Sunday, July 21, 2013

Trayvon as symbol


WE’VE SEEN it for more than a year already, and never more often than right now: what’s become the single most iconic image of Trayvon Benjamin Martin: the teenager in a closeup, his head under a hoodie; a face in the act of observing; an adolescent on the verge of becoming a man; his eyes wide and questioning, but somehow already assuming the armor that he would need to survive an antithetical world.

In the 17 months since he was taken from us by George Zimmerman, this image of Trayvon has become the visual meme, the optical symbol of a nascent movement taking shape. This image at numerous rallies in the previous months, and found throughout the 100-plus rallies organized and executed this weekend by Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network — is the rallying point for something powerful, provocative and infused with history.

TV One's Roland Martin, speaking late last week to "The Young Turks" host Cenk Uygur on Current TV, said “[t]his case, the death of Trayvon Martin, I believe, can potentially serve as the Emmett Till of this generation. There are thousands of young people who are ready to mobilize and organize. I think there's a moment here where we can actually have a 21st-century social justice movement that will be beneficial to the rest of this country.”

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Martin’s reference to the 14-year-old black boy whose murder in Mississippi in August 1955 catalyzed the civil rights movement has an historical symmetry. Till’s killers were acquitted of the crime, just like happened last week with the cypher who took Trayvon’s life in Florida. But the movement that Roland Martin suggested was possible last week is already under way.

Last week in the Florida state capitol building in Tallahassee, dozens of people protesting the July 13 acquittal of Zimmerman for killing Trayvon, staged a benign occupation of the space outside the office of Gov. Rick Scott, demanding a meeting with the governor over the state’s Stand Your Ground law (a meeting they eventually got).

Back in the day, you’d have called this what it was: a sit-in, a benign confrontation with authority not unlike the strategy used at lunch counters and bus stations and other public places in the heyday of what (now) might be fairly called the first civil rights movement.

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FOR BETTER or worse, for millions of African Americans in the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was the physical embodiment of the civil rights movement. For millions of others, Malcolm X was seen as that movement’s spokesman and avatar. So it was problematic that, when both men were assassinated three years and two months apart, the movement was seen as suddenly rudderless, without the defining intellects and visions that marked them as leaders, and which codified the movement in the national culture.

Trayvon Martin didn’t live long enough to find his place in the conversation of our time, about race or anything else. But the manner of his passing — at the hands of a loser with a gun — is emblematic to millions of African Americans, and their supporters in the wider American community. Every movement needs a symbol. Trayvon Martin has become, by tragic accident, the symbol for a younger generation.

Canonizations like that have a kind of upside; tributes come from unlikely places. At the Nancy’s Baby Names Web site, the site managers in March 2012 predicted an uptick in Trayvon as a first name for boys. Sure enough, between 2012 and this year, the choice of Trayvon as a boy’s name jumped 128 places, to No. 331 in popularity, according to BabyCenter and the Social Security Administration.

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But of course it's bigger than that. At the Trayvon Martin rally in Manhattan on Saturday, Sharpton led the crowd in a chant whose historical resonance is inescapable. “I AM TRAYVON MARTIN!” Sharpton shouted. Beyond the pure catharsis of the moment was a hookup with the past. You couldn’t hear that without thinking of Jesse Jackson’s legendary PUSH-era existential call to arms, “I AM SOMEBODY!” And going further back, you had to remember the signs (regrettably gender-specific but still effective) held by striking sanitation workers in Memphis in 1968, signs announcing “I AM A MAN.”

You can debate the universalizing of experience implicit in the “I AM’ metaphor, and a lot of people already have. There’s been pushback, thoughtful, sincere, but regrettably myopic. Maya, at Feministing, writes this in a short-sighted July 15 piece entitled “I am not Trayvon Martin”:

I, for one, am definitely not Trayvon Martin.

I’m a young, white cis woman. I’m quite sure I’ve never been seen as a threat to anyone in my life and couldn’t look “suspicious” if I tried. On the contrary, I’m often patronizingly viewed as in need of far more protection than I would like. I am a white woman, like the five who sat on the jury and whose potential fear of young black men Zimmerman’s defense seemed to have been banking on. As a white woman in this culture, that’s a fear that I’ve actively worked to unlearn. I am a young, white cis woman, which means I probably won’t be arrested for smoking pot, and I definitely won’t be stopped-and-frisked. It means I can (usually) trust the police, and if someone hurts me – especially if they happen to look like Trayvon Martin – the criminal legal system (mostly) works for me.

Shit happens, and people do awful things, and tragedies befall folks of all races, but at the end of the day some people can go out for Skittles wearing a hoodie, and some can’t. Some people have half a chance at justice, while others do not.

And true solidarity requires recognizing both our shared humanity and the differences that seek to divide us.


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BUT MAYA overlooks the other ways in which bias and discrimination doesn’t answer to the comfortable visual distinctives of race. Some important parts of the social structure and culture evolving at the state level, and already locked in the amber of national habit and tradition, made the Trayvon Martin tragedy possible.

It’s the same social structure that has, over generations, made rock-solid certain that women now earn 77 cents for every dollar a man earns to do the same work.

It’s the same culture that locks women out of the boardrooms and executive suites. Only 15 percent of women are on the boards of the largest U.S. corporations, despite being half the population of the United States.

It’s the same social structure that is, right now, state by state, despite the federal protection of Roe v. Wade, doing all it can to roll back abortion services and reproductive counseling rights for women across this country, working hard to drive women seeking those necessary options back into the shadows.

No, Maya, in the wider picture — you’re wrong. You couldn’t be more wrong. Shit happening is an equal opportunity experience, even when you think it’s not. Especially when you think it’s not. True solidarity requires recognizing that when it comes to what’s fair, what’s right and what’s truly just, you, white American woman, have more in solidarity with Trayvon Martin than you think.

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That’s the power of the emerging Trayvon I AM meme. It inherently recognizes both the specifics of the pointless tragedy that bears his name, and the victims of the other, wider imbalances of our society, those that affect more than just African Americans, or even racial minorities generally.

Trayvon’s hoodie portrait, ghostly in its immediate iconography, reaches us all. One brilliant artist, Nikkolas Smith, borrowed from it for a brilliant speculation, one that truly connects with history — the history that every meaningful newsgathering org on the planet will observe on August 28, the 50th anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech in Washington, D.C.

Summers in D.C. are reliably hot, high-humidity affairs, and this August should be no exception. But despite the weather, you’ll see them: hoodies on the National Mall, by the tens of thousands at the Lincoln Memorial.

And you’ll see this Nikkolas Smith image of a hoodied Dr. King on that day in Washington. This  inspired Photoshop conflation of images symbolizes the conflation of our destinies. All of us. Whether we think so or not.

Also at Medium.com. Image credits: Trayvon: The Martin Family. Emmett Till: public domain. Feministing logo: © 2013 Feministing. MLK Hoodie: Photo illustration © 2013 Nikkolas Smith.

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