It is now widely known that George Zimmerman, a self-appointed volunteer neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida, shot and killed unarmed African American teen Trayvon Martin in February 2012. When police questioned Zimmerman immediately after the shooting he claimed self-defense, even though he pursued the boy against the advice of a 9-1-1 operator. Last Saturday a jury found Zimmerman not guilty of all charges stemming from the shooting and he left the courthouse innocent in the eyes of the law. The verdict induced strong reactions around the country, including an avalanche of discussion on social media, a number of protests, and, in Oakland, violent demonstrations that damaged downtown businesses. Much of the discussion has centered on systemic racism, how it impacts the lives of people of color, and villainizes youth victims.
Also at the center of the controversy is a discussion about Florida's "stand your ground" or "shoot first" law. According to the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the law says that "a person who reasonably believes that deadly force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm has no duty to retreat from a confrontation outside the home before engaging in deadly force." The site goes on to say, "In reality, Florida's law shields individuals who use deadly force to injure or kill, by granting civil and criminal immunity to any shooter who convinces a judge that he or she reasonably believed a threat existed by a preponderance of the evidence." During closing arguments, the defense claimed that Martin had "weaponized the sidewalk" to bludgeon Zimmerman during the confrontation in which Zimmerman shot him through the heart with a concealed 9mm Kel-Tec pistol.
Artist Stephanie Syjuco
Artists, writers, and activists immediately began to make work in response to the verdict. The next morning, Bay Area-based artist Stephanie Syjuco posted on Facebook an image of herself lying facedown on the cement in an empty parking lot, akin to media images of Martin's lifeless body after the shooting. The image, she said, is "a kind of face-plant in reaction to recent political events" and went on to say, "as in the Zimmerman trial, this image takes on a Rashomon-like effect." The nature of what transpired is unclear, but the image is unsettling and, the artist hopes, provocative.
After Zimmerman was found not guilty, a flood of recrimination in the news and social media was focused on Florida's legal system, as if the legality that enabled the verdict was limited to Florida. This distancing, this need to place Florida in a category of otherness, provided some with a sense of exoneration. Whatever is happening there is not my problem, seemed to be the prevailing message. One poster on Facebook commented, "Say what you want about Global Warming, it's going to erase that tumor of a state known as Florida." But in reality thirty-one states, including Florida, have adopted "Shoot First" statutes since 2005. Each generally permits the use of deadly force in self-defense in public places with no duty to retreat. The evident racism in “stand your ground” states is stunning: according to a recent study conducted by John Roman, a senior analyst at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, white people who kill black people are 354% more likely to be cleared of murder, as recently reported in the United Kingdom’s Daily Mail. In response to the verdict, the NAACP launched a petition urging the Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, stating that the organization would "fight for the removal of stand your ground laws in every state," and vowed not to rest until "racial profiling in all of its forms is outlawed."
Following the verdict, President Obama urged Americans to respect the jury's verdict, noting that we are "a nation of laws." He continued by saying, "We should ask ourselves if we're doing all we can to stem the tide of gun violence that claims too many lives across this country on a daily basis. We should ask ourselves, as individuals and as a society, how we can prevent future tragedies like this. As citizens, that's a job for all of us." The President, however, offered no council on how citizens can impact gun laws, a seemingly insurmountable task after the Senate persisted in defeating a background check measure this spring that was supported by more than 90% of Americans.
Artist: Aaron Stienstra
Many people have begun to question how they can prevent tragedies like this by challenging their own assumptions of white privilege. Joseph Phelan, a thirty-three year old poet and writer who lived in Florida for seven years, felt compelled to initiate a discussion on this topic after attending a street march in New York where people chanted, "We are Trayvon Martin." But after, he said, "I felt sad and I had a huge sense of failure, especially as this is happening in the lead up to the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington next month. What's changed? I know that I will never be Trayvon Martin because I'm white, but I want this country to be better."
Image courtesy: We Are Not Trayvon Martin
On Sunday night Phelan initiated an open public platform for dialog about racism on Tumblr called We Are Not Trayvon Martin, without knowing how or even if anyone would participate. Overnight a few submissions came in; over the course of the last few days more than 1,200 people have sent submissions. The majority of people post about being white and about not wanting the privileges of racism. Many others post about their experiences as African Americans with young children or about how being multi-ethnic or light skinned has allowed them to evade overt racism. The prevailing impression of the submissions, he says, is that families are complicated. So too is a conversation about racism. "What I wanted was a really deep conversation about race. I've never had this broad or far-reaching a conversation about race, especially with white people."
Phelan has engaged a dispersed network of friends, many of whom are writers, artists, and musicians, to assist with posting submissions around the clock, including friends in Brooklyn, Miami, Tennessee, and as far away as Europe. Though the site is moderated, pretty much everything is posted, with the exception of anything racist. Phelan guesses there have been no more than fifteen submissions omitted out of the hundreds posted and in the queue to be posted.
But is the site really a forum for conversation or is it primarily one directional? Phelan concedes that the posts are mostly testimonials, but points out that conversations are happening in response to the site on other platforms such as Facebook or Twitter. Through the site people are, essentially, facilitating dialog in their own immediate circles about the verdict and about racism. They aren't easy conversations to have, but it's a place to start.
Courtesy: Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative
Earlier this week, Just Seeds Artists' Cooperative, "a decentralized network of 24 artists committed to making print and design work that reflects a radical social, environmental, and political stance," released a free downloadable poster graphic for viral distribution depicting a portrait of Martin with text that reads, "I am Trayvon Martin and my life matters." Smaller Spanish text at the bottom reads "Viva Oscar Grant, Viva Trayvon, Viva Los Presos En Huelga De Hambre," the later of which refers to prisoners on hunger strike. The message draws a thread through the lives of different people, largely men of color, who have been deprived of their humanity.
The conversations happening right now after the Zimmerman verdict require the complete reevaluation of interconnected attitudes in American society, at the local and national level, from racism to gun laws to the penal code. Because every life matters, even, or perhaps especially those that we have failed. We can't change what has happened, but we can make change. And we must.
Author's note: These are but a selection of projects that have taken place over the last few days with many more underway around the country. Please share other creative projects that address the Zimmerman verdict in the comments section below to continue to expand the dialogue here.