Being from Florida, I can’t help but hear about the Trayvon Martin Case. It is everywhere, and it has spread to other parts of the United States as well. In the last couple of months Trayvon Martin’s image has become iconic, symbolizing the racial issues of the United States and inciting people to protest and march.
My initial reaction to this was that it is being blown out of proportion, with people ascribing meaning where there is none. An inherent effect of this is to miss the actual truth of the matter. Further research proved this reaction to be accurate. Movements and media are taking turns right now painting Zimmerman as either a racist or hero and Trayvon as either a thug or an all-around wonderful kid. None of these scenarios are true, and we’d all do well to remember that, in theses situations, truth rarely exists in such certainties.
So what is the truth? William Saleten of Slate.com does a very good job of summing it up in his article You Are Not Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman is not a hero or racist devil, he is a normal guy who made some very stupid decisions based on misconceptions and fear. Trayvon is a normal kid who also made some stupid decisions based on misconceptions and fear. The aftermath of the affair, instead of addressing the heart of the matter, is only furthering the misconceptions and confusion which led to the initial tragedy.
Every movement has its own barrage of imagery, music, and artistic outpouring. Art fulfills a need, and sometimes that need is to express grievance or angst over an aspect of the current state of affairs. This use of art is essentially propaganda, and it brings out both the best and worst in people. Even if the intentions of the person or people behind artful propaganda are good, the results can turn ugly. The nature of propaganda is to incite an emotional response aimed at uniting large groups under a common message. The problem with this is simple: a person is smart, people are dumb. Group mentality can be dangerous, especially when emotions are running high. This is not to say that people shouldn’t gather to support a cause, only that we should be mindful of how and why we gather while aiming not to do so in anger.
Right now emotions are running high. Images of Trayvon and Zimmerman are being traded on the internet like they’re Yu Gi Oh! Cards; media icons have come down with acute cases of foot-in-mouth disease; and people are donning hoodies, carrying signs, and erecting banner-size images of Trayvon. People have even changed their Facebook pictures to Trayvon in his hoodie to show support. Sides are being chosen, and in the middle all we have is even more confusion. An untimely and stupid death is being used to fuel anger and fear. Racism is a very real issue in the United States, and painting every occurrence as an incidence of racism will ensure that this never changes. Surrounding the discussion with anger and fear will ensure that discussion turns to violence because VIOLENCE BEGETS VIOLENCE.
This is not a new situation, or one that is even specific to the United States. In fact, this situation strongly reminds me of an incident that occurred during the Troubles time period in Northern Ireland. A history of colonization had polarized society in Ireland, and with the formation of Northern Ireland the foundation was laid for the continuation of a bloody and tragic history. Misconceptions of the other fostered confusion and bias, which fueled a cycle of violence. This cycle was then abused by power structures to perpetrate corruption for personal gain. Do not make the mistake of thinking this abuse of power was specific to one side, either. Political resistance groups first established to fight for the people soon became vessels for corruption in and of themselves. In the late 60s and early 70s the violence cycle was interrupted by something wonderful: the speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior. Television sets were becoming more widely available to the Irish Catholic population, and King’s methods of peaceful protest became a focus of resistance among many. Then Bloody Sunday happened.
A peaceful march modeled after King’s Selma to Montgomery march turned ugly when it reached Rossville street in Londonderry. A barricade had been erected as the march had been banned, marchers threw stones at English troops who responded with rubber bullets. People died, and even more people became incensed. Confusion abounded, and people demanded justice be served to those behind the guns. Blame took place of understanding, anger took place of sense, and the cycle of escalating violence continued amid more peaceful means of protest. Despite the best of intentions, high emotions and historically ingrained biases caused an otherwise peaceful endeavor to turn violent on a dime.
While current situations in the United States may have manifested differently, these incidences share a striking similarity. Tragic misunderstanding. People felt threatened by the presence of the troops and responded by throwing stones. The troops felt threatened by the people and opened fire when they should not have. Each side felt threatened by the other because of the history of violence in the country. Martin and Zimmerman felt threatened by each other because of their perceptions of criminality in America. In Northern Ireland these feelings were fueled by a history of misunderstandings and archetypal perceptions of each other, and this incident only fed in to and furthered these misunderstandings. This is what we call a self-sustaining cycle. Every cycle can be broken, and through great effort Northern Ireland has become a largely peaceful country today. People’s differences remain, however, and so does the potential to exploit them. This can be said of any historical conflict which exist in people’s living memory, and this is exactly why we have to remain careful of the spirit in which we gather and of our perceptions of truth on which those gatherings are based.
In the United States we have our own destructive and self-sustaining cycles. One of these in particular fed in to the Martin-Zimmerman incident. This tragic misunderstanding is a product of mass media, painting all the world in shades of thugs and perverts. The cycle continues, with mass media coverage of the event trickling down to the people who further distort the issue and continue the chain of fear, misunderstanding, and confusion. The question first posed by U2 in 1983 is a very good one: how long can we sing this song?
You are Not Trayvon Martin: Slate.com
History of Bloody Sunday, Background: The Free Derry Museum
History of Bloody Sunday, Reaction to Events: The Free Derry Museum
Zimmerman Wanted for Murder: Common Sense Conpsiracy
Treyvon Justice: NeonTommy
Bloody Sunday Mural: Saoirse32