When she woke up recently from a dream about her oldest son being shot to death as he walked home from 7-Eleven with a bottle of iced tea and Skittles, Maria Roach pledged to do something to help the mother who had lived her nightmare.
For days, Roach had been haunted by the slaying of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. He looked like an older version of her sons. He died in Sanford, Fla., near Orlando, where she and her husband lived until three years ago. Her heart went out to both of Trayvon’s parents, but as the mother of Max, 6, and Mason, 5, she felt a special connection with his mother, Sybrina Fulton.
She knew from experience that justice was not always swift or blind in the Sunshine State, so she took a stand on behalf of the slain teenager.
“I wrote a petition,” Roach said.
Using SignOn.org, a Web site where users can create petitions, Roach addressed the document to U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. and Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, urging them to take over the investigation into the fatal shooting. She hoped to get 300 online signatures, but the petition caught on like wildfire after she posted it on Facebook and Twitter.
Actresses Taraji P. Henson and Tichina Arnold saw the posts and tweeted their fans. Deejays began broadcasting about her petition and others. By the time she met with a representative of Holder’s office on March 26, just nine days after she created the petition, Roach had collected more than 520,000 signatures. By Saturday evening, the number was up to more than 540,000.
“I couldn’t believe how it took off,” said Roach, 46, of Bowie. “The bottom line for me is that in 2012 in this country, you can’t kill a black child without ramifications. Being a black child is not a capital offense.”
Martin’s slaying has mobilized protesters across the nation. A spokeswoman for another activism Web site, Change.org, told reporters last week that more than 50 petitions related to the Martin case, including one started by his mother, had become the site’s largest online petition drive to date.
Many of the protesters, online and at street rallies, are pressing authorities to prosecute George Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch volunteer who fatally shot Martin after following the high school student as he walked home from a store with Skittles and tea.
He had called police to report a suspicious person and followed Martin against a dispatcher’s instructions. Zimmerman told police that he fired because he feared for his life after Trayvon bloodied his nose and bashed his head against the ground.
Trayvon’s parents, Fulton and Tracy Martin, were in the District last week to meet with lawmakers and media. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who attended a Judiciary Committee hearing Tuesday along with the grieving parents, said the shooting has demonstrated the level of danger young blacks can face. She said African American mothers, like Roach, have been most profoundly affected by the killing.
“When my sons were younger, every time they walked out the door I was afraid, and now I’m afraid for my grandkids,” Lee said. “You worry about this very thing happening. It is a constant fear.”
For the first time, she said, others can see, personified in Martin, the dangers black men and boys face because of racial profiling and stereotyping.
“People can’t believe . . . Americans have to live like this,” she said. “People are saying, ‘Is this the kind of life you lead, just because of who you are? You have to deal with this daily?’ The shock comes from the fact that this contradicts so glaringly the way many Americans think life is.”
Roach, a former television producer who makes documentary films, said she thinks the case is more “a children’s safety issue than a race issue,” but she said that race likely played a role in Zimmerman finding Martin “suspicious” that night.
She is proud of the reaction to the petition and is considering making a documentary about the slaying and subsequent reaction. She has communicated via e-mail with Fulton but has not met her. She hopes that she will.
On Tuesday, Roach and her husband, Michael, took their boys out of school early and headed to the District, where she spoke at a rally and delivered 1,000 signed petitions in a large cardboard box. The rest were presented on a flash drive, she said.
“It would have taken a truck to bring copies of all of them,” Roach said.
Meanwhile, she holds her sons close, praying that she will be able to keep them safe, not only from illness but also from strangers who might find them “suspicious.”
“I have heard from a lot of women,” she said. “At the rally, I had a young black woman come up to me, but I also had an older white woman whose children are my age. They all want our children to be safe, for our country to evolve to the point where our children are safe.”