Printer Friendly

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

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 beginning held metonymic qualities regarding a long history of historical injustices such that Sanford residents felt they had to contact the NAACP and other national news outlets, which sparked a social media firestorm that brought the case to national prominence (Myers, 2012).

The local apprehensions concerning police treatment of African Americans bespeak concerns voiced by wider audiences across the nation regarding African Americans' experience with police and judicial injustice. John McWhorter, an editor for The New Republic, writes, "... it [the Martin case] has stoked yet again the embers of racial hurt in this country, reinforcing the main obstacle to any true healing: the ugly relationship between blacks and the police" (2012, para. 2). McWhorter continues by comparing Martin's death to other cases where young black men, including Amadou Diallo, met their death at the hands of police (para. 10). At a protest in Cincinnati, poet Maya Angelou lamented the killing of Martin saying, "I don't want to see five more Trayvons and five Trayvettes get killed by police who've been waiting for that chance. Please pray for justice" (Myers 2012, para. 15). Again, it is important to note that Zimmerman was not a Sanford police officer, or for that matter acting on the behalf of any legitimate law enforcement agency. However, the conflation of Martin's killing with a state action or concerns about Zimmerman receiving tacit approval from Sanford Police speaks to the worries of protestors that one of the darkest chapters of American race relations looms just beneath the surface of this case. For those across the nation, not just in Sanford, who worry that the American justice system still operates on separate and unequal terms regarding the treatment of African Americans, the Martin case stands as a metonymic representation of a systemic failure to exorcise the specter of racism from the American justice system.

The first complication here presumes the guilt of George Zimmerman in racially profiling Martin, and killing him as a result of that profiling. This was the intended implication for many protestors, though it presumes guilt and moves beyond what the prosecution was able to prove to the jury. Prior to the Zimmerman trial, in a statement almost foreshadowing the eventual verdict, the attorney for Martin's parents, Benjamin Crump, articulates something similar:

We didn't know George Zimmerman before this. We don't know if he's a racist or not. He profiled Trayvon Martin for some reason and pursued him. Whether he wants to say he profiled him because he thought he was a criminal or whether it's something more sinister, we will never know what was in his mind (Myers, 2012, para. 8).

Differentiating between Zimmerman's speech and motivation proves important because it indicates we cannot be certain Zimmerman's suspicion was provoked by Trayvon Martin's appearance, or something else entirely. Zimmerman can be heard responding to the 911 dispatcher saying, "these assholes always get away," but there is not enough evidence on the tapes to suggests exactly "who" qualifies as "these assholes." Zimmerman's trial failed to produce a more nuanced or valid explanation of Zimmerman's motivations. Regardless, "... the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin tragedy seemed to many people, and especially many African-Americans, like an example of how stereotypes and animus can lead to violence and death" (Douthat, 2013, para. 2). The justice system already failed Martin in this construction of the events.

The history of violence that precedes the Martin case marks the discourse and the images used to represent the case in protests and media coverage. State sanctioned discrimination creates ways of reading race and violence that facilitate and encourage particular reactions on the part of people who discriminate, are discriminated against, and who attempt to stop discrimination. Jacques Derrida's lament on the structure of the South African apartheid government as state sanctioned racism proves interesting and instructive. Derrida writes:

It [racism] institutes, declares, writes, inscribes, prescribes. A system of marks, it designs places in order to assign forced residence to close off borders. It does not discern, it discriminates ... It [apartheid] remains the only one on the scene that dares to say its name and to present itself for what it is: a legal defiance by Homo politicus, a juridical racism and a state racism. (Derrida, 2007a, p. 379)

The practical application of segregation in the United States and its violent enforcement through both legal and extra legal means created a condition similar to what Derrida describes in the apartheid system of South Africa. The "legal defiance" of political animals Derrida speaks of promotes juridical discrimination and instantiates racism within the structures of the state even after the most egregious and visible pieces of the state apparatuses of racism have been removed.

