The last time she was on TV with her face obscured by shadows, George Zimmerman’s mother explained, that her son’s roots are Afro-Peruvian.
In the 10 months since her teenage son was killed, Trayvon Martin’s mom became a nationally known activist who mostly sleeps in hotels as she bounces from one speaking engagement to another talking about self-defense laws.
“As a mother, this is a job,” said Sybrina Fulton, whose son Trayvon became a household name after Zimmerman shot and killed him in a townhouse complex in Sanford. “It is a position I never wanted.”
Both women want to set the record straight about their sons. Each blames the other’s boy for the tragedy. One lives in hiding; the other spent the year under the glare of cameras.
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Their deep divide on the killing that rattled America underscores the sharp contrasts that mark the case that became one of the highest profile news events of 2012. Hundreds of thousands of people, from Seattle to Miami, Sanford to Manhattan, took to the streets to demand an arrest in the weeks following the Feb. 26 death of a black teenager at the hands of a Hispanic neighborhood-watch volunteer.
But when the clamor became so thunderous that Zimmerman finally found himself in handcuffs, so many people took such pity on the gunman that they gave him more than $200,000 in less than a month.
Even now, after the nation’s news channels have moved on to other tragedies and the story that rocked the country fell off the front pages, both families are preparing for a murder trial that promises to reopen wounds and spark fears of civil unrest. As lawyers prepare for 2013’s trial of the year, both Sanford and Miami have launched community relations projects. In Miami, civic leaders are clearly worried about reactions to the trial’s outcome.
A case that started with the killing of an unidentified teen wound up raising the national conscience on issues of gun control, racial profiling, self-defense law and police bias. Zimmerman’s family decries a media frenzy they believe distorted truth and justice. The Martins look back at a national scandal and feel pride.
“It was about to be swept under the rug, and I’m proud that it got thrust into national attention,” said Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father. “It’s not just about Trayvon; it’s about all our kids.”
He remembers a rally where his son’s photo was posted alongside Martin Luther King’s. Fulton reminded him of the caption: “Two Martins, Gone Too Soon.”
“That picture sticks in my head,” he said. “It blows our minds that our seed was in the same namesake as Martin Luther King.”
Martin, a South Florida-area truck driver, had taken his son up to Sanford, a racially diverse community north of Orlando , to ride out a 10-day school suspension. Trayvon had been caught at Michael Krop High in North Miami-Dade with a small plastic bag containing marijuana residue. Suspended for the third time, the teen went to cool his heels at the Central Florida townhouse complex where his father’s girlfriend lived.
With his dad out for the evening, Trayvon went to the store for snacks. On his way back from 7-Eleven, he encountered George Zimmerman, an affable, exceedingly polite neighborhood watch volunteer who was in the insurance business and had a habit of calling police whenever he saw something awry.
Zimmerman had a license to carry a concealed weapon, a firearm he has said he carried everywhere except work. He says he was on his way to Target when he spotted someone lurking around in the rain looking in windows. After a series of burglaries at the Retreat at Twin Lakes neighborhood, Zimmerman did what he had done several times before when he spotted black men he did not recognize.
He called the police. And, in a move that is likely to play a big role in the prosecution of his case, Zimmerman also got out of his car. The dispatcher advised against it.
He says it was to provide the police with an address. His detractors say it was to hunt down a black teen in a hoodie.
The girl Trayvon was talking to on the phone in the minutes leading up to his death said Trayvon was scared because a creepy guy was following him. She told him to run.
Minutes later, the teenager was dead, and Zimmerman’s life was about to be upended.
“After enduring a prolonged physical attack from Trayvon Martin, screaming for help countless times and receiving no help, and all the while in fear for my life, I shot Trayvon Martin in self-defense,” Zimmerman wrote in a recent statement posted on his website. “I did not shoot to take his life, I shot to save my own.”
Indeed, a photo taken at the scene showed Zimmerman with a swollen bloody nose. Did Trayvon deck Zimmerman for no reason? Or did the skinny high school student defend himself against a shorter but stockier gunman who chased him?
“In the days and weeks following the shooting, a story was promoted that I am a racist and a murderer,” Zimmerman wrote. “These untruths spread through the community, the government, and the nation, amplified by a media frenzy seeking ratings over truth.”
So adamant is he about the media’s manipulation of the story that this month Zimmerman sued NBC for editing his call to police in a way that made it appear as if his suspicion of the teenager was based largely on race.
Zimmerman has this on his side: Sanford police apparently believed him. Although records show a detective recommended a manslaughter charge, lawyers have listed detectives to testify — for the defense.
“That’s not me hot-dogging it,” defense lawyer Mark O’Mara said. “That’s because the cops say things I want them to say.”
