As anger swells over the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American male, Cornellians gathered in solidarity at Ujamaa Residential College Thursday to discuss critical issues surrounding the tragedy.
On Feb. 26, Martin — who was walking, alone and unarmed, to the home of his father’s fiancee — was spotted by George Zimmerman, a community watch member. Zimmerman contacted the Sanford Police Department to report Martin’s supposedly suspicious behavior while he followed the teen. The two later engaged in a confrontation, which resulted in Martin’s fatal shooting.
Zimmerman alleged that his shooting of Martin was self-defense. Though the lead homicide investigator in the case said he did not believe Zimmerman’s claim, the state attorney’s office was unable to provide sufficient evidence for a conviction.
Martin’s death has galvanized activists both around the country and at Cornell to demand justice for his shooting.
Thursday’s forum was hosted by the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, which — along with the Black Graduate and Professional Student Association and Black Students United — co-sponsored a rally yesterday that drew more than 50 people to commemorate Martin’s death.
Kappa Alpha Psi invited Darrell Butler ’87, a diversity and professional development consultant, to moderate the discussion. Butler said he is from the Orlando area and has had conversations with Martin’s family, as well as with the mayor of Sanford, Fla. — the city where Martin was shot.
After providing a summary of the facts of the shooting, Butler challenged forum participants to look beyond racial issues and examine Martin’s death from a different lens, asking, “How do we break the cycle of killing black men based on assumptions?”
Butler said that after the shooting, he had “the talk” with his seven-year-old daughter about how to respond when a stranger approaches. He said that the experience provided an opportunity to learn from the circumstances of Martin’s death.
Additionally, Butler said that the shooting demonstrated a need for increased youth mentorship.
“We can view this as a teachable moment for teenagers who we have not been able to mentor yet,” Butler said. “Let’s do something different from what were conditioned to do — get away and scream as loud as you can, ‘A stranger is trying to hurt me!’”
Butler emphasized the need to hold elected officials and voters more accountable for enforcing the fair use of self-defense under laws such as Stand Your Ground, which Martin’s shooter George Zimmerman has used as a defense for his actions. The Stand Your Ground law allows citizens to use deadly force to defend themselves when they believe their lives are in danger, even if they could retreat from the situation.
“A challenge of the law is a good thing, and even the writer of the law said he did not intend for it to be used like this,” Butler said. “How do we move forward and hold our elected officials accountable? How do we hold the voters more accountable?”
Janelle Boyd ’13 said the shooting raised a number of complex issues.
“Has it ever been looked at that an adult killed an adolescent — that Zimmerman was 28, and Martin was 17?” Boyd said. “What can we do and how should we look at it? What are we fighting for and what is the bigger picture?”
Students said the conversation also provided a chance to talk about other hot button issues that may have contributed to the environment in which Martin was shot.
“The biggest thing that stuck out to me … is that [Martin’s death] transcends a racial issue,” said Bashir Alhadi ’13. “A lot of things were said [at the forum] that introduce different variables like age and socioeconomic status.”
Butler said he hoped the forum empowered its participants to become more passionate about issues of social justice –– a goal that Boyd said she felt the discussion achieved.
“Awareness is important and my voice counts, and if we get other people on board, then we can really make a difference,” Boyd said. “This is deeper than Trayvon Martin, and it has become bigger than him.”
Alhadi said she is optimistic about spreading awareness about racial profiling and police misconduct to the wider Cornell community.
“We wanted to use this to kick off the weekend purposefully,” Alhadi said. “This is an issue pertinent to the community and something that is not going to change overnight.”
Mark Seals II ’12, another member of Kappa Alpha Psi, also praised the event, calling the discussion “very informational.”
“I felt we had good representation and good discussion,” Seals said. “Everyone had different points and we can now take into consideration each perspective.”