For Derrida, these chains of representation are the essence of the post- structural condition, but for Michael Calvin McGee, the problem is addressed in terms of the postmodern condition. McGee explains race in the postmodern condition writing:

... we used to say that representations were only surface, superficial, mere talk, mere rhetoric ... the evidence is multiplying to suggest that our world is surface. Culture, society, even our very identities are matters of representation. The surest evidence that human problems are overdetermined is that eliminating structural causes no longer guarantees the elimination of undesirable effects. (McGee, 1998, p. 175)

The indexes of racism do not announce themselves through the mechanisms of marking and discrimination in the same ways that they historically have. The effect for protestors seems clear: Martin is dead because he was black and Zimmerman's exoneration was an inevitable outcome because he is not black. Representational politics bring stereotypes to the fore. Zimmerman claims Martin attacked him, and law enforcement in turn claims that Zimmerman acted within the bounds of Florida state law. The traditional modes of structural racism that might have readily stood as an explanation in the past no longer present themselves with the same familiar names, but the negative effects and outcomes have not been eliminated in the Martin case. The names so readily available in the past, such as Jim Crow or segregation, no longer present themselves, but news outlets and protestors look for ways to link to these marking systems to the Martin case.

For protestors and those sympathizing with Martin, one of the most prominent means of making sense of the seeming injustice wrought in the delayed arrest, contentious trial, and acquittal of George Zimmerman was deployment of the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" in conjunction with displaying a photograph of the slain youth. These pieces of argument are inherently contradictory. The photographs of Martin provide a referent to the specific identity of the person whose rights were directly violated. The "I am" claim on its own operates at an abstract level indicating solidarity, but the coupling of the photographs with the claim proves theoretically difficult to manage as the violence of interchangeability within chains of representation repeats itself within the protest. Protestors who take up the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" articulate the vulnerability of their own bodies in a system that marks black bodies as interchangeably vulnerable to state sanctioned violence as the result of presumed guilt cultivated through stereotypes of black criminality.

Vulnerability to the violence of interchangeability is what protests seek to end. At the same rally where Angelou spoke, Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Martin's family, added, "Every community has a Trayvon Martin" (Myers, 2012, para. 14). Crump raises the point that any black youth could have been an interchangeable part in an improperly functioning justice system, and calls to change that system pervade the Martin protests. Similarly, Martin's parents' public pleas involve preventing the deaths of other black youths as the result of racial profiling (Foreman, 2013). They want the system to stop marking black bodies as interchangeable in order to prevent the unequal application of the law. Protestors presumably advocate for the end of such interchangeability, and consequently advocate for the recognition of individual liberties and rights being protected equally and thoroughly regardless of the appearance of an individual and they employ photographs as a ground for this argument.

Ironically, protestors who forward the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" repeat the violence they seek to stop by making themselves interchangeable with Trayvon Martin in the system of marking. However, the simultaneous forwarding of such a claim in the presence of photographs of Martin reminds the audience of the dangers of such interchangeability. Martin's identity is irretrievable, which is why protestors mourn. The utterance only makes sense in a violent system of marking in which one person is easily replaced by another; a system which the protestors want to change but acquiesce to in the moment they claim "I am Trayvon Martin." The photograph inherently shows the cost of such violence through its representation of Martin within such a system by featuring Martin's individual identity as its referent. The photograph brings to the surface dialectical tensions within processes of representation and identification in protest when paired with the "I am Trayvon Martin" claim. The representation of Martin expands metonymically and Martin stands for all victims of racial profiling, while at the same time we are reminded of the duty we have to mourn the loss of Martin the individual.


Photographs of Martin refer back to a body that no longer lives and who can no longer speak for himself, though much remains that needs saying. Protests provide a space in which to say many of these things. Protests regarding the circumstances of Martin's death and the failure to prosecute George Zimmerman create, repeat, and circulate the representations of Martin that add meaning to his identity. Protestors holding photographs of Martin have often purported to speak as Martin. The person holding the photograph has never been and never will be Martin. On the one hand, the voice and the agency of Martin hold little weight. Martin's voice forever remains silent, though his death resonated in the public sphere. It was only in the moments surrounding the silencing of Martin's voice that authorities became interested in listening to and authenticating his voice. However, representations of Martin still remain powerful tools by which persuasive appeals for change might take place.

