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Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mom, will run for office to push for gun violence prevention

Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, said May 18 that she is running for office for the Miami-Dade County commission. (Video: The Washington Post)

Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, once called herself an unwilling participant in the movement against gun violence and fatal shootings of unarmed black men, a spokeswoman traveling the country to share a message she wished she didn’t have to tell.

In her numerous speeches since Martin was killed in 2012, she often started by telling the crowd about the moment she decided she “had to do more than just cry,” how she decided to place herself at the forefront of the movement her son’s death helped ignite. And she would often end with a call to action: get out and vote, serve on juries, make yourself heard, she would tell the crowd.

“Because if you really want to make a difference,” as she told one congregation in a 2015 speech, “then change can start here with you.”

Now, after years of advocacy, Fulton is taking her own advice, this time with an even more direct approach: She’s decided to run for office herself.

This weekend, the former housing agency employee announced she will join the race for Miami-Dade County commissioner, joining a succession of mothers who have lost sons or daughters to gun violence and who have sought to create change by taking public office. The move comes more than seven years after neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman gunned down the unarmed 17-year-old Martin as he walked home from a convenience store in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman was later acquitted, igniting nationwide outcry and fueling the Black Lives Matter movement.

“My time as a public servant began 30 years ago at Miami-Dade County. Since 2012, I have advocated tirelessly to empower our communities and make them safer,” she said in a statement on Instagram. “But the work is not done. I am proud to announce that I will run to represent District 1 on the county commission.”

Fulton will face off against Miami Gardens Mayor Oliver G. Gilbert III for the position, and intends to keep gun-violence prevention at the top of her priority list, said her campaign manager, Willis Howard. The current commissioner will step down in 2020 because of term limits. For Fulton, the vacancy seemed to be the perfect opportunity to put to use both her advocacy work and her 23 years as a county employee, Howard said.

“She has given speeches where she talked about, here’s a couple things you might have to do: You might have to protest. You might have to march. You might have to run for office,” Howard said. “She kept realizing, she was speaking to herself.”

Howard said Fulton will make a formal announcement Monday.

Fulton is one of three “Mothers of the Movement” to launch a bid to hold office at varying levels of government. The group started forming after Zimmerman’s acquittal in 2013 and expanded from there, composed of at least seven mothers who lost children to gun violence or police brutality in some of the nation’s most high-profile incidents. From Eric Garner’s mother to Sandra Bland’s, their voices represent the collective turmoil that spawned the nation’s fervent movement against racial profiling and the shootings of unarmed black men in the aftermath of their children’s deaths.

Among those mothers are Lucy McBath, mother of Jordan Davis, and Lesley McSpadden, mother of Michael Brown.

Last November, McBath, running as a Democrat in Georgia, won a seat in the House by promising to push for more restrictive gun measures. She ran seven years after a white man in a gas station parking lot fatally shot Davis, a black teenager, complaining his music was too loud. McBath had quit her job as a Delta Air Lines flight attendant to become a national spokeswoman for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, before realizing she could change laws more directly as a lawmaker herself.

“What I began to recognize is that I can keep helping to build this national movement and organize for gun violence prevention,” McBath told CNN. “But you’ve got to have people on the inside that are willing to do the work, creating the bills and initiatives, who will push the issue.”

McSpadden, Brown’s mother, unsuccessfully ran for Ferguson City Council last month, seeking to push for systemic cultural changes within the city where a police officer fatally shot her 18-year-old son in 2014. She finished third with about 20 percent of the vote. “I wanted to go back and do something right in a place that did something so very wrong to my son,” she told the Associated Press of her campaign, “and I think that’s what my son would want as well,”

Howard said the other mothers’ decisions to run were “definitely encouraging” to Fulton.

She had been considering a run for office since at least 2017, when she told the Miami Herald that she and Martin’s father, Tracy Martin, were weighing their options at the local, state and national levels. “We want to make positive change, and the only way to make positive change is if we’re part of the change,” Fulton said.

Fulton has spent nearly her entire life in Miami-Dade County, where she worked assisting low-income renters. She attended public schools there, and so did Martin. And she experienced firsthand the gun violence there, like Martin.

Importantly, Howard said, she wants to not only prevent gun violence, but to aid the families who are left grieving in its aftermath, as she was. Increasing access to mental health resources for families dealing with trauma will be a top priority, he said.

“Mental health is not looked at the same way especially in communities of color,” Howard said. “We want to make sure we put that in the forefront. If you’re a victim of violent crime, there are some issues we need to deal with for the family who survived. We need to deal with those moms and brothers and sisters who are facing these new realities. We want to make sure they have access to the support they need.”

In addition, given her experience working with low-income renters, Howard said she will also seek to address housing disparities and rising rents, which have “created a haves and have-nots atmosphere in Miami-Dade,” Howard said.

“You can’t help but bring her experiences to the forefront,” he said. “As she has said, if not now, then when? If it’s not her, then who? She is the leadership that she’s been asking for.”