The deaths of Trayvon Martin: photographs and representation in protest.

Author:Perry, Samuel P.

In the weeks and months following the killing of Trayvon Martin protestors demanded the arrest of George Zimmerman, who admitted to killing Martin, but claimed self- defense. Officers disagreed over whether or not to hold Zimmerman in the immediate aftermath of the murder, but it was decided that Zimmerman could not be charged in accordance with Florida's Stand Your Ground law. Although this decision was reversed, the protests continued during the trial and in the aftermath of the eventual acquittal. These protestors often held photographs of the slain teen, Martin, while forwarding the declaration, "I am Trayvon Martin." The photographs and the identity claim deployed in concert by protestors create dissonance between what the audience knows cannot be the case and what the protestors insist is the case. Namely, we all know that none of these people is Trayvon Martin, nor can we recover the particular identity of Martin. The particular identity of the late Martin no longer exists in a physical sense, which makes the appropriation of that identity for the purpose of making a persuasive appeal a particularly complicated affair because it violates the conventional rhetorical configurations of mourning. Discussing Jacques Derrida, Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (2001) note that mourners generally seek modes of address "to" and "with" the dead (pp. 26-27), but typically not as or for the deceased.

Commonly displayed photographs of Martin deployed in protest include Martin in his football uniform, peering out from a hooded sweatshirt, or in a Hollister t- shirt and each of these photographs indexes Martin's particular identity. Protestors indicate solidarity with Martin when they make the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" in conjunction with the deployment of the photograph. However, this mode of protest highlights particular problems that arise when protestors appropriate the identity of a victim. This essay examines the rhetorical consequences of forwarding the claim "I am Trayvon Martin," especially when simultaneously deploying a photograph of Martin. I argue that the identity claim curbs the persuasive potential for the photograph as a visual resource for argumentation in protest.

The positive intent in uttering the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" conveys a shared suffering with Martin and his family. It expresses a feeling of the same vulnerability and violation the protestors argue Martin experienced. In short, the "I am" claim in the protests communicates solidarity amongst protestors who rhetorically construct Martin as a victim of a racially instigated killing. The mode of solidarity expressed in the Martin protest through the "I am," claim carries certain assumptions about the vulnerability of all citizens when law enforcement officials fail to act on behalf of an unarmed minor, who from all discernible evidence and accounts provided engaged in no behavior that warranted surveillance or monitoring on the part of Mr. Zimmerman. For some, privileging the word of an admitted killer by Florida law enforcement in place of a rigorous investigation of the death of an unarmed minor raises legitimate concerns about the validity of Florida's Stand Your Ground law. The law which authorities cited as a rationale for their decision not to take Zimmerman into custody until after a nationwide protest over Martin's death (Myers, 2012). Protestors immediately made connections to systemic racism in the past and these laws. Protestors in Chicago held posters with the visage of Emmitt Till next to the image of Martin, and another protestor held a sign saying, "Stand your ground laws: A new form of modern day lynching" (Bella, 2013). Lizette Alvarez (2013, para. 13) wrote in the New York Times-.

Still, black pastors, sociologists and community leaders said in interviews that they feared that Mr. Martin's death would be a story of justice denied, an all-too common insult that to them places Trayvon Martin's name next to those of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo and other black men who were abused, beaten or killed by police officers.

Although George Zimmerman was not a police officer many protestors believed their fears were justified by the Martin case.

The photographs of Martin displayed by protestors communicate the visual component of the identity, race, and dress of Martin that protestors believe led Zimmerman to follow Martin in the first place (Musiol, 2013, p.156). The Martin case illustrates the unequal treatment of African Americans under the law resulting from racial profiling and racial stereotypes of black criminality the protestors believed animated both Zimmerman's actions and his acquittal. As such, race serves as an intractable part of the public discussions of Martin's death. The use of photographs insures Martin's racial identity remains firmly in view of those protesting, those witnessing the protest, and those consuming media accounts of the protests. The public focus on race stands in stark contrast to the Zimmerman trial. Although on display during various moments of the trial and more particularly in the person of Rachel Jenteal (Cobb, 2013), race was a subject ruled off limits by order of the presiding judge (Alvarez, 2013, para. 8). The legal discourse and the public discourse concerning Zimmerman's motivations for killing Martin therefore took very different shapes.