The photographic representations of Martin provide a more intimate mode of representation because of their immediacy and the ontology of the photograph described by Roland Barthes. Barthes argues that photographs can potentially create apprehension and uneasiness in people because the presence of a person who is gone returns to haunt the living (Barthes, 1981, p. 32). The photograph holds its referent in plain sight. Barthes (1981) argues that in contrast to other visual representations, "A specific photograph, in effect, is never distinguished from its referent (what it represents), or at least it is not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent" (p. 5) .The presence of Martin in these protests operates at the referential level, but many people, according to Barthes' construction, are not able to distinguish the person of Martin from the photographs of him because the photographs signify their only experience of the person the photos represent. Indeed, as McGee (1998) argues, representation constitutes the substance of culture, society, and identity. This coupled with Barthes assertion that the photograph is, "not immediately or generally distinguished from its referent," makes for moments where photographic depictions of Martin stand in for Martin the person. The substitution of images for the person might matter less for some prominent figures in the media, but because of the contextualized meanings of Martin the person and Martin the icon with protests, this person/symbol consubstantiation matters much more. Martin cannot manage his own image, so images of him become a means of managing his identity.

The photographs resemble the photographs that many people purchase for school yearbook photographs or photographs taken casually by Martin himself or his family. For many, these types of photographs serve as what Barthes (1981) calls unary photographs. A unary photograph offers no particular means for the viewer to create an emotional attachment to the referent or to create additional meanings for the photograph. The photograph operates in an expositional fashion only featuring the studium of the photograph (Barthes, 1981). Barthes (1981) argues of the studium:

Thousands of photographs consist of this field, and in these photographs I can, of course, take a kind of general interest, one that is even stirred sometimes, but in regard to them my emotion requires the rational intermediary of an ethical and political culture, (p. 26)

Certainly, the photographs of Martin arrive in protest already tied to ethical and political culture, and specifically the ethics and politics of race in the United States. In other words, the photographs deployed in protest arrive addressing the audience through a system that marks the referent of the photograph and the photograph itself such that the punctum moves the photograph out of the unary stage.

The unary photograph, Barthes (1981) claims, "has no punctum" (p. 27); the punctum, or the piercing effect of the photograph, brings to the surface emotional attachments or affective responses to the photograph. The identification found in this piercing is fleeting. Jacques Derrida (2007b) describes Barthes construct thusly:

The word punctum, moreover, translates, in Camera Lucida, one meaning of the word 'detail': a point of singularity that punctures the surface of the reproduction--and even the production-of analogies, likenesses, and codes. It strikes me, wounds me, bruises me, and, first of all, seems to concern only me. Its very definition is that it addresses itself to me. The absolute singularity of the of the other addresses itself to me, the Referent that, in its very image, I can no longer suspend, even though its 'presence' forever escapes me, having already receded into the past. (p. 269)

In the context of these protests, the use of the photograph takes on the function Derrida describes. The photographs of Martin address onlookers and those consuming the media coverage of the protests, even though Martin's presence forever escapes them as his death already occurred. The bruising and the puncturing that takes place as Martin looks out from under a hoodie, or as he kneels in a football uniform, threaten to break the surface of the photograph as the protestors politicize his appearance, while mourning the loss of his life. The photograph gains the potential to address viewers in ways that unearth and bring to light the vestiges of structural racism that mark raced bodies and representations of them. The ontological properties of the punctum interrupt interchangeability because the viewer addresses the photograph such that they feel a connection to the identity of the referent of the photograph.

Barthes (1981) similarly conceives of the moment when the punctum, at the height of its representative power, subsumes the medium of the photograph itself:

However lightning like it may be, the punctum has, more or less, a power of expansion. This power is often metonymic ... I perceive the referent (here, the photograph really transcends itself, is not this not the sole proof of art? To annihilate itself as a medium, to be no longer a sign but the thing itself?) (p. 45)

The presentation of a photograph of Martin in a protest demanding justice for the youth's death creates an opportunity for the expansion of meaning. The story of Martin's death and the implementation of laws that made it possible for George Zimmerman to remain free in the aftermath of Martin's death bring the viewer closer to perceiving the punctum. The protests' expressions of desire for justice bring the viewer even closer still to addressing Martin. The moment at which the appeals surrounding the photograph allow the punctum to supersede the medium of the photograph, if only for a moment, arrives when the viewer brings something personal to the photograph that allows the address to take place. In that moment the referent adheres in the photograph, the specter of Martin addresses the viewer. If only for a moment, the pattern of violent interchangeability is broken. The viewer is invited to know and internalize Martin's story in a way that George Zimmerman did not.

