I was a high school senior when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed.
The site of his death was less than 30 minutes away from my home in a smaller Florida town.
I don’t remember much from the day he died. According to my Facebook posts from that night I was sitting at home, watching the Oscars.
I do remember the next days though. We sat in AP English whispering about it in our corner of the classroom. The class was predominantly white, upper middle-class teenagers who at the time were deciding which colleges to attend. There were vaguely racist comments. There were other students shutting them down.
I remember sitting there silently. Even then I knew to just listen and observe. I remember one person turning to me.
“You think this whole thing will get blown up like Casey Anthony did?”
“I don’t know. This is different.”
When Caylee Anthony was kidnapped and murdered, Orlando became a nightmare. The death of a child turned into a soap opera. While many people recall watching the OJ Simpson trial, I remember watching Central Florida implode during Casey Anthony’s. A little girl’s death turned into a soap opera, and my hometown followed every second of it.
Facebook was a mess. Supermarket aisles were places to chat about the death of a toddler. It was impossible to escape.
The coverage of Trayvon Martin’s death was far more nuanced. Orlando learned so much from their mistakes during their last major media scandal. For the world, Trayvon Martin’s death was the start of a movement.
It was also about my home. It was confirmation that I lived in an area that had casual racism. It taught me to look past emotion, and focus on facts. It taught me ethics. It taught me humanity.
It made me want to dive into communities, and tell their stories.
I’m the only person in my high school graduating class of 480 who became a journalist. I’ve told plenty of stories about how the death of a 17 year old boy changed millions of lives around the country and sparked a new kind of civil rights movement.
Trayvon Martin didn’t make it to adulthood. Thousands of kids throughout the country won’t for the same reason.
I covered the death of Robert Dentmond, a teenage boy in Gainesville who died after threatening to shoot neighbors with an assault rifle. Multiple law enforcement officers shot him. Turns out, the gun was a replica covered in tape. We later found out that Robert Dentmond was suicidal.
I held a teenager’s hand that week as I asked questions about her friend during a town hall meeting. She cried, and I squeezed tighter.
James Means, a teenager in Charleston, was allegedly shot and killed by a 62-year-old white man. He was unarmed. The man admitted to shooting him. “The way I look at it, that’s another piece of trash off the street,” he told police officers.
I didn’t cover the immediate details of his death (I typically cover a suburban county just west of Charleston.) Weeks later, I covered a memorial service for him that doubled as an informational session for programs for inner city children. James Means’s friends and cousin sat with me that night. An 11-year-old began to sob on my shoulder while telling me about her friend.
I told them that night about a boy who died a few towns over when I was 17.
They knew his name. They knew his story.They knew Trayvon Martin.
Five years ago, Trayvon Martin was another kid who died a few towns over. Now, he’s a symbol for so much more.
Want to read some great coverage looking back at the trial? Here’s the Orlando Sentinel’s piece today.
Also from the Sentinel, In The Shadow Of Race, a series about racial and cultural division in Central Florida.