Telling the tale of two young black men

A bungled case, a villain, and a slew of sympathetic, media-savvy advocates pushed Trayvon Martin's tragedy into national headlines--but should it take such a perfect storm?

In the early hours of New Year’s Day in 2009, a young man named Oscar Grant boarded a BART train bound for Oakland. He was 22, traveling with a few friends and his girlfriend. They had spent the night watching the fireworks in San Francisco.

What comes next is documented in the terrible cellphone videos that circulated in the days immediately after: The BART police arrived and dragged Grant’s crew off the train (there had been a report of black men fighting); Grant sat quietly before being pushed face down and restrained by a knee on his neck; Grant was essentially executed in front of the early morning revelers, hit by single shot fired from the gun of officer Johannes Mehserle, who said he was acting in self defense. Grant had been reaching for a weapon, Mehserle said (Grant had none), and he had been reaching for his Taser.

Since the last week’s release of Fruitvale Station, a movie documenting Grant’s last day and recreating his horrifying death, the press has been drawing the inevitable comparisons to the tragedy of Trayvon Martin. (Filmmakers are counting on such comparisons as part of their marketing campaign.) Though Grant—22 years old, a father, with several drug-related arrests—paints a different picture than the scrawny, 17-year-old football player, the two cases hit at a similar cultural scandal: Both were killed by white men who assumed criminality when faced with a young, black male.

But there’s another big difference between the two cases: If you weren’t living in the Bay Area in 2009, you probably haven’t heard of Grant. Though local publications covered the case and subsequent trial in painstaking detail, Grant’s story never broke into national headlines. The New York Times printed 291 articles and hundreds of blog posts on Trayvon Martin, plastering the front pages during accused shooter George Zimmerman’s trial. The Gray Lady published only a handful of articles on Grant’s death, which ran mostly in the Bay Area pages and focused on the violent Oakland riots that followed the shooting. The New Yorker has written 49 posts that comprise some of the most salient coverage of Martin’s case, including a particularly poignant hoodie tribute, whereas the only mention of Grant is a short review of Fruitvale Station.

If Trayvon Martin’s death made continuous headlines because of the exceptional brutality of his slaying—and the way his story thrust open our culture of racial profiling—consider, for a moment, the roster of other dead young black men whose similar stories have recently garnered attention only by association. “Is Jordan Russell Davis the new Trayvon?” asked the The Atlantic Wire in November, after the 17-year-old was shot eight times inside his parked car after an altercation over loud music. Though the shooter, a 45-year-old white man, bore no injuries, he has chosen, like Zimmerman, to plead not guilty to the slaying, telling officials that something about Davis made him “feel threatened.” Justin Patterson, a 22-year-old Georgia man, was killed while partying with his brother at the home of an 18-year-old friend whose uncle awoke, assumed the young men were raping his niece, and fired a few “warning” rounds. Patterson bled out in the yard while his brother ran for help.

Then there’s 13-year-old Darius Simmons who, like Martin, was slain, while walking in his Milwaukee neighborhood, by an older white man who accused the child of breaking into his home and stealing his guns. Simmons was, of course, without said guns, but law enforcement accepted his guilt so readily they questioned his mother for an hour and a half while her son died in a nearby hospital.

“These stories happen all the time,” Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told The New York Times after Patterson’s death. “It’s heartbreaking and tragic, but there’s not much news coverage unless the circumstances are truly, truly unusual.” Perhaps the most telling revelation of Trayvon Martin’s death is that violence hinging on the assumption of a young black man’s criminality is rarely unusual enough to warrant the eyes and ears of the fourth estate.

In many ways the discrepancy between Oscar Grant and Trayvon Martin reflects, at least in part, the immeasurable effort a group of family members and well-connected advocates exerted to wrench Martin’s story out of Florida and into national headlines. On February 28, two days after his death, his father placed a call to Benjamin Crump, a prominent civil-rights attorney in Florida, who had learned media-savvy trying the case of another black teen, beaten to death at a youth detention center in 2006. Crump lost that case, but he learned from his failure, and his strategy for Trayvon Martin involved making sure the case was tried in the press first.

