”We don’t prosecute by public pressure or petition. We prosecute cases on the relevant facts of each case and on the laws of the state of Florida.” Special Prosecutor Angela Corey
On the same day that a special prosecutor charged George Zimmerman with second degree murder for the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a sub-head on popular news Website, Drudge Report, read Race War. It remains up for debate whether or not the United States is in the middle of an actual race war. What cannot be debated is that marketers, working in the spare time, used social media tactics that led to the arrest of a person who had originally been released from police custody without charges. As evidence, let me offer a brief timeline of the events surrounding the case:
February 26th – Martin, a 17 year old African American male is shot and killed by a Caucasian neighborhood watch captain. Zimmerman claims he acted in self-defense, and is released under Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, which states that a person may use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of a threat, without obligation to retreat first.
March 8th – Kevin Cunningham, a social media coordinator, reads the story on a Howard University fraternity e-mail list, and creates the “Prosecute the killer of our son, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin” petition on change.org. He shares the petition with other members, who then post to their social networks. Within a few days, over 10,000 signatures are collected and Cunningham transfers administrative rights to the Martin family, who have begun to make media appearances.
March 9th – Attorney Benjamin Crump files a suit on behalf of the Martin Family in order to obtain public records for the case.
March 13th – Florida State Attorney takes over the investigation from local Sanford police department, who are still refusing to release 911 calls made by witnesses and neighbors just prior to the incident.
March 14th – Petition gains 100,000 signatures after major celebrities, including Talib Kweli, Spike Lee, Deepak Chopra and Mia Furrow, ask their Twitter followers to sign. GlobalGrind.com, a Website created by Hip Hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, creates the “Justice for Trayvon Martin” Facebook page, which reaches over 143,000 fans in two weeks.
March 16th – Police release 911 tapes revealing Zimmerman making a call about a suspicious looking teen in a hoodie just prior to the incident. Zimmerman confirms he is following the teen, to which the 911 operator replies, “We do not need you to do that.”
March 17th – #Trayvon trends for the first time on Twitter, and over 300,000 signatures are collected on Change.org.
March 19th – Michael Skolnik, Co-President of GlobalGrind.com releases, “White People, You Will Never Look Suspicious,” an article describing his perspective as a white male, and what he believes is a privilege of never looking suspicious. The article goes viral, leading to numerous interviews addressing the current state of race relations. The FBI and Department of Justice announce their investigations into the killing.
March 20th – Daniel Maree, a digital marketing strategist in New York City, create the Million Hoodie March to help the petition reach one million signatures. They ask followers to post pictures of themselves in hoodies, and organize a march to United Nations (UN) headquarters for the UN International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. While they only garner 9,700 new fans on Facebook, the march makes headline news and is covered by all major media outlets, then resulting in over 1 million signatures. The Martin family receives 418 media requests in one day.
March 22nd – Sanford police chief steps down temporarily after a City Council vote of no-confidence. The Million Hoodie March makes the front page on the New York Times. #MillionHoodies begins trending on Twitter for the first time.
March 23rd – President Obama speaks out about the case stating, “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” while LeBron James tweets a picture of the Miami Heat in Hoodies and the hashtags #WeAreTrayvonMartin #Hoodies #Stereotyped #WeWantJustice Florida Gov. Rick Scott appoints state attorney Angela Corey as a special prosecutor to look into the case. He also creates a task force to look into the state’s Stand Your Ground Law, which has come under fire nationwide. Roughly 50 schools in Florida stage walkout protests, while the petition surpasses 1.5 million signatures.
March 26th – Less than 20 days after the creation of the petition and only 5 days after the Million Hoodie march, Trayvon’s family delivers two million petitions to Sanford Authorities asking for the arrest of Zimmerman. Media begin to release Trayvon’s school records, focusing on his suspensions, while some begin to release Twitter and Facebook information painting him as a thug.
March 27th – News outlets confirm that the lead homicide detective did not believe Zimmerman’s testimony, and suggested in an affidavit that he be arrested for manslaughter. The state attorney’s office instructed him not to press charges because they did not believe there was sufficient evidence to lead to a conviction.
April 2nd – News outlets enhance previously distributed video of Zimmerman being taken in for questioning.
April 10th – Zimmerman’s legal team announce they would no longer represent Zimmerman because they have lost contact with him, and do not believe he is mentally stable. Six shots are fired into an empty police cruiser, and Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett says that the town has become a “kindling box” because of the case.
April 11th – Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey announces that George Zimmerman will be charged with second degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed teen. Zimmerman turns himself in and remains in police custody.
