When Kevin Cunningham read about the killing of teenager Trayvon Martin early this month, he turned to a platform he was just starting to experiment with social media. Little did he know when he started an online petition demanding that authorities prosecute the shooter, that it would garner more than 2 million signatures and help draw international attention to the 17-year-old’s shooting death on Feb. 26.
“I decided to take the skills that I’ve been working on … and apply them to the situation and see how well it would work out, and it just went crazy on me,” said Cunningham, 31, ofWashington,D.C., who created the petition on the change.org website on March 8. Cunningham, a red-head who describes himself as the “super Irish” son of activist parents, said he learned about the Martin case when he read a story posted on a listserv for Men of Howard, an informal, secretive fraternity that he joined while attending the historically black Howard University as a law student.
When he suggested starting an online appeal calling for prosecution of the shooter, neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the proposal was met with both support and skepticism from other subscribers. “At Howard, they tell us as soon as you get there, ‘If you’re going to be a lawyer, you’re either a social engineer or a parasite on the society.’ … that’s how I think about life … is to be a social engineer, and that’s what my parents were always trying to be,” he said. When Cunningham launched the appeal, others in the fraternity posted it to their social networks. Later, current students and other alumni shared it, too.
On the first day, Cunningham believes the petition got 100 signatures. Then it quickly reached the 1,000 mark as it spread toFlorida,Californiaand beyond. Cunningham said he noticed that some of the singers identified themselves as family members or friends of Martin. “You could tell there was a lot of people who knew him and liked him,” he said. “It definitely had an impact on me … it made me feel very good about what I had done, what we had done.” Zimmerman has admitted to shooting Martin. His representatives have asserted he acted in self-defense, but the incident has sparked outrage in many quarters because Martin was unarmed and, according to critics of police handling of the case, may have been targeted because he was black.
“I thought that this could be a similar situation where the death of the one person could be the thing that triggers us to re-look at our society,” Cunningham said. “I think we need to revolutionize the justice system, for sure, and maybe our culture as well.” Asked whether he thought people might be surprised to learn that a white man was responsible for the petition demanding justice for a black teenager he had never met, Cunningham said he didn’t “believe in black and white.”
“The only race I believe in is the human race,” he said.