The protestors create a chance for viewers to do something existentially impossible. They provide a chance to address Martin in a way respectful of his individual identity through the political work of public mourning. Barthes (1981) describes this ontological property of the photograph stating, "the Photograph mechanically reproduces what could never be repeated existentially" (p. 4). The display of Martin's photograph repeats his presence ad infinitum. The photograph repeats the death of Martin. In seeking to address the always already departed Martin, the audience finds itself right in the middle of Barthes morbid fascination with the photograph. This is because the photograph prior to the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" on the part of protestors adheres to its referent: the body of Trayvon Martin. That adherence to the referent creates a space for discourse about what Martin's life means and what it can mean now that it is over. In short, the photograph creates a space for discussion about the circumstances of Martin's killing because in the absence of Martin it already makes the claim, "I am Trayvon Martin" as matter of its ontological properties of representation. The voiced claim, "I am Trayvon Martin" on the part of protestors interrupts that space and the potential for mourning. The name of the person mourned creates a particular kind of space in the work of mourning as Derrida describes it. In his explanation of personally grieving the death of Roland Barthes, Derrida (2007b) explains:

But since he himself is now inaccessible to this appellation, since this nomination cannot become a vocation, address, or apostrophe (supposing that this possibility revoked today could ever have been pure), it is him in me that I name, toward him in me, in you, in us that I pass through his name. (p. 277)

For Derrida, and for those who mourn Martin, the work of mourning begins when the person realizes that the uniqueness of the person who passed before them becomes a means of addressing one's self and others. The name allows the bereaved to remember what it is in them that was imparted to them by the dead. In the Martin case, this piece of mourning lends itself to rhetorical strategies that encourage self-reflection by retaining a sense of Martin's alterity (Brault & Naas, 2001, pp. 25-26). This explains, in part, the temptation to claim Martin's identity as one "passes through his name," in Derrida's words, but in declaring that moment of unification of identities one risks the sublimation of the act of taking Martin's name. As Derrida (2007b) continues, "The name alone makes possible the plurality of deaths" (p. 277). The plurality of deaths refers to the fact that no one remains to receive an address in the moments that mourning takes a turn toward attempting to address the mourned. Thus, when one sees a photograph of Martin they cannot address him, but instead must turn inward and address themselves. The photograph and its referential connection to the identity of Martin offer powerful rhetorical tools then. The photograph, by adhering to its referent in an indistinguishable manner as Barthes claims, provides the material point at which mourning gains greater rhetorical power by virtue of giving people a means to address Martin and themselves.

The photograph expands in meaning such that the individual reflects on their own identity in relation to the always already departed Martin and representations of him. Derrida (2007b) further describes this relationship saying, "The metonymic force thus divides the referential trait, suspends the referent and leaves it to be desired, while still maintaining the reference. It is at work in the most loyal of friendships; it plunges the destination into mourning while still engaging it" (p. 292). The protestors cultivate social bonds among audience members who feel Martin's death an unjust and unlawful occurrence. The photographs of Martin constitute the foundations of those social bonds for many, such that Representative Bobby Rush, can dawn a hooded sweat shirt in Congress to protest, the NBA's Miami Heat can take a team photograph in hooded sweatshirts to honor Martin, and President Barack Obama need only mention Martin's appearance in order to create an emotional appeal to the country regarding the state of race relations.

However, this moment of address rooted in visual, photographic representations of Martin and the associated context of protest stands in tension with the claim, "I am Trayvon Martin." In claiming to address the audience of the protest as Trayvon Martin they collapse the representative potential of the photograph and the very ground for discourse which the protestors strived to create. Derrida (2007b) addresses the question of this limit, "The metonymy of the punctum: scandalous as it may be, it allows us to speak, to speak of the unique, to speak of and to it. It yields that trait to the unique" (p. 289). By claiming the subject position of Martin, the uniqueness of his subject position comes into question. The claim "I am Trayvon Martin," fuses the body of the protestor to the referent of the representations they deploy in protest. The auditor then potentially makes the decision whether to engage and mourn Martin in the position of the referent again based on their perception of the protestor. The claim "I am Trayvon Martin" compromises the uniqueness the protestor claims has worth in both Martin and in themselves. Protests unearthing and fighting the power of juridical discrimination and state sanctioned racism run a great risk when they repeat the violence of interchangeability inherent in racially discriminatory practices for the sake of making a point, no matter how well intentioned that point might be. Visual representations, photographic representations in particular, provide a means to navigate the violence of interchangeability, but the discursive claims protestors choose to deploy need to take into account the power of those visual representations to the extent that their claims match their visual displays. When the claim "I am Trayvon Martin" is made, protestors move beyond addressing a representation of Martin and succumb to the metonymic potential of the photograph such that they attempt to speak "as" Martin, rather than mourn him.

