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Trayvon Martin's killing 10 years ago changed the tenor of democracy

People in Los Angeles walk in a silent protest march on April 9, 2012, to demand justice for the killing of Trayvon Martin.
David McNew
Getty Images
People in Los Angeles walk in a silent protest march on April 9, 2012, to demand justice for the killing of Trayvon Martin.

The killing of a Black teenager 10 years ago Saturday marked a pivotal point that would change the tenor of American culture and politics.

When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed on Feb. 26, 2012, after being followed in his Florida neighborhood by a self-appointed watcher, protesters across the country flooded the streets with demands for accountability. George Zimmerman's subsequent acquittal was met with stronger demonstrations, and a social media storm. And a single hashtag would become a rallying cry for the largest social movement in U.S. history: #BlackLivesMatter.

"If you look at the past 10 years, some of the movements where you see that the most amount of democratic energy and activity has been in movements for racial justice," says Juliet Hooker, a political science professor at Brown University. "These are the moments where you see ordinary citizens engaged in politics, trying to to change policy, trying to to address past wrongs."

The clearest example of this engagement played out two summers ago. Against the backdrop of a novel pandemic and fueled by the president's racial antagonism, millions of people engaged in demonstrations in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., following the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Corporations, either pushed by employees or out of fear of public scrutiny, quickly issued Black Lives Matter press releases. Financial firms including Goldman Sachs pledged to fund support groups that address racial injustice. Most glaringly, the National Football League — on the heels of its own racial discrimination controversy with former quarterback Colin Kaepernick — stenciled "End Racism" in the end zone and the Black National Anthem was played at its season opener.

"The Black Lives Matter movement is interested in both cultural change and policy change," says Deva Woodly, a professor of politics at the New School for Social Research. "Without cultural change, policy changes are always vulnerable." One of the leading tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement is getting people to understand how structural racism impacts the world.

There are fears that the institutional guardrails of democracy are weakening

Though the movement has seemingly yielded some cultural change, it comes at a time when hope for legal change is tenuous. "At the same time, I think we're also facing a situation in which the institutional guardrails of democracy are really in danger if not broken completely," Hooker says.

The Supreme Court's conservative supermajority recently reinstated an Alabama voting map that a lower court said would hurt Black voters. Moreover, the U.S. Senate has failed to pass new voting rights legislation that would restore parts of the Voting Rights Act gutted a decade ago.

"There are all these ways in which I think we're seeing that U.S. democracy was never a full democracy," Hooker says. "It's never been that, even after the extension of voting rights." Hooker adds that the institutions preserving democracy are now being revealed as fragile.

Black Lives Matter faces a backlash

The fragility of these institutions becomes increasingly important as the movement faces a countermovement. Voter suppression is one of a few classic examples of backlash to Black justice movements. The policy and cultural gains of Black Lives Matter have been met with not only resistance, but also an era of white backlash.

For the past several years, conservatives have pushed back on the idea of structural racism by campaigning against teaching about racism in any form in kindergarten through high schools. The backlash is against what they call "critical race theory." Critical race theory is actually an advanced legal scholarship that is taught in law school.

"Backlash is inevitable," Woodly says. "There's no way to avoid backlash when fighting for political equality for Black people in the United States."

History reveals a playbook of backlash when fighting for these types of movements. "During every advance of racial justice in American history, there has been usually a violent and armed white backlash, combined with a rollback of rights for Black and brown people" Woodly adds.

After the Civil War, Southern states introduced so-called black codes, which severely restricted the rights of formerly enslaved people. Woodly notes that in addition, the Ku Klux Klan and other violent white supremacist organizations formed to intimidate Black voters.

There was similar backlash which aimed to roll back the gains of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. "And so we see the same thing happening today, and it is tiresome and discouraging, but it underlines the point of a need for the cultural change," Woodly says.

Cultural change may not be enough

Alvin Tillery Jr., a political science professor at Northwestern, agrees that cultural change is critically important and should be celebrated. "But ultimately, if they don't win at multiple levels, by sustaining organization, getting new resources, generating policy change, then they're not really going to have any chance to stand the tide against backlash," he says.

"Ultimately in these communities, no one is going to say, 'Oh, it's been a great success over 10 years because of cultural change,' " Tillery says. "They're going to say, 'You know, either the police are behaving differently or they're not.' "

He recalls his experience growing up in the 1970s when the cultural shift was in the form of Malcom X or Marcus Garvey T-shirts. That movement only won a cultural change, he says.

"And so if we don't get it together in this moment, and organize differently," Tillery says, "then I worry that 20 years from now, my kids will be wearing the Black Lives Matter T-shirt, but still living in a society that is not mobilized effectively to preserve multiracial democracy."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Robert Baldwin III
Robert Baldwin III is an assistant producer for Weekend All Things Considered and a reporter covering developing legal issues. Baldwin was part of the team that won a 2019 National Press Club Award for the breaking news coverage of the Pittsburgh Tree of Life Synagogue shooting.

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