The Maddening Trayvon Martin PSA: "Law Enforcement Has Your Back!" Really?

PSAs clearly align with archetypes of good and evil. Expressing anger through actions? Evil. George Zimmerman killing an unarmed teenager? Not evil.
Publish date:
July 11, 2013
PSAs, trayvon martin, George Zimmerman

Public service announcements are pretty magical.

In high school I actually had the unique experience of creating PSAs in an after-school program. One year I even won a regional Emmy for my work. I fell in love with them even more when I used to teach kids in summer programs how to make them -- they can be an incredibly powerful tool.

The magic is that they’re diverse and direct with a touch of idealism and a smidge of propaganda. And they kind of break the third wall since they mix the magic of television with no-nonsense advice: “Don’t do drugs!” or “Don’t go with strangers!”

Best of all, they tap into what we’re afraid of through the classic archetypes of good and evil. I still think about that haunting Truth PSA where everyone dropped dead in front of a big tobacco HQ. And haunting or not, the well-made ones even make it into popular culture, like the gun violence PSA that inspired Korn’s "Freak on a Leash," which then went on to inspire this 2007 gun violence PSA.

And if you are a storied millennial like me, McGruff probably taught you to take a bite out of crime, Saturday morning cartoons taught you to be cool about fire safety, a sulky '90s Rachael Leigh Cook taught you about your brain on heroin, and farm animals taught you how silly you look smoking.

So what is the current state of PSAs?

What, you ask, are the kids in Florida learning this week?

Well, it’s not about resisting drugs or not smoking cigarettes -- it’s about just saying no to rioting. Yes, 1967 Black Day in July by Gordon Lightfoot-style rioting. Kids these days.

More specifically, Florida authorities are worried teens might feel injustice over the impending George Zimmerman ruling. They’re afraid of how people in their county might react if Zimmerman walks. They know it’s a possibility Zimmerman could be found not guilty, and they want everyone to be rational about it. They want peaceful protests.

In the 36-second “Raise Your Voice, Not Your Hands” clip, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office and the Sanford Police Department team up with peppy youth from the Jason Taylor Foundation and the HANDY Foundation in a rap “urging young people not to let their emotions get the best of them.”

The quick rhyme warns of acting up and being arrested. It’s just water off your back, they advise.

“Law enforcement has your back,” the teens shout in one verse. For emphasis the sheriff chimes in, “I’m Sheriff Scott Israel, and law enforcement does have your back.”

Really? Do they now?

This is Florida we’re talking about. The same Stand Your Ground law that Zimmerman invoked was revoked from Marissa Alexander for firing warning shots into a wall in 2010. She was trying to protect herself from her violent husband and was given 20 years in turn. This is also the place where Eric Perez died in juvenile detention because the guards on duty thought he was faking a brain injury. An injury likely sustained from landing on his head after they tossed him the air for allegedly taking an extra snack. Perez’s story is chilling on its own, but even more so when placed next to Martin, as he was suspiciously holding snacks, too.

In a place where teens can lose their lives over snacks and battered women get locked up for firing a gun in the air to stop an attack, I can see why the Sheriff’s Office would want a preemptive PSA.

However, I find the message pacifying and pointed in the wrong direction.

In a very rough sense, it’s telling a group of people not to be angry about something that’s angering. And it’s encouraging using a voice without saying how to do so. Maybe start a petition? Or to sit at lunch counters in protest? To start sentences with “I feel…” instead of “You always…?”

Calling back the good vs. evil archetypes of PSAs, this one aligns police with good, because they have your back, and evil with whatever you might want to do that’s not cool, calm, and collected after Zimmerman’s verdict. What is clearly aligned as NOT evil in this case, sadly, are Zimmerman’s actions, as if he were McGruff taking the bite. With lines as blurred as these, no wonder good and evil are crossed. And no wonder people might not be so peaceful at the outcome.

In a perfect world, this wouldn’t be a PSA about violence. We have plenty of those already. Rather, it would be one about listening to authorities when they say to stay in your car instead of following unarmed boys around with a gun.

Instead, we get one that says we failed Martin and the justice system may disappoint you, but let’s talk it out. Most telling, where PSAs are a call to action, this one is a call to inaction; a call to exactly what Zimmerman couldn’t do that night.