The day after taking the case, Crump called Rev. Al Sharpton, who began a dogged campaign to mention the story on the airwaves. By March 5, Crump had found a publicist, Ryan Julison, to work the case pro bono. Julison began pitching the story to press using Martin’s family to elicit sympathy. “I got on the phone with Tracy Martin and I told him, ‘It’s not going to be any fun, but this is the only way to find justice,’” Julison explained to Reuters. “You are going to have to bare your soul and express your emotions and your inner grief.”

So Martin’s parents dedicated themselves to publicizing their plight, giving interviews, maintaining an active twitter account, and creating a foundation only a few weeks after their son’s death. “I think his parents were really courageous,” says Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change.”Taking a moment that anyone would’ve totally understood if they went inward and decided to just mourn as a family, and realize that something was wrong, and instead reach out and push for the story to be told.” On March 7, Reuters ran a feature on Martin’s parents quest for justice; the next day CBS This Morning filmed a segment.

A few days later, a 31-year-old attorney living in Washington DC read the Reuters story and filled out a petition, calling for Zimmerman’s arrest; Jon Perri, a campaign director at, saw a chance to make the cause spread. “The petitions that are going to be the most successful are those that tell a personal story about whomever is going to be affected,” said Perri. He contacted Martin’s parents, rewrote the document to include family stories, and transferred the petition to their name. He sent the petition in an email to about a million users; 10 days later, the document had over a million signatures. (Researchers at the MIT media lab tracked Martin’s story through the press and found that it was his parents and advocates, not the Internet, that really got the word out.)

Back in Oakland in 2009, activists had to raise a similar stink to demand Mehserle’s arrest. (Like with Zimmerman, Mehserle’s arrest wasn’t immediate; it took two weeks for him to be charged after the shooting.) But Grant’s family played a less pivotal role in the coverage.

“They were dealing with his death and the trial and all that,” recalls Tony Coleman, one of the Oakland activists who led the protest movement following Grant’s death. “They would show up and thank people for their efforts, but they weren’t being called upon to speak on behalf of the movement.” Grant’s single mother, a UPS worker, probably didn’t have a great civil rights lawyer on speed-dial. And, perhaps, they formed a less enticing picture for the press than Martin’s decidedly middle-class family. “Trayvon’s family—they were nice, churchgoing people,” says Van Jones, a civil rights activist and attorney who has served as an advisor to President Obama. “They were both nicely employed—there were some Rosa Parks elements there.”

Perhaps Trayvon Martin’s death, with its absence of witnesses and crackly 911 call, provided a more interesting topic for talking heads than the YouTube videos of Oscar Grant’s death in front of a train full of observers. And the enigma of Zimmerman, a racist vigilante or a rash good samaritan, provided the perfect character for the press and activists to project their anger onto. The National Black Churches Initiative, which organized many of the protests following the Zimmerman verdict (he was acquitted earlier this month), issued its first statement after Zimmerman told Fox news that Martin’s death was part of God’s plan. “It was clear we were dealing with someone who was trying to justify killing an innocent child,” says church leader Rev. Anthony Evans. As Jelani Cobb wrote in The New Yorker, “Were the elements of the Trayvon Martin story—the plaintive cry for help punctuated by a gunshot; the image of Martin, seventeen and looking young for his age, in a football jersey; the iced tea and Skittles he carried—not so indelible, the events would seem like something from a Tom Wolfe.”

We’ve largely acknowledged and accepted that homicide coverage centers on the affluent and white, although 50 percent of murder victims and 40 percent of missing persons are black. Historically such stories fall to the specialty press, such as Homicide Watch, or African American news outlets, like TV One, which airs Find Our Missing. Anderson Cooper took to his blog a few years back to argue that the coverage gap isn’t caused by malicious intent, but presupposition of intrigue. “I’ve seen plenty of stories fall by the wayside, pushed down and out of the show, because a consensus develops that says, ‘You know, I don’t think our viewers are very interested in this case,’” he wrote. Writers have proven their interest in Trayvon Martin with a nearly insatiable appetite for commentary and trial updates, but it’s unclear if our news judgment will hold when it comes to the next, potentially less perfect, case.

This weekend, in the New York City movie theater where I watched Fruitvale Station, there were shocked gasps when the film got to the surprise ending that I was braced for: After being convicted of involuntary manslaughter, Johannes Mehserle spent only 11 months in prison. Four years from now, we will likely remember the injustice of the Zimmerman verdict—the question is, will we hear about the next Trayvon Martin?

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Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis. Tags: , , ,