“Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” arrives both too soon and right on time.
It’s been more than six years since the unarmed Florida teenager was racially profiled, stalked, and shot to death. Five years ago this month, Martin’s confessed killer was acquitted of second-degree murder. Yet watching the six-part documentary, which premieres Monday on BET, I was shaken. The pain of his death remains marrow-deep.
Martin didn’t pass on; he was pushed on. The single bullet that pierced his heart also ripped through this country. That wound hasn’t healed. It hasn’t even stopped bleeding.
“Rest in Power” is the most definitive exploration so far of Martin’s death and its aftermath. His story — what happened to him, what didn’t happen to the man who killed him, and what has occurred to too many African-Americans since his death — is also America’s story. It is an unending saga about lethal consequences in a nation that promulgates the idea of black criminality, even when an African-American is the victim.
Just this month, a white man at an Oakland train station stabbed Nia and Latifa Wilson, two African-American sisters. After Nia died, a Bay Area TV station inexplicably aired a social media photo with her holding what appeared to be a gun. It wasn’t even a gun — it was a novelty cellphone case. Nia was the victim of an unprovoked attack. What message was that station trying to convey about her with that pointlessly provocative photo? (John Lee Cowell, a convicted felon, has been charged with murder and attempted murder. It has not been called a hate crime.)
Nia Wilson was posthumously defamed. The same thing happened to Trayvon Martin, but on an exponentially worse level. Before Feb. 26, 2012, he was just another American teenager. He hung out with friends. He divided his time between his divorced parents. He played video games. He loved aviation, and considered becoming a pilot or airplane mechanic.
After Martin’s death, conservatives and racist groups scrutinized every aspect of his abbreviated life. From the hoodie he wore on his last night to a teenager’s typically indiscreet social media postings, Martin was recast as a violent perpetrator stopped by a good guy with a gun.
It reinforced narratives we still joust with — the infallibility of white fear and the expendability of black lives. And it also focused attention on Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Martin’s killer did not evoke it as a defense, but instructions given to jurors prior to their deliberations stated that the accused had the “right to stand his ground.” (FYI: In the calamitous Trump era, some feel nostalgic for the Bushes. Don’t. It was Jeb Bush who, as Florida’s governor, signed “stand your ground” into law.)
That noxious law is again in the news. During a dispute over a parking space, Markeis McGlockton was shot to death. He was black. His admitted killer, Michael Drejka, is white. He has not been arrested because of “stand your ground.”
This is why “Rest in Power” is often so difficult to watch. Six years later, it feels like we’re still running in place.
Martin’s death did prompt some action. What began as a social media hashtag, #BlackLivesMatter, became a worldwide crusade for racial justice founded by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Alicia Garza, and Opal Tometi. As longtime activist Angela Davis says in the documentary, “This was a time when we had to create justice for ourselves. That, I think, is what movements do.”
Social justice movements also spawn brutal pushback. After murdering nine African-Americans who welcomed him into their historic Charleston, S.C., church during Bible study in 2015, avowed white supremacist Dylann Roof told police, “The first thing, I would say, that woke me up would be the Trayvon Martin case.” He believed Martin got what he deserved.
The day before Roof’s mass murder, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United States. That’s not all these two had in common. They also fixated on — and in Trump’s case retweeted — bogus statistics about African-Americans murdering white people.
Like a heat-seeking missile, there’s a through line from Martin’s killing to Trump’s election. As despairing as this is, these two events have also charged constant resistance to Trump’s malignant presidency. With its combination of social media and direct street action, Black Lives Matter created a modern template for protest, one that has been duplicated from the Women’s March to the pro-gun-control March for Our Lives.
Co-produced by Cinemart and Shawn Carter (better known as Jay-Z), and created and distributed by Paramount Network, “Rest in Power” isn’t a dusty relic. Watching it, my soul could never rest, because every moment evokes a continuing misery. In Trayvon Martin, we see a 17-year-old on the brink of manhood. Now, he’s forever frozen in time.
The same can be said of a complicit America.