Unless you've been hiding under a rock (a really big one), chances are you've at least heard of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old boy gunned down February 26th by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Florida. Since then, Martin's story has practically owned national headlines. Rallies have been organized throughout the country. Celebrities, politicians and average joes alike have all weighed in (even President Obama felt compelled to comment). The media has ridden the story for so long (and rightly so) that it's even become something of a pop-culture phenomenon (wrongly so), persuading people to jump on the hoodie photo bandwagon not because they know enough about the situation, but because looking like an activist has become a "thing."
And that, I think, is the main problem underlying Martin's tragic death: the issues at play are so much more diverse and run so much deeper than many people realize. Yes, racial tension is certainly present, and so are issues of power and the irresponsibility that often plague those who have it, but these problems exist on a much more fundamental level than what is being discussed (something that hip-hop artists Brother Ali and David Banner explain far more eloquently than I). And what about media manipulation? George Zimmerman, the watchman who shot Martin, was originally labeled white, even though he identifies himself as Hispanic. What about the anti-Martin campaign that has been quietly brewing, suggesting that because he may have smoked weed and snapped a couple of hard looking photos -- like so many other teens his age -- he somehow deserved to be doubted, followed, and gunned down? What about gun control laws? What about the intense backlash against Zimmerman, including the creation of a $10,000 bounty for his "capture" by the "New Black Panthers"? As is often the case with issues involving race, the pushback is fierce and destructive, not constructive -- what separates the violence inherent in the New Black Panthers' actions from Zimmerman's?
Below are a few poems that confront some of the issues I find relevant to Martin's death. While most of them do not comment on the shooting directly (only Greg Corbin's poem does), they all confront at least some of the issues that are in play. Ant Black's poem, for example, details his reaction to the Compton Cookout controversy, a frat party organized at University of California, San Diego. While not directly relevant, the poem does discuss racial miscommunication and the failure by many to understand that even if some actions are not motivated by prejudice (Zimmerman's shooting and the Compton Cookout... though the latter is much harder to justify), the racial tension created by the act exists regardless of intention. Brook Yung's poem also discusses the Martin case indirectly, specifically the sustained subjugation of the Black community in America (if Trayvon Martin had shot Zimmerman, for example, would he have been able claim self-defense and escape imprisonment? I'm not so sure).
At the end of the slideshow I decided to include a short video of rap artist David Banner sharing his view on Martin's death. While not a poem, I thought it nonetheless helpful because, as I said before, Banner offers insight and a perspective that I cannot.
Lastly, I should note it is good that there is dialogue about the shooting and that so many people know about it, but there is a dangerous problem with people failing to understand that Martin's death is an indication of these larger problems. What happens when Martin's death fades from the public spotlight and is no longer a "thing"? Do we forget about the problems it has kicked up from beneath the dust, like so many similar incidents that have been lost to the past? (Note that I am in no way trying to downplay the gravity of Martin's death, but it cannot be denied that it sounds strangely familiar). Say Zimmerman is eventually convicted and sentenced -- will people really remain unsatisfied and keep pushing for the fundamental changes needed to fix the issues surrounding this shooting? A conviction alone will not produce change, and I fear that many do not understand this and will move on once the case is closed. The dialogue must continue, on both sides, in a constructive way so we can build on this tragedy and move forward with it, not past it.