While some residents who were there that night blasted the police for a shoddy investigation, others said they saw Trayvon straddling Zimmerman as the two struggled on the ground. One man said the teenager was hitting Zimmerman “MMA-style.”
“Mixed martial arts. I had never seen that sport, but I saw it on YouTube and was amazed at the savage manner they beat people,” Zimmerman’s mother, Gladys, told Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos in a recent interview.
She said none of it would have happened had Trayvon not attacked her son so savagely.
“George is not a racist. My family is not racist,” she insisted, while speaking with her face obscured. “My children know their roots, and my roots are not white.”
The family fled its Lake Mary home in the face of what they said were repeated death threats. One of them arrived on a neighbor’s answering machine.
“They said, ‘This message is for your neighbor Gladys Zimmerman. You can tell her I’ll be waiting for her by her post office box where I will slit her throat,’” recalled Jeff Peterson, a neighbor on their Lake Mary street. “This thing changed everybody’s life in this neighborhood, and George didn’t even live here.”
Peterson described Zimmerman as mature, friendly and helpful to his neighbors.
A former Seminole State College criminal justice student, Zimmerman was raised in Virginia and moved to Central Florida after high school. He lived alone in his parents’ house for several years until his parents retired and joined him in Florida .
He is married to Shellie, a nursing student. His father, Robert Sr., is a retired magistrate, which many critics believe was a chief reason that Zimmerman was afforded the benefit of the doubt by police.
But the Zimmermans blame the frenzy on Martin family lawyers, who brought in national civil-rights leaders and ignored the fact that their son is Hispanic.
“There was a creation of a racial narrative, because basing the story on the merits of the crime was not sufficiently sensational to those who wanted to report more,” Zimmerman’s brother Robert told Univision. “Racism is a lucrative sport. Many people have their hands in a money bag, and there’s a lot of money to be made."
Much of that criticism has been aimed at Trayvon’s parents, who have collected donations for an advocacy foundation they created in their son’s name.
The Zimmermans focus much of their ire on Benjamin Crump, the civil rights attorney whose constant media exposure forced law enforcement to take a second look at the case. Crump, who has filed a claim with the homeowners association where Zimmerman served as crime watch coordinator, has yet to bill in the case. Neither has Zimmerman’s defense team.
Crump thinks back on the furor, the day marchers shut down Broadway, the rallies in Sanford, the dozens of Miami-Dade schools where students walked out in protest, and feels no regret. He said history has shown that when blacks are killed by whites, particularly whites acting in a law-enforcement capacity, the only way to get a case going is by turning to the media.
In the months since Trayvon’s death, Crump has taken on at least three more similar cases.
“Little brown boys and little brown girls get killed and nobody cares until we make a fuss,” Crump said. “They were so comfortable sweeping it under the rug like they didn’t matter.”
Crump said people often ask whether, after so much publicity, Zimmerman can get a fair trial.
“In my mind, the question is, can a little black boy get murdered in the south and get justice?” Crump said. “Can Trayvon get justice?”
Although Sanford’s police chief publicly said there was not enough evidence to file charges, Gov. Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor from Duval County , who filed a second-degree murder charge. The Sanford police chief was fired.
A trial is scheduled for June 10, and a self-defense immunity hearing will be held in the spring. At that hearing the judge will decide whether to throw out the case and offer Zimmerman immunity from both civil suits and criminal prosecution.
“My guy is innocent and the evidence strongly supports that,” O’Mara said in an interview earlier this month. “Someone should drop $1 million in his defense fund account so he can get a real defense. He’s been put through the wringer.”
For their activism, Trayvon’s parents were skewered by right-wing bloggers, who tried to embarrass them by revealing personal information and photos. Trayvon’s profanity-laced social media comments were picked over and scrutinized, and the parents were criticized for releasing angelic-looking photos of a teenager whose Twitter profile showed teeth covered by a removable gold grill.
“People try to say I did all this for money. I go to work every day. We have been hard-working people for 30 years. I have never even claimed unemployment,” Martin said. “The thing that gets me is that they [the Zimmermans] talk about how they are living like hermits.
“How do they think we’re living? Our son is dead.”
As for Zimmerman living in fear, don’t look to Trayvon’s parents for sympathy.
“He took that on,” Martin said. “I don’t feel sorry for him.”
Fulton said it still hurts when she hears negative things said about her son. She wishes she had talked more about his personality, how he liked going skating, talking to girls on the phone and how he practically lived at Forzano Park in Miramar . That’s where he played football and worked in the concession stand.
“They want us to be quiet and walk away,” Fulton said.
“I want the legacy of Trayvon Martin to stand for something, so no other families go through what we did.”