By Curt Anderson/The Associated Press
MIAMI — From the T-shirt and hoodie sales to trademarking slogans like “Justice for Trayvon” to the pass-the-hat rallies that bring in thousands, the case of an unarmed black teenager killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer is quickly turning into an Internet-fueled brand.
Websites are hawking key chains bearing Trayvon Martin’s likeness. His parents have bought two trademarks, saying they hope to raise money to help other families struck by tragedy. Trayvon clothes, bumper stickers, buttons and posters are up for grabs on eBay.
Vendors selling Martin T-shirts and hoodies have become fixtures at rallies in Sanford, the central Florida town where Martin was shot last month. At one Sanford rally this week, a man had a variety of T-shirts laid out on the ground as marchers went by, yelling out, “I’ve got every size!”
The Martin shooting by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman, who says he shot the 17-year-old Miami teen in self-defense, has inflamed racial tensions across the country, brought out thousands for rallies, prompted a civil rights probe and a personal reference to the case by President Barack Obama.
A phenomenon on that scale is bound to be commercialized, said Donna Hoffman, a marketing professor at the University of California-Riverside.
“People can start to wear their feelings and emotions. It makes sense, even if there’s a profit motive,” Hoffman said. “There’s a legitimate interest in sharing the pain, and these products do that.”
Van Johnson, who designs T-shirts and other apparel in Charlotte, N.C., said he initially wanted to come up with something for his 12-year-old son to show solidarity with Martin’s supporters. He produced a color drawing based on a photograph of Martin wearing a hoodie, which the teenager was wearing on the night he was killed.
“I really don’t expect to make more than $200 at the most,” Johnson said. “I’m happy some people bought my products, that way a few people will have a very nice design on their shirt or hoodie to show their support.”
Karrie Muhammad, who runs Young Nation Apparel in St. Louis, is selling a separate hoodie for $35 with the words “Please Don’t Shoot Me I Only Have Skittles And A Drink!!!” Martin was returning from a convenience store with the candy and iced tea when he was confronted by Zimmerman.
“We really just kind of put the shirt out there this week. It’s not necessarily profit at all,” Muhammad said. “I wanted to bring some awareness to the issue. I felt it would be a good way to expose the store, to get our name out there.”
Zimmerman, 28, who has a white father and Hispanic mother, has not been charged. Martin’s parents have demanded he be arrested. The U.S. Justice Department has launched a probe to look for possible civil rights violations; a special state prosecutor is also investigating. Jackelyn Bernard, spokeswoman for special prosecutor Angela Corey, said Wednesday the investigation could take weeks and said it’s unclear if a grand jury will be empaneled.
Hoffman said it’s difficult to gauge how the Trayvon sales might stack up against those from similar cases, such as the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King beating, because those were before the explosion of Internet marketing.
“Anyone can do it with any image,” she said.
Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, headed off potential profit-seekers by filing trademark applications last week for the words “Justice For Trayvon” and “I Am Trayvon.” The applications say the slogans may be used in digital media formats including CDs and DVDs. A family attorney said Wednesday the purpose is mainly to prevent others from exploiting Martin’s image.
“It wasn’t to make money off Trayvon’s name, it was to stop the exploitation of Trayvon’s name,” said the attorney, Natalie Jackson. “We wanted this family to own their child’s legacy.”
A sign company called FamilyGraphix decided this week to pull its Martin-related decals after learning of Fulton’s move. One such decal, which was to sell for $8, said “Don’t Shoot Me, All I Have Is A Bag of Skittles.”
Johnson, the T-shirt designer, questioned Fulton’s move.
“You would think the parents of Trayvon Martin would encourage the spreading of their son’s name and image,” he said. “As a parent of four, I personally would welcome any and all exposure. I would want my son’s name everywhere.”
At rallies and church services, thousands of dollars in pledges have been made to help Fulton and Tracy Martin, Martin’s father, pay expenses including travel to events in Washington and New York, Jackson said. At one early rally, the Rev. Al Sharpton asked people to make out checks to Fulton and put them in buckets that were passed around.
“Let’s show the world we’re going to finance our own movement,” said Sharpton, who pledged $2,500 himself.
The case has had other benefits for involved organizations. More than 30,000 people signed an NAACP petition to Florida prosecutors in just a 24-hour period. Eric Wingerter, spokesman for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored people, says the organization hasn’t used the case as a fundraising tool but has seen an uptick in memberships.
At some point, Hoffman said, the Trayvon Martin brand could wear thin if it’s overused.
“People might feel, ‘I’m sick of hearing about this.’ That feeling could be accelerated if everywhere you turn, there are people wearing their hearts on their sleeve,” Hoffman said. “All this merchandise out there will start to have a taint in the mind of the public.”
Associated Press writers Kyle Hightower in Sanford, Fla., and Mike Schneider in Orlando, Fla., contributed.
Follow Curt Anderson on Twitter: (at)Miamicurt