An Example

The complicated piece for protestors is finding a balance between focusing on representational and structural politics in such a way that people reflect on their own subject positions as parts of a system of both representations and structures still in need of improvement with regard to the treatment of African Americans. Protests against racial profiling that involve mourning a victim ought to prize uniqueness to strike this balance. I close with a specific example of the difficulty of finding this balance. In an open letter in Black Enterprise written by its CEO Earl Graves, Jr., Graves titles his letter "We are all Trayvon Martin." A letter may seem an odd point to make an intervention regarding the mix of discursive and visual modes of protest, but Graves' letter proceeds from the visual and assumes that the reader will have knowledge of Trayvon Martin's appearance. In other words, a visual representation serves as the ground for Graves' message.

To open the letter, Graves (2012, para. 1-3) recounts the events of Martin's death and states his shock at both Martin's death and the subsequent non-arrest of Zimmerman in the aftermath of the shooting. One notes, without his referencing a specific photograph, Graves is taken with an image of Martin. Graves (2012, para. 4) writes, "In viewing the soulful eyes of Trayvon staring back at me from the television screen, I could only think of my 17 year old son. He looks just like Trayvon". Graves immediately finds a point of identification with Martin via the images of Martin he sees on television. He starts his argument by saying that Martin looks like his son, he relays the experience of having his parents warn him of the dangers of racial profiling, and details his own experience of being racially profiled in Grand Central Station (Graves, 2012, p. 10). In these moments it seems that Graves has been affected by Derrida's notion of the punctum when he examined an image of Martin.

In Derrida's (2007b) conception of the punctum, he argues that the punctum of the photograph "addresses itself to me," (p. 269) when he explains his grief following the passing of Roland Barthes. It seems that Graves felt similarly addressed on viewing images of Martin given the associations he makes and the connection to Martin expressed in the letter. Protestors presenting the photograph create a situation in which the punctum's metonymic potential brings the referent to the viewer in an intimate way that closes the distance between the photograph as a medium and its referent as it does here. However, claiming "I am" or "We are" Trayvon Martin moves the protestor into the position of referent. The line between the representation of Martin and the identity of Martin blurs. The blurring occurs because representations of Martin are all the audience can know and that representation falls within a history of violent representations predicated on punishing black bodies because of their blackness, and the repeated failure of political structures to fully correct those representations even as the structures change to address past instances of racism and violence. Representations of Martin add to a cultural history and people relate their own stories to representations of Martin and his death. These additions, however, can become unwieldy, as they do in Graves' letter. This is because the intent of the protestor is to avoid being included in the cultural history of racism in the same way, which becomes confusing when they ascribe Martin's identity to themselves so totally.

Graves continues invoking Martin Luther King, Jr. writing, "... we unfortunately continue to be judged by the content of our skin rather than the content of our character. In that way, we are all Trayvon Martin" (2012, para. 7). The danger here comes from exactly what King warns of in judging groups rather than individuals. In seeking change regarding racial profiling, arguments form around the correctness of recognizing individual identities, the content of our character, as something sacred, something to be mourned when improperly taken. The photograph of Martin, or in Graves' case the invocation of it, reminds the protestor and the audience of the appearance of Martin's individual identity, but Graves turns the argument back toward the interchangeability of victims.

