Back to the Grill Again: Trayvon Martin in the Court of Public Opinion

How hip-hop culture, a.k.a. youth culture, was used to manipulate perception in Zimmerman trial

Trayvon Martin
Trayvon Martin
Brandon Soderberg WRITTEN BY
Brandon Soderberg

Within days of Trayvon Martin's killing at the hands of neighborhood-watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the 17-year-old's story became, in part, a story about how he looked and what he was wearing. This continued during George Zimmerman's trial, which ended on Saturday with Zimmerman being acquitted of murder, as well as manslaughter. Martin had been reduced to a handful of anecdotal sketches: He was wearing a hoodie; he was suspended from school for smoking marijuana; he posed for a photo sporting a grill and trying to look tough for the camera. In short, elements of hip-hop and teen culture now embodied by American youth of all races (insert your own Miley Cyrus twerking comment here) were used to criminalize and even dehumanize Martin.

The suggestion that a young unarmed boy walking to his father's home in a gated community was immediately a neighborhood threat obviously struck a chord in hip-hop circles because it involved so many of the issues that rap can't help but address: Abuses of power, racial profiling, the plight of simply being young and black in the United States of America — even in so-called “post-racial” America. As President Obama so beautifully and succinctly stated, “If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon.” Though that too was somehow viewed as a divisive rallying cry and not an expression of basic human empathy. Then again, if wearing a hoodie means you're presumed to be guilty, that cynical reaction shouldn't be a surprise.

Quite a few rappers have reacted to Martin's death in rhyme. Young Thug released the exuberant but devastating “Let Me Live,” in which the Atlanta rapper's idiosyncratic vocalizing conveys backed-into-a-corner frustration. There are shout-outs of hoodie solidarity on numerous songs, including Slaughterhouse's “Die,” Ace Hood's “Another Statistic,” Fabolous' “Guess Who's Bizzack,” and Ab-Soul's “SOPA,” while Diddy signee Los extended that sentiment to an entire song, “With My Hoodie On.” Rapper Plies released “We Are Trayvon”; dead prez offered “Made You Die”; Lil Scrappy released “Trayvon Martin” days before the trial's end, and Young Jeezy's “It's a Cold World” arrived soon after the verdict.

And even when rappers weren't attempting to be explicitly political, they couldn't avoid touching on the sorts of issues that have surrounded Martin's murder, and now the not-guilty verdict. On Sunday morning, with the news of Zimmerman's acquittal still sitting in our guts, Rich Homie Quan released the video for his hit "Some Type of Way." The beginning of the clip contains what looks like captured footage of a cop drawing a gun on some guys outside of a nightclub and screaming at them. It's not connected to Martin's death in any explicit way, but the timing of the release and the decision to place this quick scene at the front of the video felt connected. It evoked the same fear that authority figures, especially when they have guns, have free reign to do anything to the less powerful.

On Tuesday, Lil Wayne released a video for his I Am Not a Human Being 2 song, “God Bless Amerika,” which contained the chilling rhetorical question, “Will I die or go to jail today?” and had Wayne addressing injustice from the Katrina-devastated Hollygrove projects in New Orleans. Thanks to Hollygrove's relative proximity to the Zimmerman verdict, Wayne and video director Eif Rivera, intentionally or not, connected the institutionalized racist dots between a tragedy like Katrina and a tragedy like Trayvon Martin's murder.

Consider how Chicago rapper Chief Keef, aged 17, continues to be a target of the police. On June 17, Keef was arrested after leaving traffic court in Skokie, Illinois. His car was pulled over, police drew AK-47s, and he was charged with misdemeanor trespassing. His management called attention to the arrest as an example of “excessive force” and it's hard to argue with their evaluation. Whatever caused those cops to pull out AK-47s on a teenaged "trespasser" who was driving away from court is the same impulse that killed Trayvon Martin. The presumed threat posed by young black men.

The recent arrest of Chief Keef affiliate Lil Reese for marijuana possession also speaks to this profiling phenomenon. From the Chicago rap website Fake Shore Drive: “[Reese] was searched and... cannabis was found along with $2,090 cash. When officers asked where the money came from, Reese said, 'It’s mine, I got a little weed. So what?' the report said. He continued: 'There’s serious crime out there. This ain’t a big deal. I’m a gangster.'” Now, that's an unwise thing to say and provides precisely the kind of living, breathing example that so many on Zimmerman's side exploit. But it also illustrates the fact that kids like Reese don't take the cops seriously at all, neither as credible authority figures nor as anything other than nuisances on their person.

Chief Keef and Lil Reese's music is obviously a reflection of kids set adrift in Chicago by poverty, joblessness, razed projects, and closed or dysfunctional public schools. Their music is not the cause of the violence that invades their city. And Martin simply provides another perspective on these same issues. Black kids are seen as inherently threatening no matter what they do. Keef's reputation (and previous arrests) and Reese's indignant attitude do not give law enforcement a license to abuse them. Martin's murder is tangible evidence, if you needed it, that you don't even need to be a rapper going on about being a "gangster" to freak out society; an unarmed black 17-year-old is viewed as threat enough.

The same language used to dismiss rappers like Keef was used to describe Martin and Rachel Jeantel — Martin's friend who was called “ghetto,” and far worse, during the trial. On Monday night, CNN interview troll Piers Morgan further dehumanized her, treating her like a child and questioning her about her underbite. Yes, her underbite. Or read this opinion delivered by Fox Sports columnist Jason Whitlock: “Thug rappers and their employers are partially to blame for Zimmerman seeing a black kid in a hoodie and immediately thinking 'punk criminal.'” There was also the fake “thug” Trayvon Martin photo, falsely attributed to him mostly in chain letters; It was actually a photo of the rapper the Game, who is in his thirties. Those who see young black men in the same way that Zimmerman (and his “supporters”) did, don't need hip-hop culture to push them in that direction. If a 17-year-old kid and a 30-year-old rap star can't be differentiated, the problem probably isn't Jay-Z.

So somehow, it all comes back to a kid wearing a fucking grill in a photo he took on his laptop. That photo of Martin was passed around to provide a contrast with the more “positive” photos that were disseminated. In the eyes of Zimmerman's supporters, it showed the “real Trayvon Martin.” The implication was clear: A grill is not what an “innocent” teenager wears. Here's the thing: I want to see Trayvon with a grill in his mouth — an image used by the defense and spread across conservative blogs — reblogged by those who consider Zimmerman's acquittal an injustice. And it should be slapped on T-shirts too, because there's nothing wrong with that image and when it's pushed to the side in favor of supposedly less threatening photos, we're simply playing the racist nutjob game.

And no amount of playing the game is going to assuage the feelings of racists who really don't see black kids as the equal of all other kids. A teenager of any race or background with a grill isn't a threat, and it doesn't speak to his character or whether it's okay for a vigilante to murder him. Trayvon Martin was killed because he was black. He lost in the court of public opinion because his name was Trayvon and not, say, Travis. He possibly lost because his parents have different surnames and that's enough, right there, for a lot of people to rank you as less than worthy of justice.

If the law enforcement and criminal justice system in America have a record of showing very little respect, at best, for the value of a black boy or man's life, and the media fuels this lack of respect, then you have a situation where the public at large doesn't value black life. And that's how George Zimmerman walked.

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