Trayvon Martin Verdict Sparks Young Activists

by Randy Shaw on July 18, 2013

Since George Zimmerman’s acquittal, the debate about racial justice in the United States has changed. Young activists who did not take to the streets over the Supreme Court’s voting rights ruling, or in response to state passage of voter id laws, have been galvanized into action. The Dream Defenders and other young activists are reenergizing the African-American civil rights movement, returning to the creative nonviolent civil disobedience tactics of earlier generations.

While acquittals in such cases often provoke protests, the response to the Trayvon Martin verdict is broader, has greater geographical diversity, and is designed to go beyond the short term. It is too soon to know whether civil rights activists will achieve any of their specific goals, but it is already clear that 17-year old Trayvon Martin has reshaped the national debate about race.

There is a familiar pattern following acquittals in cases where the victim was killed due to their race. Protests are usually limited to the geographic area of the trial, and they rarely become the building blocks for broader movements for change.

The Trayvon Martin response has been different. An understandably frustrated and impatient movement of young activists is developing plans for a sustained campaign. The first series of national actions is set for July 20, when there will be “Justice for Trayvon” National Day of Action Vigils in 100 Cities. Action plans are being formulated on multiple fronts, including pushing the Justice Department to prosecute Zimmerman under federal civil rights laws, initiating possible legal action against “Stand Your Ground” laws, and battling state-based efforts to impose new barriers to voting rights.

Dream Defenders

Consider the following mission statement of the Dream Defenders, a group whose name evokes both Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and the DREAM ACTivists who reenergized the immigrant rights movement:

“A new generation of youth, leaders, and organizers for social change, must be identified, engaged, trained, and sent back to their communities to build. Few in Florida are willing to invest in true leadership for black and brown youth. Ignited by the unjust death of one of our own one spring night in Sanford, We have dedicated our lives to battling the criminalization of a generation. We are building concrete power and committed to defending the dreams of our community and our generation.”

Roughly sixty Dream Defenders began a sit- in in Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office on Tuesday, and thirty spent the night in the Florida Capital building. Scott has not returned to his office and has been unwilling to meet with the protesters.

Nobody expects Scott to repeal the Stand Your Ground law, or to debate Dream Defenders on its merits. But young activists are using nonviolent civil disobedience to keep media focus on their demands, and are sending a powerful public message that this is a time for action, not resignation or cynicism.

A New Generation of Leadership

For years, many believed the civil rights movement needed a new generation of leadership. While this premise wrongly highlights “leadership” over the need to build a mass movement engaging in strategic activism, I understand the point. Whenever a civil rights crisis like the Martin verdict occurs, Rev. Jesse Jackson is on television and is joined by the usual suspects of longtime leaders in the cause.

The Dream Defenders and the many other grassroots civil rights and social justice groups— whose pressure got Zimmerman arrested in the first place— offer a new model. It’s a model that encourages broad participation and creates news through actions, not simply by media appearances.

Many believe that the modern equivalents of the charismatic civil rights leaders of the 1950’s and 1960’s are elected officials today, no longer blocked from serving in public office. But many are also activists operating out of the media spotlight.

Emmett Till’s 1955 lynching helped regenerate the civil rights movement of that era. Now, Trayvon Martin’s tragic death and the acquittal of his killer could have the same impact today.

Randy Shaw is the Editor of BeyondChron. He discusses rising activism among young people in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century. He is also the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

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