Sunday, July 15, 2018

Five Years After a White Wash Verdict—Poetry for Trayvon

The most iconic photo of Trayvon Martin in a hoodie.

It is hard to believe that it has been  more than six years since 17-year old Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by a self-appointed vigilante on a drizzling Florida night and five years since his killer George Zimmerman was cleared of second degree murder charge by a Florida jury on July 13.  The shooting of the unarmed teen who had committed no crime, sparked national outrage and protests by the African-American community and social justice activists that only intensified after the verdict.  Travon’s death and a spate of police involved killings that followed became catalysts for the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
On the other hand, the gun lobby and their slavish minions as well as not-so-in-the-closet racists mobilized by Fox News and hate radio, rallied to Zimmerman’s defense and raised and raised him to the status of a hero.  To do so they smeared the dead boy painting him as trouble making delinquent, marijuana smoking thug, and possible gang member who somehow deserved to be killed.
Briefly, to refresh your memory, Trayvon and his father were visiting his father’s fiancĂ©e in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a multi-ethnic gated community in Sanford, Florida. had visited several times before and was known.  After watching TV and playing video games, Trayvon decided to walk to a near-by convenience store for a snack.  Since it was drizzling out, he wore a light jersey hoody.  After purchasing a root beer and bag of Skittles Martin began walking back to the apartment where he was staying.

Police photo docummented George Zimmerman's split lip and a scratch on the rear of his head and considered it proof that he had been attacked and shot in self-defense. 
That was when he was spotted by 29-year old Zimmerman, who considered himself part of a neighborhood watch although he never belong to any formal organization, who was driving, possibly “on patrol”  Martin looked suspicious to him.  Zimmerman called police on his cell phone and reported “We’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy.”  As the police dispatcher stayed on the line with him for almost three minutes, Zimmerman kept up a running description. He described an unknown male “just walking around looking about… This guy looks like he is up to no good or he is on drugs or something.”  He claimed that the person had his hand in his waistband and was looking at houses. He also mentioned that Martin was wearing a “dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie” and then “these assholes, they always get away.”
About this time Martin realized he was being followed in a car and became frightened.  He was on his own phone at the time talking to a friend since grade school Rachel Jeantel.  He told her there was a “guy following me” and that he was becoming frightened.  Rachel told him to run home.  While still on the phone she heard Trayvon ask someone “Why are you following me.” and heard a subsequent scuffle and Trayvon screaming before the phone went dead.
Zimmerman had gotten out of his car to chase Trayvon on foot although the police dispatcher advised him specifically not to do so.  What happened when Zimmerman caught up to Martin was in dispute.  Zimmerman claimed that Martin turned and attacked him, that he screamed for help, and then shot Martin once in the chest at point blank range with a Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm that he was carrying.  Several witnesses heard an altercation and reported screaming and other saw the immediate aftermath with Zimmerman standing over the prostrate boy who was on his back drawing his final breath.  Zimmerman, who had some scratches on his face, was disarmed and taken into custody by police who arrived within moments.
Zimmerman was held for a little over five hours while he was interrogated and evidence collected.  .  The police chief said that there was no evidence to refute Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense, and that under Florida’s controversial Stand Your Ground statute, the police were prohibited by law from making an arrest.  He also positively asserted that Zimmerman had a right to defend himself with lethal force.
A subsequent investigation by Seminole County States Attorney Norm Wolfinger upheld that conclusion.  It looked like Zimmerman would Walk Free.
But Martin’s family challenged the findings and suggested collusion between the Police Department and State’s Attorney’s Office.  The press was turning up witnesses that cast doubt on Zimmerman’s story and it became apparent that Martin was unarmed and had not been engaged in any criminal activity.  

One of the many rallies, marches, and demonstrations held nationally to demand justice fro Trayvon Martin.  Note the hoodies.
Thanks largely to social media the case became a cause celebre within days.  Protests erupted not only locally but nationwide.  For many Black parents, including President Barack Obama, Martins death was a frightening reminder of the dangers faced by their own children.  When Zimmerman’s apologists on Fox News and elsewhere claimed that the hoodie Trayvon wore—a popular article of clothing worn by almost all young people—was a virtual gang banger’s uniform, over a million people posted pictures of themselves in hoodies on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in solidarity. 

