Merchandising Trayvon Martin

The ghoulish road to 2012.

In the music industry, it’s not about the music; it’s about the t-shirt, the poster and the songbook. In the modern politicized tragedy, it’s not about the dead body; it’s about the hoodie, the t-shirt and the keychain. At a rally in Sanford, Florida, where the whole thing began, a vendor was eagerly selling commemorative t-shirts, shouting, “I’ve got every size.”

Like the concert, the protest rally or the memorial event is a great place to pick up some merchandise. Discriminating consumers can choose from t-shirts that denounce Zimmerman, white racism or the menace that faces every black man in America once he buys some skittles and puts on a hoodie. Then there’s the always popular, “Enough is Enough” shirt which can go on being sold at just about any event when the outrage machine had moved on to the next grievance theater.

Not to be left out of the action, Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother has applied for trademarks on “I Am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” They say that you can’t buy justice, but if the trademark is approved then you will be able to license, “Justice for Trayvon” from her for a reasonable price.

This is being done to trademark, as the filing document puts it, “Digital materials… downloadable audio and video recordings, and CD’s featuring and promoting TRAYVON MARTIN.” That’s the sort of language used to describe musicians, but any DVD and CD featuring and promoting Trayvon Martin can only showcase a dead teenager. In life, Martin may have had promise, in death his image is being kept alive as a zombie cash cow and a political statement.

The White House has not been slow to cash in on Martin. Though Obama did not apply for a trademark on “Trayvon Martin could have been my son,” his website’s store has begun offering hoodies with Obama 2012 on the front. Alternative designs include an Obama logo on the front and back or a budget 55 dollar “Obama University” hoodie for college students who haven’t learned anything at all except how to spend other people’s money. For the truly oppressed, there is also an Alexander Wang sweatshirt with the words, “Let Us Be Clear” running along the zipper line. Clarity through an indefinite political statement will only run you 95 dollars courtesy of the Obama campaign.

The Obama/Trayvon hoodie may be only marginally more cynical than the women’s tee featuring the “O” of Obama transformed into a Venus symbol or the Joe Biden can holder, which claims to be there for soda, but is suspicious emblazoned with the phrase “Cheers Champ”, suggesting that it’s intended for a different kind of liquid. The merchandising has to hit up every demographic from single women to working class beer drinkers to the sort of people who think that reelecting Obama will prevent another Trayvon Martin case from taking place.

Plenty of Trayvon Martins have come and go in the last few years without exciting much commentary from the White House. It wasn’t the death of a troubled seventeen year old, or the particular details of his life that made him more important than high gas prices, massive unemployment, the health care debate or the race to an Iranian bomb. It was his convenience as a symbol.

“I Am Trayvon” really means that no one is Trayvon. That he no longer exists except as a symbol. That there is no Trayvon Martin, only an idea of him that doesn’t have anything to do with the real life teenager we can catch glimpses of through his Twitter feed. Trayvon Martin has been buried and brought back as a Frankenstein’s monster of racial anxieties, grievance and hate-based electioneering.

Martin doesn’t matter to any of the people crying out his name or wearing it on buttons and t-shirts. In life he was just another angry teenager. In death he’s a way for them to make money, gain power and unleash their anger.

Whoever he was in life, in death Trayvon Martin has become a commodity. A way to sell t-shirts, hoodies and political candidates. And most of all a way to sell racism, to spread hate and fear for the benefit of the profiteers of bigotry, men like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Barack Obama who have made a career of organizing communities along racial grounds.

The individuals named Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman are irrelevant in that bigger picture, they have become characters in a story that the media is telling us, a story that the White House needs told in order to organize yet another part of its base, to get them angry, bring them out into the streets and rebuild the political organization that won the 2008 election.

Dragging Trayvon Martin’s body around like a lawn sign is ugly, but the seventeen year old football player is gone. In his place is a martyr whose cheerful face looks out at us from outdated and heavily photoshopped pictures which only emphasize the unreality of his transformation from teenager to racist symbol. From a human being to a commodity being traded and sold at rallies, his name bellowed through microphones and a hoodie distributed through Obama’s campaign site.

It’s no longer about what happened on February 26th, but about what will happen on November 6th. For those white and black people who thought that voting along racial lines in 2008 had ended racism, this case is meant to serve notice that we are still an eternally racist country and that we must search our souls, confess our sins and vote the Trayvon Martin 2012 ticket or his nearest lookalike.

Until then we can solace ourselves with a 95 dollar hoodie stating the clarity of our vagueness to one and all. We can stop by the “Justice: In Memory of Trayvon Martin” event at Bentley’s Lingerie Lounge in Greensboro, North Carolina. Free admission is being offered to anyone who shows up with a bag of skittles. Or stop by Obama’s next 5,000 dollar a plate fundraiser, because Hope and Change, like Alexander Wang hoodies, don’t come cheap.

What is cheap though is the exploitation of Trayvon Martin for political purposes. Martin’s mother can trademark a few choice phrases, but how do you trademark a narrative, how do you copyright the dismemberment of a teenager into merchandising opportunities, to bags of skittle and hoodies, to a reelection campaign for a failed politician running on racism while running away from his record.

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