My conversation with Sybrina Fulton started off with laughter. She had just participated in a panel discussion during the Obama Foundation’s My Brother’s Keeper Alliance symposium in Oakland on Feb. 19 and her spirits seemed high.
It’s been seven years since her son, Trayvon Martin, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Before February 2012 it’s safe to say not many of us had heard of her, Trayvon, or the stand your ground law that made Zimmerman’s killing of the unarmed 17-year-old justifiable to a large portion of the population.
Since his death, Fulton, along with Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, and her son Jahvaris established the Trayvon Martin Foundation. Together they work to help end gun violence and help other families who have lost loved ones in similar fashion. Sadly it is a club no one wants to join but nevertheless continues to grow.
Question: Is this something that you want to continue to be a part of for the rest of your life?
Answer: I don't think I have a choice. I think what I'm doing now, I'm compelled to do it. I think I have to do it because I have to speak up. I have to do my part… it’s the reality and what's going on. So many issues of racial profiling, discrimination, inequality. There's so many things going on I think for me I can’t stop.
I heard what she said yet I still don’t understand how Fulton finds the strength to continue to put herself out there, as she had just done that afternoon in Oakland after all these years. After all these panel discussions. All these questions from journalists like me.
She and I have spoken numerous times in the past — at an airport, at the White House, fundraisers — but this was our first formal interview. I was always more concerned about her well being than any story I could write. Even now I can sense myself not wanting to pry too much.
Seven years is a long time for me, but I’ve covered enough tragedies of this nature to know for parents it still feels like yesterday. A reality I was reminded of as the smile I was initially greeted with slowly disappeared and she turned her head slightly away from me. There was a deep breath and then silence. I saw her searching for her next words as I immediately regretted asking the question that triggered her pain. As I directed my gaze downward trying to provide some semblance of privacy, I was reminded of a line from Hamilton — she is working through the unimaginable.
Q: What does it mean to hear President Obama talk about Trayvon?
A: It's an honor for a former president to even mention my son's name. Originally, he said that Trayvon could have been his son and then he said that he could have been Trayvon. And that right there means a lot because people look at President Obama as a role model. To think he could identify with what happened with Trayvon, and that it could have happened to any kid. It could have happened to any person of color. For him to even mention that, it says a lot about his character. It also says a lot about him being aware about what's going on in this country because so many people are so disconnected from what's actually happening. He actually understands the fight, the struggle. Even though he's on another level, he understands the struggle of people of color.
Q: What do you think about Colin Kaepernick and his journey?
A: I stand with Colin. Colin spoke out about something that was a reality for so many. And he put his career on the line, and he probably had a lot of people that were supporting him until he actually spoke out, until he actually took the knee. And then he probably turned around, and those people were no longer standing with him or kneeling with him. I think Kaepernick and Eric Reid should be commended for standing up for people who can not even repay them. It wasn't about the flag. It wasn't about the “Star Spangled Banner” and all those things that people want to make it about. It was the fact that so many African Americans were being shot and killed, and nobody was being held accountable.
To mark the seven-year remembrance, Fulton posted Instagram pictures of celebrities such as Chadwick Bozeman and Issa Rae wearing a gray hoodie with the name of her fallen son printed on the front. Three weeks earlier, on what should have been his 24th birthday, she posted a picture of Trayvon sporting a big smile, bright eyes and a red Hollister T-shirt. “My dearest son, on the day you were born, earth receive an amazing gift.” And as painful as his death was for so many, that too has given us a gift — the return of the black athlete’s voice. They are no longer content with keeping their collective heads down and collecting checks, and Trayvon’s death was the beginning of a reawakening that has only gained in strength. It doesn’t make his early departure easy, but it made it matter.
Q: Did Trayvon have a favorite athlete?
A: He had a favorite team.
Q: Which team?
A: Well, it’s a college team in Miami.
She took a deep breath followed once again by silence. The beauty of Fulton’s strength isn’t the absence of pain, it’s her ability to proceed with it.
Q: Is there an athlete that you would like to see get personally involved with the message and the work that you're trying to do?
A: To see Steph Curry here means a lot to young people. [Curry spoke at the My Brother’s Keeper event alongside Obama]. A lot of people look at these athletes and musicians as role models. And so to see them taking a step out, taking a stand on something, it may encourage them to take a stand. And a lot of times, professional people are so busy in their schedule that they don't want to spend their time or their talent to help pull somebody else in. I don't know. It means a lot to young people.