This image of Trayvon flipping the bird to his computer camera for social media was widely used by Zimmerman supporters to show that he was thug and bad kid.
Martin was shown to be a typical high school who played football, and had no criminal record or gang affiliations.   Pictures shared by the family showed a smiling young man.  But the hate machine insisted that Trayvon was “nothing but a thug.”  Surprise, Surprise they discovered that he had occasionally been disciplined at school for attendance violations and minor rule infractions.  He had been caught smoking marijuana, traces of which showed up in his blood during autopsy tests.  It turned out he had a girlfriend with whom he may have had sex.  A cell phone selfie turned up of him mugging like a rapper in a stocking cap and drooping drawers flashing hand signs.  It was proof he was a gang banger, they said.  All in all, Travon was painted as a bad kid who must have done something to deserve being shot.
Despite the smears, Martin became a symbol for a new movement.  Within weeks the State’s Attorney was complaining that he was taking heat for his handling of the case.  He moved to have Zimmerman charge with involuntary negligent homicide—the lightest possible charge in a death—under the theory that the fatal confrontation would never have occurred if Zimmerman had followed the police dispatcher’s instructions and stayed in his car.  But then he publicly said that he didn’t believe that even that charge could be sustained.
Martin’s family and supporters continued to call for stronger action and for state and Federal investigations.   Both Florida Governor Rick Scott and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced investigations.  Both dragged on for months and the Feds ultimately declined to prosecute.  The case was turned over to a state special prosecutor, Angela Corey who finally decided to charge Zimmerman with Second Degree Murder.  The trial drew national attention, demonstrations ratcheted up, and the NRA and gun rights groups both raised mountains of money for Zimmerman’s defense and for their own coffers.  Then came the acquittal, and all sides doubled down.
I had been following all of this from the safe distance of McHenry County and filtered through my increasingly evident White privilege.  I had participated in social media protests and blogged about it.  But amid the hoopla and recriminations that blew up after the verdict it struck me that the young man at the center of it all had been largely forgotten.  For both sides he had become a symbol drained of humanity.

This photo shopped meme was typical of those that tried to suggest that Zimmerman was right and that Trayvon was one of those responcible for recent burglaries in the community.  Needless to say no evidence was ever turned up to even remotely connect him to the break-ins.
With a great deal of sadness I knocked out the following poem in the middle of the night and posted it without comment in this blog.  I shared it as widely as I could and read it at worship services at Tree of Life U.U. Congregation the following Sunday.  Reactions were mixed, but there was some outrage. 
Five years latter you can be the judge if it was appropriate.

For Trayvon
After the Verdict
July 14, 2013

In the end they stole you,
            every last one of them,
            the martyr builders
            and the bastards alike.

They poured you out
            like water from
            a swamped boot
            and replaced you
            with the merchandise
            of their own longings,
                                    and projections.
A handy flagstaff from which to hang
                        their ideologies          
                        snapping in the gale
                        that they created.

But you were just a goofy,
            kind of sweet kid
            just trying to get along
            no angel, no thug.

You took the time to make a friend
            of the big girl with the
            funny accent
everyone else mocked,
and you also toked some weed—
what a shock!
            mugged like a rapper
            on your cell phone,    
                        and brushed up
                        a time or two  
                        against John Law.
You played football and video games,
            danced, laughed
            and flashed that little grin.
If truth be known,
            you probably got beyond
            third base with that pretty
            little girl friend.

So what?
            It doesn’t matter now.
            It all ended with a tussle
            and a pop on dark night.

Then you were stretched out
            flat on your back
            surprise frozen on
            your face—
                        an empty sack of meat.

Now you belong to them.
            You have no say.
            Those who loved you,
                        hated your existence
                        on the planet,
                         and all of the users.

Maybe better you should have been
            capped on the South Side
            of Chicago on a busy weekend
            where all you would get
            would be a two minute stand-up
            under a street lamp on Channel 5,
                        a quick shot of your wailing mom,
                                    the posturing of a local preacher.
Then they would put you in the ground
            still owning your own corpse.

—Patrick Murfin

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