George Zimmerman's Gun and the Merchandising of Black Death

Zimmerman's attempt to commodify and capitalize on the death of Trayvon Martin is a phenomenon that has been happening in American since well before the founding of this country.
May 13, 2016, 7:00pm
Trayvon Martin. Photo released by the Martin Family.

I'm sure there are people out there who would claim that the gun George Zimmerman used to kill Trayvon Martin in 2012, a weapon he's currently hawking on the internet, is a symbol of the Second Amendment or Standing Your Ground or whatever. But as a black man in America, I see it as a trophy representing the hate and terror that has been thrust on African Americans with impunity since well before the founding of this country.


It was widely reported on Thursday that Zimmerman was auctioning his notorious "Kel-Tec PF-9 9mm" on, with a starting bid of $5,000 and a note claiming "many have expressed interest" in owning the firearm, which was described as "a piece of American history." Of course, it wasn't long before the site took down the listing amid a great deal of criticism. Zimmerman is now trying to sell it on, where it has reportedly received bids (some of them obviously jokes) as high as $65 million.

The auction ends in a few days, and though it's attracted a bunch of trolls with names like "McShootface," I have no doubt there are people across America who would pay top dollar to hang this thing on their wall.

Thinking about the sale of this gun, I'm reminded of whites collecting souvenirs after lynching black people. And when I say "souvenirs," I'm not talking about the starfish key chains and booty-shaped shot glasses you get at Myrtle Beach. I'm talking about the ears, toes, and genitalia of human beings. As detailed in historian Harvey Young's excellent "The Black Body as Souvenir in American Lynching" essay, when 2,000 white men, women, and children came together in Georgia in 1899 to burn Sam Hose alive, there was a dash for the black man's body parts. The crowd took everything they could, and the folks who couldn't nab corporeal keepsakes settled for parts of the tree to which the man had been tied for his final moments.


As the Springfield Republican newspaper reported at the time, "Those unable to obtain ghastly relics directly paid their more fortunate possessors extravagant sums for them. Small pieces of bones went for 25 cents, and a bit of liver crisply cooked sold for 10 cents."

This, of course, sounds hauntingly close to what Zimmerman is doing with this auction—which is to say, trafficking in black death.

On its own, the man's handgun is nothing special: just a hunk of metal. (As Harvey writes in his essay, a souvenir is "incomplete in itself.") To be valuable to the people who covet them, objects like these require an "accompanying narrative furnished by its possessor in order to fill in that which is missing and to allow the fragment to reflect the event or experience of which it is a part."

In Zimmerman's case, when the inanimate gun is paired with the narrative of a dead black child mourned by black people all over the world, it becomes something so much more to those who view the killer as a patriot and children like Martin as super predators. Owning the weapon that took Martin out offers Zimmerman's admirers a token of racial dominance, borne out not only in the shooting but in the killer's subsequent acquittal on criminal charges.

As Harvey writes in his essay on lynching souvenirs, items like these "not only fix the black body within a historical moment, but also transform it into a captive object to be owned, displayed, and, quite possibly, traded." By making the gun that dealt the deathblow to Martin available for purchase, Zimmerman is commodifying the life of Martin in a way that stinks to me of a slave auction. And the fact that Zimmerman has the audacity to attempt such a sale is a reminder that he enjoys privileges that were—at least, according to the courts—taken from Martin lawfully.

Although some might say my drawing a line between lynching souvenirs and this auction is a stretch, I think there's no other way to look at Martin's killing—or many of the other high-profile killings of blacks that have taken place since then.

To this day, it's impossible for me to think about Martin's premature death and not jump to the murder of Emmett Till, the teenager who was lynched in 1955 by two white men for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Till's murderers were ultimately acquitted—just like Zimmerman. But the connection goes deeper than that. As legendary activist Walter White once put it, "Lynching is much more an expression of Southern fear of Negro progress than Negro crime."


Martin hadn't committed any crime when Zimmerman approached him with a loaded handgun, except being a young person of color. But it's that fear of black people, nurtured by the criminalization and demonization of the black body that dates back to slavery, that not only justifies these killings in the eyes of their perpetrators, but also helps justify them in the eyes of people thousands of miles away. I can't help but suspect Zimmerman's gun has real appeal in some corners of white America because it represents racial triumph at a time when a black presidency has threatened the traditional order.

And although most high school history books might have you believe that lynch-like slayings of blacks stopped thanks to the civil rights movement, the truth is they've just taken different forms. In 2011, a group of white men and women murdered a 49-year-old black man named James Craig Anderson by beating him and running him over with a Ford F-250 truck, reportedly screaming "white power." The three white murderers of James Byrd, who was tied to the back of a pickup truck and dragged for three miles through the streets of Jasper, Texas, in 1998, even had some personal effects appear on an auction site last year.

… the fact that Zimmerman has the audacity to attempt such a sale is a reminder that he enjoys privileges that were—at least, according to the courts—taken from Martin lawfully.

But the persistence of lynching goes beyond the private sector and stretches into the state. Back in the day, terrorist paramilitary groups like Ku Klux Klan were organizations where lawmakers and police could dole out murder and intimidation outside the standards and practices of the law. But today, with the rise of mass incarceration and the militarization of our police departments, many people consider extrajudicial shootings—which were brought into sharp focus after Martin's shooting, even though Zimmerman was not a police officer—as picking up where lynchings left off in the 1950s by institutionalizing them.

There were more than 5,000 lynchings in the US between the late 19th and early to mid 20th centuries, with roughly 70 percent committed against blacks. According to the Guardian, there were a staggering 1,134 police shootings last year, of which blacks comprised a wildly disproportionate amount; black men, in particular, were nine times more likely than any other group to be shot by officers of the law. And according to the Washington Post, black men made up 40 percent of those who were unarmed when they got shot and killed by the police in 2015.


This is not to say that all police shootings are unjustified. But when so many black people are having their lives taken from them at such a disproportionate rate, often with zero consequence for those who pull the trigger, how could we not see it in the shadow of this country's bloody racial history?

Watch Wilbert, the author, investigate the tragic rape and murder of 11 black women from Cleveland:

Of course, there was a lot more to lynching than the simple act of murder. It was often a social event that attracted thousands of onlookers who celebrated with picnics and chronicled the occasion on postcards. In a way, contemporary police killings in America recreate the same sort of spectacle. Although massive crowds aren't present at the moment of the act, the tragedy usually makes it to computer and television screens by way of grainy cellphone footage or, in Trayvon's case, the haunting screams for help heard during a 911 phone call. The shared experience of watching Eric Garner getting choked out or hearing what many believe were the last words of Martin is a reminder to blacks everywhere of exactly how little our lives are worth in this country, and a signal to some whites that the others are being kept in line.

The commodification of deaths via souvenirs and trophies brings us full circle, diminishing black lives even after they've been stolen and using our pain as a weapon. So it's only fitting Zimmerman has suggested that when he finally sells the gun, he will use the proceeds to fight Black Lives Matter, the human rights movement born out of the rage over his own acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin.

As much as we'd like to throw up our hands at the Trayvon Martin tragedy and fallout—from the shooting to the acquittal to the grisly souvenirs—as some sort of aberration, the truth is this whole saga has been incredibly American. It's really just one drop in the bucket of black blood that has been building up since the dawn of the republic.

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