Will Trayvon Martin's hoodie be a force for change?

It’s less a garment, more a political statement in the wake of the trial that divided America. Manuel Roig-Franzia considers the historical significance of Exhibit A

In the moment that Trayvon Martin’s hoodie appeared in Courtroom 5D in Seminole County, Florida, it was as if the air sluiced out of the door.

There was a breathless, aching stillness. Prosecutors displayed the dark grey sweatshirt the 17-year-old wore on the last night of his life in an enormous, rectangular, thickly three-dimensional frame. The hoodie lay suspended between clear plastic sheets with its arms spread wide inside a cross-shaped cut-out, set starkly apart from the brilliant white of the matting. It might easily have been mistaken for a religious relic, even as it became a singularly evocative entry in a long inventory of indelible courtroom artefacts such as OJ Simpson’s ill-fitting gloves. Prosecutors lifted the framed hoodie awkwardly, teetering toward the jury.

“I get goose bumps just thinking about it,” says Michael Skolnik, who sat next to Trayvon’s parents in the courtroom. Mr Skolnik, a member of the Trayvon Martin Foundation board, felt as if he were in the presence of something as iconic as the Declaration of Independence. “It’s like this mythical garment,” he says.

By then the hoodie wasn’t so much an exhibit in a murder trial as an idea, a cultural marker in an international conversation about race. And thus a question remains unanswered ever since that night of 13 July, when jurors acquitted George Zimmerman, a gung-ho neighbourhood watchman and wannabe cop, of murder and manslaughter charges: What will become of the hoodie?

There can be something uncomfortable about our relationship with these pieces of criminal lore. Websites sell serial-killer memorabilia. Museums have to check if they sensationalising or educating? The Smithsonian passed an opportunity to display the suit OJ Simpson wore on the day of his acquittal; Washington DC’s Newseum took it instead.

At a storage facility in the Washington area, the Law Enforcement Memorial Fund has stocked the complete case record — thousands of pieces of evidence — from the investigation and trial of Washington area snipers Lee Boyd Malvo and John Allen Muhammad. The Bushmaster rifle and Chevrolet Caprice that the men used during a killing spree that terrorized the region in 2002 will be included in a museum the fund is planning to open in 2015. The idea is to educate the public and researchers about police investigative methods, the museum’s registrar, Vanya Scott, said.

And what of the glove that OJ Simpson struggled to wriggle his hand into during his 1995 murder trial in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman? Might its muted existence provide a clue about the future of Martin’s hoodie?

The glove was the subject of defence attorney Johnnie Cochran’s line: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Only one time sin ce then  has the glove been displayed: at the Palms Resort casino in Las Vegas during the 2010 California Homicide Investigators Association meeting. It drew a crowd.

Trayvon Martin’s hoodie has been on a journey since the verdict, shuffled from one place to another, its final destination far from certain. Prosecutors got it first. But they quickly passed it to the Sanford Police Department, the beleaguered law enforcement agency that came under criticism for its initial decision not to charge Zimmerman. Protesters wore hoodies at rallies to shame the Sanford police; now the police were back in possession of the symbolic core of the case.

Officers had the elaborate frame disassembled. The hoodie was folded and repackaged in an evidence bag, according to a police spokesman.

Then it was on the move again, this time to the US Justice Department. Last week, Sanford police packed several boxes of evidence and drove them to a Justice Department office in Orlando. In those boxes were a bag of Skittles and a fruit drink, the two items that Trayvon’s family so poignantly noted were the only things he was armed with on that rainy night in February 2012 when Zimmerman spotted him walking through a modest gated community in Sanford, felt he was a threat, and shot him dead.

The Justice Department had ordered the evidence held while it conducts a civil rights investigation, an inquiry that current and former Justice officials say has little chance in resulting in charges. There may be other treks for the hoodie. It could be used in a civil lawsuit. At some point legal proceedings will end, and the sweatshirt will find its way back to Sanford Police Department. Trayvon’s family will be given a chance to collect it.

All sorts of evidence goes uncollected. The police send expensive items such as cars and fancy bicycles to be auctioned, said Sanford police spokesman James McAuliffe. The worthless stuff that no one claims gets destroyed; there isn’t room to store it all. That’s not something McAuliffe expects to happen to a hoodie that has been on magazine covers. “I don’t see that not being picked up,” he said.

At some undefined point in the future — it could be years — Martin’s parents will have a choice to make.

“I would like to see it preserved,” the civil rights activist Reverend Al Sharpton said. Sharpton, more than any other person, might be responsible for bringing the Trayvon killing to trial. He organized the rally in Sanford that brought such pressure on Florida officials that the governor eventually appointed a special prosecutor to take on the case. Sharpton is imagining what it would be like if we could see a snatch of clothing worn by Emmett Till, the 14-year-old who became a civil rights icon because he was killed after being accused of flirting with a white woman in 1950s Mississippi.

Trayvon is this generation’s Emmett Till, Sharpton says. He calls the unarmed teenager’s death by a bullet that first pierced his hoodie, then pierced his heart, the first civil rights flashpoint of the 21st century. And his hoodie is central to that distinction, an item of clothing that Sharpton says was used to profile Trayvon as a criminal. “The hoodie now represents an image of an urban street kid that either embraces or engages in street thug life,” he said. “It’s unfair.” By wearing hoodies at rallies, Sharpton says, he and others are seeking a redefinition.

Sharpton would like to see the hoodie reside one day at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, expected to open in 2015. The museum’s director, Lonnie Bunch, said Trayvon’s hoodie represents a unique opportunity to further the discussion about race in America.

“It became the symbolic way to talk about the Trayvon Martin case,” Bunch said. “Because it’s such a symbol, it would allow you to talk about race in the age of Obama.”

Curators, he mused, could “ask the bigger questions” prompted by the case – one of which would surely centre on Florida’s Stand Your Ground’ self-defence law which gives individuals the right to use reasonable force to defend themselves, and left jurors no choice but to acquit Zimmerman.

“Are we in a post-racial age?” Bunch asked, then answered the question: “This trial says, ‘No.’ ”

© The Washington Post

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