Black Lives (and) Matter: George Zimmerman’s Gun and Artifacts of Racial Violence in American History

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Strang, Cameron 20123562_1024

Cameron B. Strang is an assistant professor of history at the University of Nevada, Reno, and will be a scholar in residence at The Institute for Advanced Study in 2016-2017. His articles include prize-winning pieces in The William and Mary Quarterly and The Journal of American History, and he is co-editor of a special edition of Early American Studies on the environment in early America.

On May 11, 2016, Florida man George Zimmerman put the handgun he used to kill the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin up for auction, advertising the weapon as “a piece of American History.”[1] There has been fierce debate over whether Zimmerman should have been forgiven for killing Martin in 2012 (he was exonerated according to Florida’s Stand Your Ground law), but Zimmerman can perhaps be forgiven for believing that his weapon is just the sort of thing that would fascinate history buffs for generations to come. This is because stories inhere in things—including particular weapons and the remains of those that they kill—and Americans have a habit of collecting and displaying things that seem to embody stories they want to tell about themselves and their country. And it makes sense that many of these objects and stories are about racial violence because it is a central thread of the American story.

Zimmerman and his gun have aggravated an old tension in America’s national story, a tension between casting America as a melting pot where ethnic identities blend to create something new and better, and an America in which individuals and groups take pride in maintaining boundaries that define them as an ethnically or racially distinct people. Trayvon Martin’s killing—along with the deaths of several other black men at the hands of white police officers over the last few years—has been a spark in the Black Lives Matter movement, in which a sense of racial and socioeconomic difference has fueled political action. This movement has led some Americans to take up the melting-pot narrative and declare that “all lives matter,” a claim that many activists for black justice believe misses the point. Zimmerman, for his part, pledges to use a portion of the proceeds from the sale of his gun to “fight BLM [Black Lives Matter] violence against Law Enforcement officers,” reassigning the blame for racial violence away from white cops and (back) onto blacks themselves.[2]

Americans have a long history of using objects to tell stories about racial violence as a way to emphasize their own identities. This is particularly evident in Zimmerman’s home state of Florida. During the Second Seminole War (1835–1842), a conflict in which Anglo-Americans aimed to remove Indians from Florida to make the peninsula safe for plantation slavery, whites and Indians collected and circulated each others’ remains and used them to tell stories that defined Florida’s Natives as a distinct ethnic group of “Seminoles.” For Natives, the circulation and display of Anglo scalps helped tell a story about their pride in resisting white domination that, combined with the ritual uses of scalps, contributed to their ethnogenesis. Anglos, for their part, collected Indian skulls as war trophies and, sometimes, circulated these remains to Euro-American craniologists and phrenologists. As these white experts analyzed Florida crania, they defined Seminoles as a group whose cranial dimensions seemed to tell a story of predestination, that Seminole brains were inherently prone to violence. As much as we’d like to believe that interactions among peoples leads to deeper understanding, multiethnic encounters in America have just as often convinced various groups of their irreconcilable differences.[3]

Much of the reason why objects like Zimmerman’s gun or the remains of the enemy dead can be such captivating pieces of history is that they frame stories that seem to have clear heroes and villains. The people who collect and circulate these objects try to cast themselves as heroes slaying enemies who, if permitted to live, would attack them or their countrymen. Zimmerman boasts that the gun he’s auctioning is the same weapon he’d “used to defend my life and end the brutal attack from Trayvon Martin.” During the Second Seminole War, army captain Justin Dimmick explained that he’d killed an Indian and collected his skull while the Indian was attempting to scalp him. Zimmerman, through a gun, and Dimmick, through a skull, attached stories to objects that justified their killings by emphasizing the violent intentions of black or Indian enemies.

But the authors of such stories—including Zimmerman and Dimmick—never have full control over narratives once their story-bearing objects begin to circulate: who the heroes and villains are in these stories depends on the audience. There are no shortage of black and white Americans who vilify Zimmerman and his decision to sell his gun, and the Internet offers detractors ample chances to tell new stories through the same object. For example, bidders going under the names “Donald Trump” and “Racist McShootFace” have offered tens of millions of dollars for Zimmerman’s gun in order to derail the online auction and cast Zimmerman as a racist.[4] This public outcry against Zimmerman’s auction reflects how public sentiment has largely turned against the collection and display of objects that represent racial violence. This trend has been particularly evident in the wide support for the Native American Graves Protection and Reparation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990 by which publicly funded museums must return Indian remains to the appropriate tribes.

Still, American museums do have a centuries-long tradition of displaying both weapons and Native remains and using these to tell stories of American glory, so Zimmerman can perhaps be excused for believing that “The Smithsonian Museum” had “expressed interest in owning and displaying my firearm.”[5] The Smithsonian denies this. On the one hand, this refusal reflects an encouraging trend on the part of museums to limit their own role in normalizing racial violence. On the other hand, it’s possible that by refusing to buy the gun the Smithsonian is passing up an opportunity to define the story associated with Zimmerman’s weapon. One can imagine Zimmerman’s gun as part of a moving and conversation-provoking exhibit about the persistence of violence against black men in the twenty-first century at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (currently under construction).

Racial violence is, to put it mildly, an uncomfortable subject in America, and individuals and institutions wince at the idea of venerating an object that seems to glorify an act of racial violence that occurred in recent memory. This is why the Smithsonian has chosen not to acquire Zimmerman’s gun and why the auction has proven so upsetting for many Americans (some have called it “sick” and “beyond tasteless”).[6] Zimmerman’s gun is not simply a controversial artifact because it was involved in a high profile killing but, rather, because it embodies core narratives of America’s history. These include stories about how the legal system has found various ways to excuse violence against blacks, stories about how fear of the supposedly violent tendencies of non-whites have justified acts of violence against them, and stories about how violent encounters among ethnic groups have reinforced their sense of difference. Regardless of whether or not the weapon ends up in a private collection or a public museum, the sad truth is that Zimmerman is right to call his gun “a piece of American History.”

Notes:

[1] The full text of Zimmerman’s first advertisement on gunbroker.com (which the website has since taken down) appears at “George Zimmerman’s PF-9 Used on 2/26/12,” May 12, 2016, https://web.archive.org/web/20160512132737/http://www.gunbroker.com/Auction/ViewItem.aspx?Item=558112068. An annotated version of the ad appears at Janell Ross, “The Politics behind the Ad George Zimmerman Wrote to Sell the Gun Used to Kill Trayvon Martin,” Washington Post, accessed May 14, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2016/05/12/theres-a-lot-of-politics-packed-into-that-george-zimmerman-gun-ad/. The gun auction moved to a second website after gunbroker.com removed the post.

[2] “George Zimmerman’s PF-9 Used on 2/26/12.”

[3] This discussion is drawn from Cameron B. Strang, “Violence, Ethnicity, and Human Remains during the Second Seminole War,” Journal of American History 100, no. 4 (March 2014): 973–94.

[4] Freida Frisaro, “Auction for Gun That Killed Trayvon Martin Possibly Hijacked,” Washington Post, accessed May 14, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/national/million-dollar-bids-shown-for-gun-that-killed-trayvon-martin/2016/05/13/75596094-18e6-11e6-971a-dadf9ab18869_story.html.

[5] “George Zimmerman’s PF-9 Used on 2/26/12.”

[6] Quotes from Twitter via Frances Robles and Mike Mcphate, “George Zimmerman Tries to Auction Gun Used to Kill Trayvon Martin,” The New York Times, May 12, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/13/us/george-zimmerman-gun-auction-trayvon-martin.html.

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