Patrisse hears about Trayvon Martin in 2012 while going through Facebook. The story is that a white man (how he at first self-identified) killed a 17-year-old Black boy and is not going to be charged. Patrisse is furious and organizes a multiracial group of friends to come over and process the news together. The story spreads, and Al Sharpton holds a huge rally in New York, demanding the killer’s arrest. The Dream Defenders in Florida amplify the call using social media and direct action, and weeks later, the killer is arrested. His history of violence comes to light, too (attacking police and girlfriends, molesting his cousin, making endless calls to report “suspicious Black males”), though he was never called a terrorist.
Patrisse notes that Trayvon Martin’s killer initially self-identified as white to suggest that he only began to identify at Latinx to appear more like a victim in court. She also does not mention his name (George Zimmerman) throughout the book, likely as an attempt to decenter him from the story and center Trayvon instead. That he is not being charged after killing an innocent young Black man emphasizes to Patrisse how the criminal justice system is more interested in protecting perpetrators than keeping Black people safe. Patrisse also shares Zimmerman’s history of domestic violence to show that sexism and racism can go hand in hand.
On July 13, 2013—the day of Trayvon’s killer’s trial—Patrisse drives 11 hours with Mark Anthony and a few of their friends to visit Richie, an 18-year-old who is serving a decade in prison for a nonviolent robbery (Patrisse wonders how long Trayvon’s killer will serve). Richie stood out in the restorative justice programming they led at Cleveland a few years ago for Black boys who often got in trouble. Data shows that suspending students from school doesn’t inspire them to change their behavior (and, in fact, alienates them from their community), and that Black kids are suspended at four times the rate of white kids for the same behavior. Seven million kids in the U.S. were suspended in the U.S. from 2011–2012 alone, punishments that did not address external factors like housing or food insecurity that lead to misbehavior.
Patrisse juxtaposes Richie’s sentence (18 years for a nonviolent robbery) with what Trayvon’s killer might get, suggesting that she senses the bad news to come. She also analyzes data related to school suspensions to argue that school punishments are one part of a racist criminal justice system that seeks to control Black people rather than protect them. This type of punishment does not address the root causes—polices that exacerbate housing and food insecurities and treat poor Black people like they are disposable.
The programming Patrisse and Mark Anthony ran at Cleveland was about elevating students’ humanity. They sat in circle with the boys, talking about racism and sexism, addiction, their dreams. Richie was the intellectual and the artist in the group and, after becoming both a feminist and the editor of the school newspaper, published a story about honoring vaginas and stopping sexual assault as front-page news (along with a picture of a vulva). He was threatened with suspension but stood his ground, and the story ended up getting national attention. When he was 18, he wanted space from the toxic masculinity in his home and found his own apartment and a good job in the school system working with kids like him.
Patrisse and Mark Anthony’s restorative justice program is one example of how Patrisse puts into practice her commitment to Black people healing together in community—just because these students have misbehaved does not mean that they should be treated as if they are lost causes. Richie’s growth after participating in the program supports Patrisse’s belief that he was not intentionally acting out but was pushed to act out due to external factors. He also began to embrace the intersectionality of identity, amplifying the voices of women survivors of sexual assault.
Then the district cut Richie’s hours, leaving him without a living wage. He couldn’t find another job given his erratic hours, and his rent was due—so, in desperation, he robbed someone. Afterward, he told Patrisse he had his father’s voice in his head: “Men don’t ask for help.” Though he likely scared someone, he didn’t hurt them—but, like Monte, he became another nonviolent Black man in prison. Meanwhile, killer police officers don’t get charged, and the white rapist Brock Turner only got sentenced to six months because “prison wasn’t for him”—proof that it was made for Black people like Richie. Patrisse sees this as clear evidence that prisons should be shut down.
Richie’s story—like Gabriel’s—is an example of external factors forcing a person to make tough choices. While the criminal justice system holds Richie accountable for robbing someone, he only did so because the school system cut his hours, and he felt he had no other way to make rent. That he felt he couldn’t ask for help because he was a man shows the intersectionality of identity—he struggles with both racism and the pressure to appear tough and masculine. Patrisse makes the point that a white rapist was sentenced to six months when Richie was sentenced to 18 years to suggest that prisons are not about keeping people safe, but controlling and punishing people (specifically those who are poor and Black).