The temptation to make this point of recognition the bulk of the argument proves too strong to resist for many protestors, as Graves letter evidences. Graves (2012) continues his letter including himself in a list of prominent victims of racial profiling:

When you're the CEO of a Fortune 500 corporation and you walk into a hotel elevator only to have a white woman clutch her purse and recoil in fear, you're Trayvon Martin. When you're a renowned Harvard college professor and arrested on your front porch for asserting your homeowners' rights, you're Trayvon Martin. When you're the President of the United States slated to give a speech to an elementary school in Texas and parents keep their children citing you as a negative influence, you're Trayvon Martin, (para. 8)

Graves first refers to himself, then Henry Louis Gates, and finally President Barack Obama. In each instance, each man, while a victim of discriminatory behaviors and actions that operate within the same system of behaviors that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin, found modes of redress to confront those actions and the people who perpetrated them. Graves finds redress in this letter, Gates in his public condemnations of the arresting officers and practices of racial profiling (Ogletree, 2012), and Obama in his continuing role as the Commander in Chief of one of the most powerful countries in the world. Each man retains the ability to represent himself and manage his own identity. Protests concerning the circumstances of Martin's death rest on the contention that the total usurpation of Martin's abilities and rights to either represent himself or manage his own identity violated legal and moral suppositions about what constitutes justifiable action in a physical confrontation, especially in relation to racialized justifications for initiating and engaging in such confrontations.

Graves (2012) addresses the root of the problem in the closing of his letter by making a call for legislative change and by writing:

We must make it clear that we no longer tolerate police officers or vigilantes treating us and our children as suspects. We must make it clear that the 'Stand your Ground' Laws on the books represent a declaration of open season on African Americans, (para. 10)

However, the title of Graves' open letter and the closing line of the letter "We are all Trayvon Martin," present us with the problems raised in this essay. Namely, he repeats the violence of interchangeability which racial profiling is predicated upon by making a claim that acquiesces to that interchangeability. Graves references the photograph and the associative rhetorical power it carries in his own mind; the photograph is one of the powerful artifacts in this protests that interrupts the interchangeability of racial profiling. In protests regarding the death of Trayvon Martin, photographs of Martin appear at almost every turn. Most people identifying with the protests seem to make similar associations to those made by Graves, which indicates that these viewers feel addressed by the photographs of Martin. The claim "I am Trayvon Martin" or "We are all Trayvon Martin" interrupts that moment of address and the subsequent reflection.

The photographs of Martin, particularly the photograph of Martin in the hooded sweatshirt, because of its wide circulation and adoption by a number of advocates, stand in for Martin's identity in protests. The surface of the photograph constitutes the point of encounter where most people find themselves attempting to identify with Martin. For most protestors and many observers, the photographs of Martin bear the marks of racism because of the way he died. The photograph of the teen and arguments regarding the case situated within the context of protest seek to show that Zimmerman and the Sanford Police Department marked Trayvon Martin outside the bounds of legal protections. As a result, representations of Martin show these marks, and in the constructions set forth by both McGee and Derrida, the representations of Martin take on significance by virtue of their ability to contribute to the reality of a court case and protests that highlight the increasingly blurry lines between structural and representational politics. Kevin Smith (2012) notes the use of the photographs to help portray Martin's death as "An American tragedy" (p. 44). The claim "I am Trayvon Martin" or "We are all Trayvon Martin" interrupts that moment of address and the subsequent reflection that allows us to advocate for actions which might prevent similar American tragedies. We must all take responsibility for the production of conditions that allowed Trayvon Martin's death. We are all responsible, but we are not all Trayvon Martin.


Photographs of Martin and discourses regarding his death create potential for further discourses to occur; these discourses are constituted in the generative relationship between the photograph and the onlooker that prompts one to address the referent of the photograph. This relationship mirrors the relationship between the studium and the punctum. Derrida (2007b) condenses Barthes explanation in this way, "Henceforth, the relationship between the two concepts is neither tautological nor oppositional, neither dialectical not in any sense symmetrical; it is supplementary and musical (contrapuntal)" (p. 289). The claim "I am Trayvon Martin" disrupts the supplementary and musical relationship between the studium and the punctum and disrupts the rhythm of the protest. The result is that the voice of Trayvon Martin is stifled over and over again as people claim to be Trayvon Martin. The prick and the declaration on the part of the photograph that the referent is Trayvon Martin creates space to discuss who Trayvon Martin was and is in relation to our own identities, thus respecting the distinction between the represented and those engaging in processes of representation through protest. It reminds us thoroughly and completely that we are not Trayvon Martin, and that rather than claiming to be, we ought to focus on uprooting the vestiges of the systems of juridical racism in this country that took Trayvon Martin from this world far earlier than we would prefer.

