The correlation between social media and current events has been well established for years. However, the recent shooting of Trayvon Martin has escalated this dynamic to an unprecedented level. As the investigation yields new —and often contradictory— information about the incident, millions of web users are staging a passionate viral debate about the racial climatology of the United States. Meanwhile, Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, have become powerful web symbols.
Despite a bevy of disputed facts, police are certain that Martin died on Feb. 26 in a gated community, located in Sanford, Fla. (a populous suburb of Orlando). Martin’s father owned a house in the neighborhood, and the teenager was spending the afternoon with him. At 6:3 p.m., Martin walked to a local convenience store for some snacks. Upon his return to the community, he was approached by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch captain of mixed Caucasian and Peruvian descent. The nature of their encounter—and behavior of both individuals—has yet to be determined. But their interaction ultimately led to Zimmerman shooting Martin once in the chest with a Kel-Tec PF9 9mm semi-automatic pistol, thereby ending his life. Martin was unarmed.
The murky details of the shooting are compounded by a phone call Zimmerman made to the Sanford Police Department prior to his contact with Martin. During this call, a dispatcher advised Zimmerman not to approach the young man and told him to await police assistance. Despite Zimmerman’s repeated insistence that Martin looked suspicious, he eventually agreed to stand down until help arrived. However, evidence shows he approached Martin anyway.
Another complication is conflicting eyewitness testimony. Some claim that Martin cried out for help prior to his death, while others have named Zimmerman as the victim and Martin as the aggressor. When police arrived at the scene, Zimmerman stated that he shot Martin in self-defense after the young man attacked him from behind and hit him in the face. A police report indicates the 28-year-old’s nose was broken during his exchange with Martin. As a result, Zimmerman was not criminally charged — and has yet to be, despite widespread outcry from millions of Americans demanding his immediate arrest.
The Internet was fairly quiet when the case was first reported. Then, as the investigation ensued, sinister elements such as racial profiling and police cover-ups reared their ugly heads. Many wondered how Zimmerman achieved his position with the neighborhood watch, particularly after a felony charge of assault on a police officer in 25 (he was acquitted). Others noted that Martin was given a post-mortem toxicology exam, but no sobriety test was performed on Zimmerman. Naturally, a series of web campaigns followed.
The first appeared on March 8, when Kevin Cunningham, an Irish-American law student from Washington DC, started an online petition on Change.org to prosecute Zimmerman. The petition earned 1 signatures on its first day, and this number has risen incrementally ever since, topping the 2 million mark last week. “In social media, you don’t have to go through institutions anymore,” the former law student told US News on MSNBC . “Any individual with any idea can make it work if they have (a) connection to the Internet.”
Many followed Cunningham’s lead. One of the movement’s most prominent players has been A Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin . Inspired by the sweatshirt Martin was wearing at the time of his death, the group asks visitors to photograph themselves in a hoodie, and then submit the image via Twitter or Instagram. To date, the site has received more than 32, submissions, including entries from Sean “Diddy” Combs, Ludacris, Jamie Foxx and members of the Miami Heat.
This particular garment inspired a heated, much-needed discussion of police methods across the country — particularly, the profiling of young men and women based on the clothes they wear. One prominent broadcaster, Geraldo Rivera, begged mothers not to allow their children to wear hoodies in public; the video went viral, and Rivera later apologized.