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More than a hashtag: Protesting the Trayvon Martin verdict in San Francisco

San Francisco: The woman in the pink stretch pants walked out of Theatre 15 holding her tray of movie theatre goodies – an almost empty tub of popcorn, a large cup of soda. Her shoulders were shaking as she walked. She was weeping.

“He was just trying to go home,” she told the man with her. “He was just trying to go home.”

She was repeating a line from the film we had just seen. Fruitvale Station was based on one day, the last day, in the short life of 22-year-old Oscar Grant III. It was the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009. Grant was coming home in the subway to Oakland from having gone to San Francisco to watch the fireworks with his friends. His mother had told him to take the subway because she was worried about drunk driving. Grant never made it home. An altercation with the subway police suddenly turned fatal. A police officer fired a shot at Grant while he was lying on the ground.

Representational image of protests over the Travyon Martin judgement. AP

Representational image of protests over the Travyon Martin judgement. AP

As he lay bleeding on the platform, he pleaded “We’re just trying to get home.”

They were all trying to get home – Oscar Grant in Oakland, Trayvon Martin in Florida, or the woman who became known as Nirbhaya in New Delhi, or the woman gangraped in Kamdhuni near Kolkata. They didn’t want to spark off great protests. They didn’t want to become symbols, placards or posters. They didn’t want docudramas made about their lives.

One kind of iconic heroes – like the young man who stood before the tanks of Tiananmen Square or the monk who set himself on fire in Vietnam -- are men and women who deliberately embrace a certain heroism. But the Grants and Nirbhayas are a different breed of heroes – the accidental kind, ordinary people just trying to get home.

The release of Fruitvale Station coincided with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, the man accused of killing Trayvon Martin. The 17-year-old was gunned down in a gate community in Florida, where he was staying with his father’s fiancée. Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch coordinator thought Martin looked suspicious in his hoodie, like he was up to no good. By the time the police arrived, Martin had been fatally shot in the chest. Zimmerman pleaded self-defense. On July 13, a jury found him not guilty of second degree murder or even manslaughter.

Now Trayvon Martin too is a poster, a hashtag #HoodiesUp, a chant on the street.

“Trayvon Martin did not have to die, We all know the reason why, the whole system is guilty” chanted hundreds of marchers as they walked through downtown San Francisco carrying placards with Martin’s name, beating drums, shouting slogans. “We are all Trayvon Martin now” read the banners. But we are not. Just as we are not all Oscar Grants. Or Nirbhayas. These were individuals not ideas, not symbols. These were people with flawed, ordinary lives which ended in a tragic moment of injustice. It’s the imperfections of these lives that make the deaths so individually poignant.

In Fruitvale Station, we see Oscar Grant struggling with his relationship. He had lost his job because he was habitually late, he had a stash of drugs and a bit of a temper. But on that last day, he bought crabs for his mother’s birthday, flirted with a young white woman at a supermarket and played with his little daughter. As the credits roll you realize this man will never again give his daughter a piggy back ride, will never fight and make up with his girlfriend, will never put gas in his car. The movie restores to Oscar Grant his ordinary humanity, flawed and real. In Fruitvale Station, he is once more a person instead of a rallying cry for protester or a punching bag for his opponents.

In the court room, the defense tries to put the victim on trial. Kolkata’s Park Street rape victim finds her character shredded in the public square because she was drinking at a night club. Martin’s mother is asked in court if she was avoiding the fact that her son could have done something to cause his own death. To counter those attacks, we look for the perfect innocent victim whose wholesomeness makes them unassailable. And in doing so, protestors often forget that essential humanity of the victims they put on their posters.

I walk out of Fruitvale Station wondering why HoodiesUp is the hashtag of the day when Oscar Grant didn’t have his hoodie up. Then I realize I am confusing Grant with Martin, their stories blurring into one.

“It’s important to remember the work of justice is a communal effort,” said Rev. Theon Johnson III from the United Methodist ministry of Glide Church. “We have to stand up for the sake of all the Trayvon Martins.” But the “communal effort” doesn’t mean we are all Trayvon Martin now. It just means that in Trayvon Martin’s short tragic life we might see a shadowy reflection of our own.

“If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon,” said President Obama in the aftermath of the shooting. At the rally protesting the verdict in San Francisco, Cinnamon echoes the sentiment: “I work with high risk youth in Berkeley. I have a brother the same age as Trayvon. Some of my students knew Oscar. So I came out.”

Maya Robinson Napier too is worried about her husband and her father. As the protesters shouted in Union Square surrounded by curious tourists, cops in blue uniforms and the great buildings of Saks Fifth Avenue and Tiffany’s, Napier shakes her head.

“We are standing here with all this Louis Vuitton and stuff. And this kid had nothing. And what he had they took away from him,” she said. “He was not a perfect kid. But he didn’t deserve to die.”

Her voice shook. And a tear trickled down her cheek. More than the angry slogans about white supremacy, black incarceration rates and rotten systems, that tear felt real, restoring for a moment, through its quiet mourning, the humanity of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

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