Patrisse, Mark Anthony, and Richie’s friends sit with Richie in the prison visiting room and talk about what will happen to Trayvon’s killer. They talk optimistically about it—surely he will be punished. He willfully ignored a 911 operator’s orders, chasing down and killing a Black boy who was just walking home wearing a hood and carrying iced tea and Skittles. He shot Trayvon, claiming he had a right to stand his ground—and, based on how much time and pressure it took to get him arrested, a jury might agree. After all, the story didn’t make front-page news; Patrisse saw it in a blog post.
Patrisse shares more details about Trayvon Martin’s death to show how cut-and-dry she believes the case against Zimmerman is. Yet she also acknowledges that the media and the public at first didn’t seem to care—which could suggest that the jury will let him get away with treating a Black person as disposable.
The story reminds Patrisse of Emmett Till’s murder in 1955. She also thinks of Monte’s son Chase, who is 14 when Trayvon is killed—will he be killed with no accountability? When anyone in Van Nuys committed a crime, they were held accountable with searchlights, metal detectors, and sweeps of schoolchildren. Where were the policymakers when white men harmed them? The only reason people know about Trayvon is because of the Dream Defenders and Al Sharpton. Against all odds, Patrisse, Mark Anthony, Richie’s friends, and Richie hold onto hope. The visit with Richie ends, and they go to their motel.
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. After his killers were acquitted, he became an icon for the civil rights movement (similar to Trayvon Martin’s role in the Black Lives Matter movement). Patrisse reflects on the racist nature of police responses to crimes—police officers do not hold white men accountable yet terrorize Black and Latinx communities with searchlights and school sweeps. The broader public isn’t much better—no one seemed to care about Trayvon until Black activists intentionally raised awareness.
The prison is in Susanville, a town north of the Bay Area where half the residents are in prison. It is a small working-class town whose reported diversity is entirely due to its Black prisoner population. Susanville’s growth industry is prisons—half of the adults work at the two facilities (not including the labor performed by the prisoners themselves, shipped from LA County and the Bay). There are American flags everywhere and random soldiers who are stationed nearby—the town is committed to war and crime because, without these things, their town’s economy would collapse.
Patrisse shares context about Susanville in order to highlight how prisons exist to control and contain Black people, but also to actively exploit them—prisons are part of an industry that mostly benefits white people.
Patrisse and Richie’s friends pick up microwavable dinners. Back at the motel, Patrisse checks Facebook and sees updates come in—Trayvon’s killer is acquitted of all charges. She goes into shock and then denial before realizing it’s true—and then she feels ashamed that they couldn’t stop this from happening. She cries but feels like she shouldn’t. Instead, she should be strong, especially since the people she’s with (Richie’s friends) were her mentees at Cleveland, young people she taught to be strong and to fight for their community. She wants to protect them, to make sure they have long, healthy lives.
Patrisse realizes in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal that, despite her hope to the contrary, the criminal justice system indeed exists to protect white (and white-presenting) people and police officers at the expense of Black people. While she feels shocked and angry at this blatant example of racism, she also immediately turns her attention to the young Black people she is with, wishing that she could protect them. This is an example of Patrisse’s deep commitment to healing with her Black community.
Patrisse and Richie’s friends all weep together—and then Patrisse gets angry. It makes no sense that Richie could be locked up for 10 years without hurting anyone, but Trayvon’s killer gets to go home. Just then, she sees that her friend Alicia (whom she met seven years ago at a political gathering) has written a Facebook post telling people to stop saying they’re not surprised—“I will continue to be surprised at how little Black lives matter.” She will never give up on Black life. Patrisse writes a comment that simply says “#BlackLivesMatter.” They start to strategize on a campaign together, looping in Opal Tometi, a Black immigration organizer in New York. They create a website and social media accounts, hoping the world will finally understand that Black lives matter. They begin to organize.
This is the climax of the book, when the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement officially begins. Alicia notes in her post that people are saying they are not surprised that Trayvon’s killer was found not guilty, the implication being that this sort of police violence is pervasive, as Patrisse has been suggesting throughout the book. Patrisse’s response shows that although the world treats Black people like their lives are disposable, she is committed to doing the opposite.