The death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin has long since become - depending on your point of view - a national tragedy and a parable about racism and violence leading to murder, or a tragic accident that the media blew up into a national disgrace at the cost of their own credibility. So far, it's too early to tell which narrative will be proven right, given that the trial of Martin's shooter, George Zimmerman, is still under way.
But what about the memory of Martin himself? How will that be preserved? That's the root question at the heart of a story that comes to us from the Los Angeles Times, detailing how the town of Sanford, Florida, where Martin was shot, has dismantled a memorial to the slain teen - an action they claim is motivated by aesthetics, but which critics say is probably motivated by the desire to whitewash history.
Let's take a trip down memory lane and flash back to the fateful period following Martin's death. Apparently, less than a week after the incident, community members of Sanford had set up a memorial to Martin that included laminated photos, silk flowers, teddy bears, and other trinkets to commemorate the death.
At the time, this was no doubt a touching, memorable gesture, and one that deserved every ounce of respect.
However, according to Sanford's residents, the problem with this display isn't its message - it's the fact that the objects involved are easy to degrade, especially by the forces of nature. Since the memorial was put up, it has been buffeted by rain, storms, dirt, mud, growing foliage and all sorts of other natural forces which have turned it from a touching display of compassion into...well, a hideous eyesore, if the reports are to be believed. This all led Sanford's city officials to dismantle the memorial and remove its components to the local city museum. The reaction has been...mixed:
The move has prompted anger among black community leaders who say dismantling the tribute to Martin is the same as scrubbing the shooting from history.[...]
“It’s more of a psychological thing,” said Vera June, the legal advisor for the Concerned Citizens of Sanford, the group that first organized the curbside tribute. “With the memorial gone, people will try to forget what happened.”
That’s partly the goal, [city commissioner] Patty Mahany said. The members of nearby gated communities and the parents of children at the elementary school across the street said they've looked long enough at a daily reminder of death.
“At some point, you’ve got to give it up and move forward,” Mahany said.[...]
Concerned Citizens met with [city officials] to request that the items be put back, June said. The city will notify them by Monday. Concerned Citizens said it would like for the teddy bears, flowers and crosses to remain in place until the one-year anniversary of Martin’s death.
Failing that, she said, the tribute could go to the Goldsboro Museum in a historically black area of Sanford – a fitting location to remember an event that stirred a nationwide discussion on race.
“I told them no, because he did not die here,” Goldsboro curator Francine Oliver said, adding that she wants the items returned to their original location. “He wasn’t even from Sanford. Why would I put it in the Goldsboro? Why would I even put it in the Sanford Museum?”
Now, what to make of this controversy? The uncharitable will likely dismiss it as the result of oversensitive racial paranoia, especially considering that Martin's parents don't even live in the neighborhood, but we would not be prepared to go that far. At the same time, it seems rather silly to expect a community to keep a collection of perishable goods exposed to the elements, where their message will likely get lost away along with their form. Moreover, we don't know that we agree with the general idea that Martin's death should be seen as a symbol of racial violence in the first place, at least not yet, thus the premise of creating a more permanent memorial strikes us as premature and potentially prejudicial.
Perhaps contingency plans should be put in place by the community to erect a more permanent memorial in the event that Zimmerman is found guilty. In the meantime, it is as Ms. Mahany says, "At some point, you’ve got to give it up and move forward.”