It has been a full year since Jahvaris Fulton’s little brother was shot and killed. Yet the loss hasn’t completely registered.
“I know he died but it still doesn’t feel that way,” Fulton told msnbc.com on Monday. “It’s like he just went away and hasn’t come back yet.”
But reminders of his brother’s death appear almost daily. When Fulton cracks open his textbook for his American Studies class at Florida International University on Tuesdays and Thursdays, his brother’s photograph and story are listed under a chapter on Civil Rights.
Strangers stop him in the mall or the supermarket, while others just stare with an odd familiarity, asking with their eyes, “Where do I know you from?” There are weekly meetings with lawyers and supporters and countless quiet, private moments with his family.
Then there are the constant news headlines, interview requests and rallies across the country in support of his family and his deceased brother, Trayvon Martin.
“I think about him every day,” said Fulton, 22. “I don’t think about the case that much, but I think about him often.”
Martin, who would have turned 18 earlier this month, was shot and killed last February by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. Zimmerman was later arrested and charged with second degree murder in the teen’s death. Zimmerman has pleaded not guilty. Zimmerman says he shot Martin in self-defense during a struggle that ensued after he’d called 911 to report Martin as “suspicious,” then trailed the teen as he walked through the gated community from a nearby convenience store back to the home where Martin was visiting with his father. Zimmerman and his lawyers contend Martin leaped from the shadows and attacked him first.
Prosecutors and supporters of Martin’s family claim the teen was first profiled as “suspicious” because of the way he was dressed, or because Martin was young, or because he was black—or a combination of the three. Then, they believe, he was followed and then gunned down. Martin was African American. Zimmerman is a white Hispanic.
The killing and subsequent handling of the investigation into the shooting (Zimmerman wasn’t arrested for more than forty days after the killing) sparked national outrage. Trayvon Martin became a cause célèbre and a symbol of still unhealed racial wounds.
On the opposite side, a legion of supporters began to coalesce around George Zimmerman, largely in chat rooms, message boards and on politically conservative websites and talk radio shows. They wanted justice too—for Zimmerman, who they believe was too quickly judged as guilty because of the racial overtones of the case.
While the presence of Martin’s mother and father, Sabrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, became ubiquitous on cable news shows and in national newspaper stories, Jahvaris has stayed mostly in the background. He’s granted only a few media interviews and has rarely taken to a podium to speak about his brother. He was usually the quiet figure standing next to his parents.
But for the anniversary of his brother’s killing, Fulton talked openly in a rare interview with msnbc.com about the past year and the slow burn of grief. Fulton has called the year’s journey a “whirlwind” of “some good things, some bad things, highs and lows.”
“We never signed up for this,” Fulton said of the circumstances of his brother’s killing, and the call to action his family has lead. “I don’t know what else to compare it to. I just think we’re getting by, doing the best we can.”
He says God has helped the family stand steadily in the public gaze. His father Tracy is often stoic, his voice heavy as he talks of wanting justice for his son. His mother Sabrina seems wracked with the kind of emotional burden that only a mother could know. And almost always with wet eyes. But for Jahvaris, there seems to be a kind of quiet emotional steadiness.
“I guess maybe I haven’t come that far along,” Fulton said. “I don’t talk about it that much. I have conversations in my head about it and I listen to other people. It’s like you’re trying to wait for it to come out, but you’re trying to counsel yourself through it.”
He struggles to find the words to articulate his emotions about his brother, but for him, good memories flow easier than the harder ones he’s had to deal with. “I remember him just being my happy little brother,” Fulton said. “But sometimes it hits me like oh, my brother is gone. I don’t have a little brother anymore. I’m never going to be an uncle.” Sometimes those thoughts are stirred-up by seeing a young man with a tall, lanky build similar to Martin’s. Other times it’s recognizing the way he dressed or walked in other teens.
But in the year that has passed since Martin’s death, some other things have changed as well. Fulton had been at a kind of crossroads when his brother died. His ambition about school and career had waned a bit. “What is it all for, what’s it all about?” he wondered.
Martin’s death put life in a different context, he said. There was again deep meaning to each breath and each move, he said. And strangers, thousands and thousands of them, hoisted so much meaning on his brother’s life and death. His family met with supporters across the country and as far away as London. “I’ve been somewhat living for him because he can’t,” Fulton said. “He had a part to play in all of it. Now I have to live, at least go harder. I had dreams and stuff beforehand but the bar is higher now.”
He’s back in college full-time now working toward a degree in Information Technology.
But more than just Fulton’s mindset and academic trajectory has changed in the wake of his brother’s controversial death.
The town of Sanford is still very much the relatively quiet town it had been before Martin’s death, locals say. And it’s still a very much divided town along racial lines, with many of the black residents, who make up about a quarter of the population living in concentrated communities away from Downtown. Nonetheless, folks are still shopping downtown and fishing along the lakefront. Eating at the local restaurants and taking in live music from time to time. But as relative calm has been restored a year after thousands had descended on the town to rally on behalf of Trayvon Martin, some say a quiet storm is brewing. Zimmerman’s trial in June draws near. There’s still that unresolved cloud of racial tension that hung over the place long before Martin ever came to visit.
“Down by the river where I go fishing, it’s kind of like barber shop talk,” said Traymon Williams, 27, who has been following the case closely. “We still talk a lot about Trayvon Martin and all the what-ifs about the case. What if George Zimmerman gets off? What if this, what if that. The what ifs are kind of looming.”
Fulton said notions of rights and justice are key to the legacy he hopes his brother’s death leaves behind.
“What I would like to see come out of it is that it doesn’t happen again, so that somebody can’t just pick somebody out and follow them and things turn bad,” Fulton said. “I want to say [Zimmerman] thought his safety was worth more than my brother’s life essentially, and people can’t do that. They can’t go around doing that.”
“I think we can move closer to that,” Fulton said. “I think there will always be those few bad apples but I think we can.”
Martin’s parents will spend the anniversary of his death at a vigil in New York City. Fulton said he plans on going to class for as long as he’s up to it. But later, he said he intends on celebrating his brother’s life the way Martin would probably appreciate most: At the roller skating rink.
“To celebrate the day I’ll probably go skating,” Fulton said. “That was one of his favorite pastimes. Everyone in this family has taken him to the skating rink at least once. He’d like that.”