I couldn’t help but laugh when I heard the special prosecutor say, ”We don’t prosecute by public pressure or petition. We prosecute cases on the relevant facts of each case and on the laws of the state of Florida.” When in fact, that is exactly what has happened in this case. For 45 days following the incident, no charges were brought against Zimmerman. If you trace the story back to the beginning, what you see are the two separate efforts of marketing professionals funneling their passions. Utilizing their knowledge and resources, they coordinated a national discussion to furthermore increase brewing racial tensions surrounding the case. Yes, celebrities and tastemakers helped generate buzz, but it was the skills of OUR industry that led to Zimmerman’s arrests and not that of Joseph Kony…remember him?
Kevin Cunningham is a social media coordinator inspired by the death of Khaled Said, an Egyptian youth who was killed at the hands of police. He says, “I decided to take my skills and apply them to the situation, and see how well it would work out, and it just went crazy on me. What I’ve learned is that in social media, you don’t have to go through institutions anymore. Any individual with any idea can make it work if they have (a) connection to the Internet. ” The result of his work has been the most viral petition in the history of this country. It was only after this coordination that the State of Florida immediately decided to assign a special prosecutor to the case. And, without a petition, celebrities would not have the rallying call they needed. Cunningham doesn’t take credit for its success, but he does state, “I feel like I did kick the stone that turned into the snowball that caused the avalanche.”
Daniel Maree is a digital strategist whose desire to raise awareness of Trayvon’s murder came from his own personal experiences of feeling targeted for walking down the street wearing a hoodie. Advertising Age covered the story, and quoted McCann North America President Hank Summy saying, “As the campaign viralized, a group of Daniel’s friends, including Kandace Hudspeth, Director of McCann Social Central, and Daniel’s Social Central colleagues, used their free time and their skills to support Daniel, and thus build a campaign. The team, experts in all areas of social — brand storytelling, content strategy and simplification, event activation, PR, creative and technology — created the Twitter hashtag #millionhoodies to spread the word, and also a gorgeous poster that was distributed online and printed for the rally as well. The rally attracted a peaceful, passionate and diverse crowd, estimated at about 5,000 people. If that isn’t enough, the Facebook petition surpassed one million signatures. This is an extraordinary story and a brilliant example of how one person’s idea, combined with the power of social media, and built by collaboration, can literally change the world. Congratulations to Daniel Maree and everyone else on the Social Central team – Kandace, Sharon Panelo, Michael Nguyen and Tiphaine Murat.”
During an NPR interview, Michael Skolnik, co-president GlobalGrind.com, when asked why he wrote this piece stated, “I wrote this piece because, two weeks ago, there was an incredible movement to bring much needed attention to stopping and capturing Joseph Kony in Uganda. And what I saw during that movement was all of my white friends and all of my white colleagues tweeting about it and putting it on Facebook and talking about it, becoming this trending topic in a matter of minutes. And when a young black man was killed in our country, Trayvon Martin, my white friends were quiet, eerily quiet. Nobody was talking about it. I saw Charles Blow’s op-ed in the New York Times on Saturday, and I saw an op-ed in Washington Post by another great black writer, and I saw Melissa Perry-Harris’ piece on MSNBC; and it was all black people talking about a black kid who was killed. I felt, as a white person, I will never – as I said in the piece – I will never look suspicious to you.”
It took 11 days for Kevin Cunningham to create a petition, 16 days for the state of Florida to assign a special prosecutor, 23 days for Daniel Maree to create the Million Hoodie March and 45 days for George Zimmerman to be arrested. Our country has seen protests, petitions and intense national media coverage surrounding an investigation, not an actual court case. For some, the case symbolized racial injustice — Trayvon was black; Zimmerman is a white Hispanic — for others it is a case study in social media’s ability to crowd source national stories. To me, the case is a clear cut example of the power our industry has to raise awareness about societal issues. It doesn’t matter whether Zimmerman is convicted or not because, much like O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony, our nation and our ever-present pundits will argue the merits of a case outside of the courtroom.
Throughout the investigation, Geraldo Rivera has apologized for his statement alleging that the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was. Spike Lee had to financially settle with a family whose address he tweeted, believing it was Zimmerman’s residence. The ABC Network has stepped back from a claim that Zimmerman was not injured when they released the police tape of him being taken into custody. The NBC Network had to apologize after media watchdogs learned that the 911 call they released had been edited.
Through all of this, passionate marketers used their intuitiveness and skills to push forth an issue. The media and celebrities brought it to the masses, stumbled at times, and left our judicial system in the wake of what will either be a new conversation about race in this country, or the same historical fight we have been having. Who knows. Maybe it’s time marketers take on that case.
Blog post written by Christian Yazdanpanah.