The Feb. 26 shooting within a Sanford, Fla. gated community did not seem likely to make news outside of Central Florida. But social media would take the factors of race and class inherent in the case and transform the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin into a full-fledged phenomenon, dominating 24-hour newscasts as well as tabloid headlines.
On that night in late February, the Miami high schooler was visiting his father and watching the NBA All-Star game with relatives. During halftime, he left his father’s home and went to a convenience store to purchase a bag of Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea. Within a few minutes he would be dead, apparently shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman.
How the two men collided is at the heart of the controversy Martin, who is black, and Zimmerman, a white Hispanic, were said to have scuffled. Zimmerman was allegedly suspicious that the teen was casing the neighborhood; Martin may have confronted the neighborhood watch volunteer because he was suspicious that a stranger was following him.
But the case did not make it to national headlines until March 8, after a petition calling for Zimmerman’s prosecution by Howard University law student Kevin Cunningham on Change.org went viral on social media. He later transferred the petition to Martin’s parents Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, which to date has more than 2 million signatures. The controversy achieved even greater heights on March 23 when President Obama said “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” In cultural terms many from the Miami Heat to ex-Michigan governor Jennnifer Granholm donned a hoodie similar to the one Trayvon was wearing when he died as a form of protest.
Zimmerman has since been charged with second-degree murder. Defense lawyers say Zimmerman was being pummeled by Martin and had no choice but to wield his handgun and open fire. If the defense team does not convince a judge that Zimmerman was within his rights to open fire based on the “Stand Your Ground” statute—which allows for such “justified” killing—then a jury will be convened on June 10 to try him for murder.