Trayvon Martin: Changing the conversation

Trayvon Martin -- Illustration by Peter Jablonksi
Illustration by Peter Jablonksi

The July 13 verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, which found him not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, evoked powerful reactions that exposed difficult and complicated truths about experiences of race throughout the country. While some people were outraged by the jury’s decision, others celebrated a victory for justice.

Social media helped to organize post-verdict responses including “Justice for Trayvon” marches. Here in Iowa City, Jamie Kearney attended a rally on the Ped Mall the day after the verdict to express her anger about the fact that Zimmerman was not “held accountable for his actions,” which were, in her eyes, stalking and killing a child. The somewhat spontaneous event was posted on Facebook and had about 60 responses from people who planned to attend. The event included speakers as well as chanting and drumming. “I felt angry,” said Kearny, who participated in the noise-making by bringing a drum. “I wanted to bang on something.” She wasn’t sure how to address what she saw as the injustice caused by a criminal justice system “rigged to work against people of color,” but felt she had to do something.

In a trial where sympathies and causal explanations often sharply divide along racial lines, Kearney felt that the rather homogenous racial makeup of the jury was reminiscent of other trails in U.S. history where all-white juries were unwilling to punish other white people who had committed violence toward blacks. She wanted to stand in solidarity with the families of children with brown and black skin.

Kearney said she thinks that Iowa City has relatively little racial tension; however, she felt that the systemic issues of racial disparities in the U.S. criminal justice system and the way that Stand Your Ground laws were used to frame the verdict’s logic in the Zimmerman trial, resonated at a local level.

The day after the verdict, Frederick Newell, founder of Iowa City’s Dream Center, a community advocacy non-profit, was disappointed by those locals that openly celebrated the outcome: The tenor of such responses made him feel a little less welcome in his own community.

Newell spoke at the Ped Mall Fountain Stage on July 24 at another local event held in response to the Martin killing and the Zimmerman trial verdict. “Moment of Mourning: Grieving for Generations, Standing in Solidarity for the Future” was a call to action organized by a multi racial, multi generational group of local citizens, as well as civic and religious leaders. Megan Schwalm, the event co-organizer, said the idea for the “Moment of Mourning” came in part from the response to the Zimmerman ruling, but also as a result of feelings of despondency towards the Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate parts of the historic 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was originally passed to prohibit discrimination against voters based on skin color.

Schwalm, the mother of a biracial son, was devastated by the Zimmerman jury’s verdict, but was struck by the fact that when she went to work on Monday no one was talking about it. The Moment of Mourning organizers wanted to create a space where people could share their strong feelings about the verdict, and where people could express their grief collectively and together. With 50 percent of the organizers being people of color, the event became a place where people directly affected by racial profiling could share their experiences of how skin color impacts their lives in Iowa City.

Derrias Carter, co-editor of The Iconic Obama, 2007-2009: Essays on Media Representations of the Candidate and New President and a recent graduate from the University of Iowa’s American Studies program, commented that he was skeptical that rallies could achieve the real change necessary to shift racial politics in Iowa City. He believes that the community needs to build more multicultural networks and exist in radically multiracial ways: Iowa City needs to have more diverse representation in its political decisionmaking, and it also needs to build a local collective consciousness that is aware of race—where acting and living across racial lines is integrated into daily lives, neighborhoods and intimate circles.

The Coalition for Racial Justice—formed in June 2010 in response to reports given by religious leaders about problems that African Americans face in Iowa City—held a press conference on July 23 that emphasized the need to engage in a process of deep systemic change that takes seriously the ways in which Iowa City is a tale of two cities: where access to opportunities and the ability to influence political policy are not equally available to all people. Coalition member and the University’s Director of Faculty Human Resources, Dianne Finnerty stated, “To turn the tide on racial justice, we need each other. We need to bring organized people and organized money to bear on this issue.”

LaTasha Massey, another member of the Coalition said, “The Trayvon Martin verdict may stand as the sign of national racial inequity and social justice disparity writ large. After the verdict, I thought, ‘This could be my kid.’ I have a male teenager, so the verdict has really impacted by life. It troubles me that in 2013 we are still seeing things that we have been seeing since the beginning of time. Now that I’ve cried and I’ve mourned, I want to think about how we can use this as a vehicle to move forward and take action.”

In light of these collective responses, how can Iowa City bridge the diverse social, economic, political and cultural differences through these animated public expressions of mourning, fatigue, solidarity, sadness or celebration around the legacy of Trayvon Martin’s life as a young, black man in the United States and the violent nature of his death?

Raquel Baker is a PhD candidate in literary studies at the University of Iowa, working on a dissertation that examines representations of whiteness in postcolonial African literatures in English.