How the murder of Trayvon Martin made everyday items extraordinary
Watching Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story this summer, I was struck by how much our memories of the tragic encounter between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin is shaped by objects. The gun. The hoodie. The Skittles wrapper. There were other objects too, some from that night — the cell phone Martin held was especially meaningful given he was mid-conversation when Zimmerman first called out to him — and still others that would be focused on later; the temporary tooth grill Martin sported in a photo, or the confederate flag painting Zimmerman posed with, for example. Each object helps us visualize a picture of that fatal night, but they also reveal something, we think, about the two people involved. From the most prosaic to the more historically-fraught, it’s no surprise that we gravitate toward objects as we search for clues that might help us understand each other better.
This is a universal impulse, but it can shock us when the wrong people flaunt the wrong objects with messages that make us squirm. “I am a free American. I can do whatever I want with my possessions.” With these words George Zimmerman declared his right to sell the gun he used to fatally shoot teenager Trayvon Martin. After being acquitted for second-degree murder in July 2013, Zimmerman announced his intention to sell what he referred to as an “American firearm icon.” According to Zimmerman, the gun was returned to him after the Justice Department concluded its investigation into whether federal charges would be filed; they would not be. Not surprisingly given his penchant for social media spectacles, he made his decision to sell the weapon to the highest bidder a public affair, announcing that the proceeds would be used to challenge Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, to support police officers, and to offset his own living expenses. The media storm following his announcement and the posting of the item — a 9mm Kel-Tech pistol used to kill an unarmed teenager — was listed, pulled, and then listed again on two online gun auction sites. BBC News reported it eventually sold for $250,000 4 years after the killing.
A constellation of perceived rights enlivened Zimmerman’s charged rhetoric: the right to bear arms, the right to private property, the right to free speech, and the right to ‘stand his ground.’ All objects are complicated, but a gun is an especially explosive one. Drawn to its physical and mechanical properties as much as its ideological associations, it triggers fervent enthusiasm among some. These same properties and associations lead others to recoil, to avert their gaze at such a display — as many did when Zimmerman posted the images of the gun — and even more when he posted, deleted, and then posted again a graphic image of Martin’s lifeless body on his Twitter account.
How did the gun, this already loaded object, become a murder weapon, and then a souvenir? Already troubled by the killing, the trial, and the ruling, along with Zimmerman’s relentless lack of remorse, many objected strongly to his efforts to benefit financially, effectively killing for profit. Already a fiery object, it was now a spectacular one. Victims’ rights advocate Andy Khan coined ‘murderabilia’ to refer to the booming market that sustains the circulation of such lethal objects. Most of this trading takes place on a handful of websites like Murder Auction, where interested parties can find items linked to school shootings, cannibalism, and serial killers. Like all fetishes, the object is a vessel, the physical manifestation of an intense desire or curiosity for the forbidden.
What is being collected then is not the banal object itself, but the powerful psychic world it has come to inhabit. This material culture includes more than firearms and other weaponry, more than the objects used in the killing of others. It includes all tangible items from crime scenes, and even objects created by perpetrators at later dates, such as letters and drawings from prison. Perhaps the most disturbing of this artifactual world are the personal effects, and even the human remains, of those gunned down, those whose lives were cut spectacularly short. The debate over what to do with these tragic remnants can be just as explosive. Should Zimmerman’s pistol have been destroyed? Should it be put on display? To showcase what? Should it be fired again? By and at whom?
The remnants of Trayvon Martin’s death extend beyond the gun, the images, and his lifeless body strewn across a green lawn. Two other objects would take on great cultural meaning: a hooded sweatshirt and a bag of Skittles. The package of candy, even more than the headphones, cigarette lighter, $40 cash, and can of Arizona juice in Martin’s possession, became a symbol of his youth and unarmed state. Protestors seized on the symbolic power, with many taping the Skittles wrapper to their mouths in opposition to both the killing and the acquittal. The New York Times reported that sales for the candy soared, with Wrigley’s and Mars, the parent companies, recording increased profit. Hooded sweatshirts too, but of no particular brand, became on trend both as a fashion and political statement about the 21st century reinvention of the ‘dark menace’ racial trope. This turn to objects, to the material culture of tragedy, stems from a quest for symbols that convey difficult feelings — fear, sadness, rage — that we struggle to put into words.
The trouble with objects though, is that they take on a life of their own as they migrate across contexts, often drifting far from those imagined by their makers. We are drawn to, and alternatively repelled from, them as expressions of a time or place, a person or event, a feeling or thought. Those that are deemed cultural symbols and tragic artifacts, whether personal or public, get secreted away or boldly exhibited. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes describes objects, namely toys, as deeply social. Social life, values, roles, and expectations are figured into the design, function, and substance of these devices, such that the user’s interaction with them is limited. But this description only holds when the item is used as intended, when it travels little from one setting to another, or from one intended user to some unimagined other. Still, objects are social and socializing in so far as they are created with specific uses in mind. Bruno Latour describes them as the “missing masses” of social life, those nonhuman things that we come into contact with every day to such a degree that it is difficult to distinguish the object from the person, the material from the immaterial; they act upon us as much as we act upon them.
But what happens when we don’t agree which objects matter, and in what ways? While the Smithsonian denied the claim, George Zimmerman boasted that the venerable institution sought to purchase the murder weapon. Lonnie Bunch, director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture did, however, express interest in the dark grey sweatshirt Trayvon Martin was wearing when he was shot in the chest at close range, but eventually declined to pursue its acquisition. These objects would shift from the material evidence of a crime on display in the courtroom to artifactual evidence of a broader culture of racial violence at the museum, joining an already robust array of such items. It is this movement from one setting or owner to the next, that can offend more than the object itself.
It is when these objects of everyday life — a sweatshirt, a candy wrapper, a gun — are rendered spectacular that we understand at a visceral level which matter matters most to the stories or myths we tell about ourselves and each other irrespective of whether we chose to speak about it, or tuck it away.
Robyn Autry is chair of the Sociology Department at Wesleyan University in CT. She is the author of Desegregating the Past: The Public Life of Memory in the US and South Africa (2017). Her work has also appeared in The Atlantic, Huffington Post, and Black Perspectives.