tens of thousands of Trayvon supporters have posted pictures of themselves wearing hoodies on Twitter, Facebook and other social media. While the rallies and protests seen in the weeks following the shooting have subsided, people continue to talk about the case as an example of the dangers of stereotyping.

“Trayvon Martin gave race in this country a very tangible representation of what it means to be a black man,” said Keisha Bentley-Edwards, a professor at the University of Texas-Austin who studies race, adolescence and academic and social development. “It triggered the realization that America can’t be post-racial when unarmed black children are being killed because they are perceived as a threat.”

Melinda Anderson, 49, has used the Trayvon Martin case to have an ongoing conversation about race with her son, Colin, 12. Both are black.

“There is still a level of outrage and resignation over if this boy will ever get justice,” said Anderson, a writer who lives in Silver Spring, Md. “I would hope that people don’t just use the day as an opportunity to go to a vigil but to really think about whether we are any closer to ensuring that another mother won’t be Sybrina Fulton.”

Zimmerman attorney Mark O’Mara hopes the case against his client will be unlinked to civil rights issues, saying his client is a “proven non-racist.” He acknowledges the case continues to polarize the nation.

“Everyone is holding their breath waiting for a verdict,” O’Mara said. “I don’t think it’s going to be healthy no matter what way it turns out. Half the people will be very unhappy.”