Difficulties arise when the arguments about change center on the claim "I am Trayvon Martin," rather than focusing on the system that allowed Trayvon Martin's death to happen in the manner that it did. Defense attorneys for George Zimmerman clearly preferred Martin's identity to take center stage, as evidenced by the fact that they requested and were given access to Trayvon Martin's school records (Curry, 2012). Discussions of Martin's marijuana related school suspension, contents of his text message conversations, and the like all elide a simple fact-George Zimmerman could not have known any of this information whether true or false, whether relevant or irrelevant, when he followed Trayvon Martin, got out of his car to pursue him, and eventually shot and killed him. These facts reduce the situation to whether or not Martin was a good kid, or whether or not George Zimmerman is a likeable guy outside of the evening he killed an unarmed 17 year old. (1) David Simon, former police officer and creator of the HBO series The Wire, sums up media coverage of the case and the protests saying:

If we can manufacture a good guy, we can exalt him. If we can manufacture a bad guy, we can degrade him. If we can't decide, we can argue and call each other names. But more than anything complicated, the dialectic is always about deciding who is the bigger asshole, in this case, dead kid or his shooter. (2012, para. 4).

While Simon goes on to explain that the case ought to be about the laws on the books in Florida and a person's obligation to avoid conflict, it is quite clear that he has little hope of that being the outcome. Simon, like McGee, argues that obsessions with representational politics define our time to the extent that structural politics move further toward obsolescence. However, if one can recognize the marks left by racist structural politics on the representations of race circulating after the death of Trayvon Martin, it seems more likely that these protests reflect an intermingling of representational politics and structural politics to the extent that the two work together in intractable and indistinguishable ways. Neither is gone, neither supersedes the other in material consequence; both work in full effect with one another in ways that produce situations such as the death of Trayvon Martin and the resultant protests. Representations of African Americans likely played a role in George Zimmerman's choice to follow Martin. Structural politics regarding race in Sanford likely contributed to the legal proceedings. Structural politics regarding Stand Your Ground laws certainly muddied the waters regarding the legality of George Zimmerman's actions. Representations of both Martin and Zimmerman regarding their race contributed to national controversy.

In the end, representations of Martin are important precisely because they can be used to make persuasive appeals about the importance of recognizing individual identities in the bounds of both representational and structural politics. Claiming the individual identity that one chooses to mourn creates unnecessary complications by blurring the lines between identification and representation. Barthes remarks on the tendencies to allow metonymic expansion of the photograph to blur the line between a referent and the representation, Derrida remarks on the tendencies of metonymic expansion in mourning to blur the lines between identity of the mourned and identity of the mourner, and in the protests following Trayvon Martin we see the blurring of both of these relationships. The blurring metonymically repeats the death of Trayvon Martin. Parsing the ways in which we decide to rhetorically operationalize that repetition is an important thing to consider in light of managing the blurred lines between representational and structural politics and of images and spoken discourses.

So, we might do well to remind ourselves: I am not Trayvon Martin, and we are not Trayvon Martin. Although we might act as advocates that recognize the tragedy of losing the unique subject position of Trayvon Martin, we must remember that what makes the death of Trayvon Martin tragic is the violence of assuming black criminality and legal sanction of that assumption. I am not Trayvon Martin and we are not Trayvon Martin because we retain the ability to use our unique subject positions to advocate for changes in laws and cultural practices that made possible the death of Trayvon Martin. (2)


Alvarez, Lizette (July 7, 2013). Zimmerman Case has Race as a Backdrop, but You Won't Hear It in Court. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.eom/2013/07/08/us/zimmerman-case- has-race-as-a-backdropbut-you-wont-hear- it-in-court.html?pagewanted=2&ref=trayvonmartin.

Barthes, R. (1981). Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bella, Peter (July 20, 2013). Trayvon Martin Protest-Photo Gallery. Interesting Chicago. Retrieved from http:// gallery/#image/l.

Brault, P., & Naas, M. (2001). Introduction. InJ. Derrida, The work of mourning. P. Brault and M. Naas (Eds.) Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Cobb, Jelani (June 27, 2013). Rachel Jeantel on Trial. The New Yorker. Retrieved from online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/06/trayvon-martin-rachel-jeantel-on-trial.html.

Curry, C. (October 19, 2012). Trayvon Martin's school records to be given to Zimmerman team. ABC News. Retrieved from zimmerman-defense/story?id= 17517884.