The complicated intersection between identification and representation in protests, while inextricably linked to legal structures, is most evident in the public protests focusing on the racial identity of Martin. First, I examine the ways in which racial violence and identity in the United States, Florida in particular, marked the body of Martin and the photographs of Martin used by protestors in a Derridean sense within a system of discrimination (Derrida, 2007a). The second part of the essay explores the rhetorical potential of the photograph in protests given the ontological features of the photograph as manifest in the punctum and the possibility of the metonymic expansion of the photograph's meaning (Barthes, 1981, p. 27; 45). I argue that the ontological features of the photograph within the realm of protests illustrate the difficulty of unearthing and exposing the structures of racism while remaining respectful of and attentive to the particular identity of Martin.


Although the self-appointed neighborhood watch captain Zimmerman had no legitimate authority, heightened sensitivity to interracial violence stems from decades of systemic violence perpetrated by whites against blacks under the guise of legitimate authority. As noted above, the killing of Martin was almost immediately cast in this light once it reached the wider public. Lynching and other modes of social control kept African Americans from voting, owning homes in some neighborhoods, being able to own and run businesses, and enjoying other basic rights of citizenship. The legacy of extralegal and illegal violence against African Americans deeply affects the way that people interpret Martin's death. While the progress made in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950's and 1960's helped to address many problems, the arguments and the stereotypes that proliferated in support of juridical and state racism still remain.

The African American community of Sanford, Florida is a community with such discrimination deeply rooted in its history. The African American community located within Sanford once held their own city charter. Goldsboro, Florida, according to the city of Sanford's government operated website, "was the second all African American town in Florida, incorporated in 1891 ... Goldsboro lost its identity as a city when the powerful white leaders, along with Mayor Forrest Lake of Sanford, dissolved Goldsboro's City Charter. In April of 1911 the town of Goldsboro was forcibly annexed by Sanford. Street names in Goldsboro were renamed to conform to Sanford's street grid" (Pathways, n.d.). The African American population of Sanford has lived with the legacy of coerced annexation and white power plays for the last century.

An Orlando Sentinel article depicted the African American community's on-going distrust of the Sanford Police Department as a result of their perceptions of unfair treatment by police prior to the Martin shooting. The perceived privilege of whites at the expense of blacks within the Sanford community precipitated the intensity of the protests as they went from local to national. One Sanford resident, Cindy Philemon, described a run in with police saying, "They can do you wrong, but you can't speak out. They can hit you, and you can't fight back because they will take you to jail" (Kunerth, 2012, para. 12). Another Sanford resident explains:

Before Jesse Jackson, before Al Sharpton, before any of them came in here, we tried to talk to chief of police [Bill] Lee, we tried to talk to [City Manager Norton] Bonaparte, we tried to talk to [Mayor] Jeff Triplett, we tried to talk to the commissioners ... When you can't talk to your city leaders, you have to do what you have to do. (Kunerth, 2012, para. 18)

Kunerth describes the dividing line in terms of New Sanford and Old Sanford as metonyms for the racial divide between the citizens of Sanford and the former town of Goldsboro (Kunerth 2012, para. 7-9). Another local reporter writing about a town hall meeting reported that people believed the Sanford Police Department withheld information about the Martin case (Jacobson 2012, para. 4). While these examples certainly are not exhaustive, they are representative of local suspicion of the police and the governmental systems regarding their handling of George Zimmerman. This remains significant in protests because it speaks to the need of protestors to address perceived systemic violence against African Americans on the part of state actors, rather than simply the individual actor, George Zimmerman. The case from the...

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