When 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman on the evening of February 26, 2012, at the Retreat at Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida, the story was not national news. Local news outlets heard of Martin’s death, had an inkling that something (the strange phone calls, the fact that Martin was unarmed except for groceries) was amiss, and covered the story cautiously. A week later, the story could be found in papers around the state.
But it wasn’t until the middle of March that the rest of the country found out. The first national news report was on CBS News, on March 8, and by the end of the week, the story was everywhere. Almost a full month later, on March 23, President Barack Obama took to the podium to address the shooting, and by then it finally became clear that this was not just the shooting of one black teenager from Florida but a much larger social issue.
That’s not what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri. The story of Michael Brown is no slow burn.
On August 9, Brown, 18 and unarmed, was shot to death by a Ferguson police officer. By the next day, it was national news, reported by every major news outlet across the United States. Locals took to the streets in protest; the police department armed up; the media sent down their reporters and camera crews. On August 14, Obama spoke to the nation, urging both law enforcement officers and protesters to “take a step back and think.”
“Now’s the time for healing,” Obama said. “Now’s the time for peace and calm on the streets of Ferguson.”
Racial violence and police brutality aren’t new topics. They’ve been a plague on this country for decades, centuries even. But the narrative is changing. The traditional story of the law enforcement hero and the criminal black man is starting to disintegrate, and it has everything to do with who gets to speak.