Derrida, J. (2007a). Racism's Last Word. In P. Kamuf and E. Rottenberg (Eds.), Psyche: Inventions of the other (pp. 377-386). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Derrida, J. (2007b). The deaths of Roland Barthes. In P. Kamuf and E. Rottenberg (Eds.), Psyche: Inventions of the other (pp. 264-298). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Douthat, R. (December 5, 2013). Conservatives and Structural Racism. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://douthat.blogs.ny racism/.

Foreman, T. (July 15, 2013). Analysis: The race factor in George Zimmerman's trial. CNN. Retrieved from http://

George Zimmerman armed when stopped for speeding in Texas. (2013, July 31). CBS News. Retrieved from texas-report-says/.

Graves, E. G.,Jr. (May 2, 2012). We are all Trayvon Martin. Black Enterprise. Retrieved from http://www.thefreelibrary. com/W e+are+all+T rayvon+Martin.-a0290292948.

I am not Trayvon Martin': Countermovement Sparks Dialogue on White Privilege Amid Rallying Cry. (July 25, 2014). Hujflngton Post. Retrieved from 3601793.html.

Jacobson, S. (August 11, 2012). Trayvon Martin Case: Panel reviews media coverage. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from journalists-20120811_1_trayvonmartin-case- retreat-at-twin-lakes-george-zimmerman.

Kunerth, J. (2012, July 21). Trayvon Martin case reveals undercurrent of racial distrust, tension in Sanford. Orlando Sentinel. Retrieved from trayvon-racial-tension-sanford2012072 1_1_new-sanford-sanford-restaurant-theo-hollerbach.

McGee, M. C. (1998). Rhetoric in postmodern America: Conversations with Michael Calvin McGee. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.

McWhorter, J. (March 20, 2012). What a Florida teenager's death tells us about being black in America. The New Republic. Retrieved from injustice.

Musiol, H. (2013). Museum of human bodies. College Literature, 40(3), 156.

Myers, A. L. (2012, July 25). Parents of Trayvon Martin Speak in Cincinnati. Associated Press Release. Retrieved from george-zimmerman-sybrina ful ton/.

Ogletree, C. (2009). Lawyers Statement on the Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The Root. Retrieved from http://

Pathways to History-Goldsboro and Historic Goldsboro Boulevard. (2004). Sanford, FL city website retrieved from

Simon, D. (2012, April 16). I meant this, not that. But yeah, I meant it. The Audacity of Despair (blog). Retrieved from

Smith, K. Z. (2012). Misrepresentation: An Ethics Tragedy. Quill, 100(3), 344.

Tienabeso, S. (2013, September 6). George Zimmerman's Wile Says He is "Selfish," Feels "Invincible." ABC News. Retrieved from invincible/storyPid=20174763.

Zimmerman accused of domestic violence, fighting with police officer. (2012, March 27). NBC News. Retrieved from domestic-violence-fightingwith-a-police- officer.

(1) Zimmerman's inability to avoid legal trouble after his acquittal makes the "nice guy" defense seem a difficult argument to maintain at this point as he was involved in a traffic stop in Texas that made the news ("George Zimmerman ...," 2013), a domestic abuse call involving firearms in Florida ("Zimmerman Accused," 2013), and a rather public divorce from Shelly Zimmerman (Tienabeso, 2013).

(2) Since the writing of this essay a tumblr page, "We are not Trayvon Martin" has been created, as well as a viral YouTube video making a similar claim ("I am not ..., 2013).

Dr. Samuel P. Perry, Assistant Professor. Baylor Interdisciplinary Core; Baylor University. An earlier version of this manuscript was presented at Southern States Communication Conference 2013. The author thanks Leslie Hahner, Scott Varda, Heather Hayes, Matt Gerber, Abraham Khan, Mary Danielson, and Rebecca Holden. Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Sam Perry, Baylor Interdisciplinary Core, Baylor University, One Bear Place #97350, Waco, TX, 78798. E-mail:
COPYRIGHT 2014 American Forensic Association
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2014 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Perry, Samuel P.
Publication:Argumentation and Advocacy
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2014
Previous Article:Taking it to the streets: the rhetorical mobility of expert arguments in public settings.
Next Article:Risk communication as interacting arguments: viewing the L'Aquila earthquake disaster through the message convergence framework.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2022 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |