Understanding the Significance of the Trayvon Martin Protests

Protests are sweeping the nation in response to the George Zimmerman acquittal. New York, Philadelphia, DC, Miami, Houston, St. Louis, Chicago, San Francisco, Oakland, and LA are just some of the locations. But what is the nature and purpose of these protests and are they effective?

This brief essay is not intended to speak for anyone. People have their own reasons and motivations for protesting, and their responses to the acquittal are personal and their own. But making some general observations and delving into some of the root issues can correct some of the misinterpretations and clarify some of the occurrences.

Are these protests spontaneous? The answer is both yes and no. It might be more accurate to say that they are spontaneously organized. People did not simply take to the streets the moment the verdict was handed down. That might be true in some cases. But it is more nuanced for most.

The country has been following the trial for weeks. The deliberating process was long and laborious, which created emotional tension and drama. The verdict then came in and people felt a collective sense of grief and anguish. People are emotionally charged and that emotion needs to be released. They then receive a text or phone call or read online that a protest will begin later that night or the next day. People now have an outlet to act, release, and express. In doing so, a type of “eros effect” occurs (to borrow a phrase from critical theorist George Katsiaficas). An eros effect happens when enough people create a groundswell of attraction. A magnetic allure then emanates outward, and bodies beget bodies. At that point, people take to the streets en masse. The rapidity of this effect gives it a sense of “spontaneous action.”

What is the purpose of these protests? The most basic purpose is to demand justice. An unarmed seventeen year old kid was shot and his assailant walks free. People are rightfully outraged. But these demands and protests are more complex, involving such issues as emotional catharsis and public disapproval.

Humans are social creatures. We live in groups, congregate with one another, need and search for love and approval. Collectively releasing and expressing emotion is an important human element. Protests give people a public platform to share their emotions, to be with like-minded people, to collectively grieve and console, and to be confirmed and supported. Emotional and political anger is part of this process. Emotional anger refers to the sense of human loss. Political anger refers to the sense of systemic injustice.

This collective catharsis coexists with public disapproval. It is one thing to individually disapprove in the privacy of one’s own home. But it’s something else to collectively disapprove in public. The co-presence of bodies acting together in space and time produces a palpable force and intensity. It is something that can be felt, and that feeling is an unspoken confirmation of one’s own existence and motivations. This is particularly important when someone is dehumanized, as in the case of Trayvon Martin. People have a need to re-humanize both Trayvon and themselves. There is an explicit recognition that this type of tragedy-and-travesty has gone on for too long. African-Americans, and African-American males in particular, have been the victims of violence and racial injustice since the founding of this country. It’s 2013 and we have an African-African president, but yet these types of events are still occurring

There is also an implicit recognition that anyone of us could be a victim of systemic injustice. A seventeen year old kid minding his own business was killed out of the blue. Then George Zimmerman walks away a free man. This double injustice results from two interrelated channels: systemic racism and a backward legal system of “stand your ground.” The protests are demanding an end to these injustices and, just as importantly, re-humanizing Trayvon and ourselves. As one of the slogans states, “We are All Trayvon Martin.” To utter such a slogan is to identify with both the humanity and the victimhood of Trayvon.

Are the protests effective? Evaluating effectiveness depends on what we are trying to measure. The protests are not effective for overturning the verdict because that is a done deal. But the protests are effective for the reasons stated above—emotional catharsis and public disapproval. The protests are also effective for steering the national conversation toward numerous issues that have come to a head: systemic racism, racial profiling, legal injustice, the fallacy of a post-racial America, guns, and the stand your ground law. More concretely, the protests pressure politicians to bring up federal charges against Zimmerman. You cannot run an unruly country. One way to deal with the mass unrest is to bring Zimmerman to a federal trial. The NAACP is attempting to do just that by sending a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that he charge Zimmerman with a civil rights lawsuit. In this sense, then, the current protests can be a very effective form of political action, but the protests must continue until the desired effect is achieved.

Are the protests violent? Protests too often get construed as violent actions. People can be angry, passionate, and even militant without being violent. One can be “militantly peaceful” or “unapologetically defiant” while remaining astutely nonviolent. Violence can obviously occur during protests. But it occurs far less than people think; in fact, it’s an anomaly rather than a norm. When violence does occur, it’s usually because protesters disobey the orders of the police and the police then respond with physical force. Emotions flare and actions become erratic. That interaction is then framed as “violent” with the protesters being blamed as the culprits. The average person is predisposed to believe such a frame because they are socialized to respect and obey authority—parents, teachers, elders, bosses, police, lawyers, presidents, etc. But certain events can call into question the legitimacy of authority. Such is the case with the George Zimmerman acquittal. The system itself has been delegitimized. Police forces—acting as social functionaries—are part of that illegitimate system because they are assigned the task of maintaining the status quo. Disobeying police is thus an act of disobeying the system. This sets conditions for the possibility of confrontation. However, it is extremely important to point out that the large majority of protests are nonviolent. Given this brief analysis, it is important for people to be more analytic and judicious in equating protests with violence. It is also important to remember history. Not just the negative history of racism and prejudice, but also the positive history of social action. Rights, liberties, freedoms, and justice have been achieved by people marching in the streets. Protests, activism, organizing, and social movements are the backbone of progress. As Frederick Douglass once said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” An injustice can never be undone, but it can be used as motivation for creating a better world. If that is true, then Trayvon Martin contributes to a cause greater than he will ever know.