SANFORD, Fla.— As a crowd of several hundred protesters swarmed outside of the Sanford Civic Center on Monday night, Trayvon Martin’s family shared a rare, quiet moment backstage.
The family’s attorneys spoke softly to one another. The Rev. Al Sharpton floated between their dressing room and the dark corridor leading to the stage. Trayvon's parents munched on slices of pizza and fiddled with their cell phones.
There were no photographers, no gaggle of reporters and no rapid-fire questions about how they’re feeling or what they think the fate of George Zimmerman, their son’s killer, might be.
They had a moment to themselves.
But soon they would be ushered out in front of the City Commission to make their latest pleas for justice for their son, whose killer remains free on claims of self-defense.
“Twenty minutes,” a man in a dark suit said from the doorway.
Most of their days have been like this, a series of appearances and interviews, rallies and meetings with officials who may or may not have something to say about the investigation into Trayvon Martin's death.
“It’s a lot,” Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, told The Huffington Post while waiting backstage. “But it’s necessary. Right now, we can’t stop. If we stop, the world will stop. We’ve got to keep fighting.”
Sybrina Fulton, the teen's mother, sat quietly and with wet eyes.
Ever since Trayvon was killed on February 26th -- a month ago to the day, almost to the hour-- she never seems to be far from tears; not in front of news cameras, not on the telephone during interviews with reporters and certainly not when she steps up on stages or to lecterns to plead for justice for her dead boy.
“My heart is broken,” she’d say to the commissioners, the mayor and city manager, fighting back her emotion before hundreds of supporters who had packed the place.
“That was my baby,” she’d say.
Tracy Martin would add, "I'm standing here today as a father," allowing more emotion than normal to bubble up in his voice. “Not only was he my son, he was my best friend."
The family is “hurt” and “torn,” he’d say. And the Sanford Police department, who the family and their lawyers say botched the investigation into Martin’s killing, needed to be held accountable.
So far, police Chief Bill Lee Jr., under public scrutiny and a vote of "no confidence" by the city commission last week, temporarily resigned as head of the department. Florida Gov. Rick Scott asked State Attorney Norman R. Wolfinger to step away from the case, instead tapping State Attorney Angela B. Corey to take over.
“We’re not asking for an eye for an eye,” Martin would say. “We’re asking for justice.”
Self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, who told the police that he killed Martin in self-defense, remains free as state officials wrestle with the legal dilemma of whether or not to file charges against the 28-year-old. The police have said they didn’t have enough evidence to refute his claims. Now the case is with the State Attorney’s Office, who will be calling the grand jury April 10 to determine whether or not there is enough evidence to charge Zimmerman, who since the killing has gone into hiding.
The crowd would erupt in cheers as the family and their lawyers demanded answers and accountability from the mayor and the city commission.
Benjamin Crump, a family lawyer, would ask why the police ran a background check and a drug and alcohol test on Martin but not Zimmerman.
He’d ask why Zimmerman was allowed to go home with the same clothing he wore when he killed Martin, essentially allowing possible evidence to walk away with him. He’d ask why it took three days for authorities to release Martin’s body to his family.
“This family wants to have faith in the system," Crump would say, faith that the family is slowly losing.
Sharpton warned the commissioners that if they did not do all that they could do to have Zimmerman arrested, "you risk [Sanford] going down as the Selma and Birmingham of the 21st century."
But backstage before the pleading and angry demands by speakers -- including Sharpton, the Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. and Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Corrine Brown (D-Fla.) -- and the cheering and standing ovations by attendees, there was just the family and their team and a few boxes of pizza.
Tracy Martin recalled the Sunday rides he and his son would take on his motorcycle to the racetrack to watch other motorcycles speed by. Father would be cruising, son would be on the back with his arms wrapped around his dad. Martin remembered the joy in Trayvon’s eyes when at 9 years old he saddled up on his very own “pocket-rocket," his first mini-motorcycle.
“He just enjoyed it so much,” Martin said. “He just wanted to ride.”
“Almost time,” a voice bellowed from just outside of the waiting room.
The crowd outside the building was growing larger and louder. County Sherriff’s officers in their green uniforms lined the path between the Civic Center and the park down the street where several hundred others had already gathered with their signs damning Zimmerman and calling for "Justice for Trayvon." People sold hooded sweatshirts and t-shirts that read “I Am Trayvon Martin," and others that quoted President Barack Obama, who told reporters on Monday that, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon." Other people sold barbecue and bottled water.
For the past few weeks the family has been riding a wave of support that has rippled from Sanford across the country and the world. They’ve appeared at massive rallies on their son’s behalf and they’ve been fixtures on national television news programs and in the pages of almost every major newspaper in the nation. On Tuesday, they will attend a briefing on Capitol Hill about hate crimes and racial profiling.
But new details leaked to reporters this week by law enforcement officials in Sanford and school officials in Miami, where Martin lived with his mother, have clouded the All-American, good-boy image that Martin’s supporters have embraced.
For perhaps the first time the family has had to take a defensive posture. The family confirmed what had been until Monday just rumor. Trayvon had been on a 10-day suspension from school when he was killed last month. School officials found an empty baggie with marijuana residue in his book bag. He’d also been suspended before, the Miami Herald reported, for tardiness and for graffiti in school.
Law enforcement officials in Sanford also leaked internal reports to the Orlando Sentinel detailing what George Zimmerman allegedly told investigators about the night of the shooting. According to the official report, police say Zimmerman told them that Martin punched him first, the two fell to the ground and Martin then proceeded to bang Zimmerman’s head onto the sidewalk.
And a website has published what it claims are tweets Martin sent from his now-deleted Twitter account, many of which reveal crude language.
The family's lawyers say the latest leaks are evidence of a "smear campaign" and "character assaults," and that the new information has nothing to do with the circumstances surrounding Martin’s killing.
The lawyers confirmed Martin’s latest suspension and the reasons behind it. The family’s advisors said they’d expected a counter-attack after more witnesses have come forward refuting Zimmerman's claims and public opinion had swayed in favor of the family. They said the police department has shown a pattern of dribbling out information that supports the self-defense claims given to them by Zimmerman.
“Once again, law enforcement is trying to demonize and blame the victim by releasing bits and pieces of their ongoing investigation that they feel will help build Zimmerman’s claims up,” Crump said during a press conference earlier in the day. "The most important thing in this whole tragedy is that George Zimmerman disobeyed the police dispatcher and went and stopped and pursued Trayvon Martin and initiated what proved to be a fatal encounter ... that is the only thing that is relevant.”
The longer the case draws out, the more law enforcement will try to portray Martin as a “junkie and a thief,” the Rev. Sharpton said during the same press conference.
The family said they will not be dissuaded by attacks on Trayvon's character.
“I refuse to let them assassinate my son’s character," Tracy Martin said. "The question should not be why was he suspended from school, it should be why did this man kill him in cold blood."
As the family members made their way to and from the Civic Center yesterday, supporters along the cordoned-off route yelled out “We love you" and “We ain’t going nowhere, we’re here for you." People snapped photos and lifted their children onto their shoulders to get a better glimpse of the family.
“To have thousands of people cheering for us, just wanting to shake our hands, it feels really good. It’s an incredible feeling," Martin said. "Right now is not the time to stop what we’re doing."