NOTE: I started this post Tuesday night.
Today I observed headlines about Trayvon Martin’s school disciplinary record, his mother’s desire to trademark a phrase using his name and a photo of someone first reported on social media sites (inaccurately) as Martin flashing an obscene gesture at the camera.
Martin’s cause celebre in the wake of his Feb. 26 shooting death has illuminated a scary reality in our 21st century world. No, it’s not that racism lives and breathes in America. Everyone who is honest with themselves knows this.
It’s that our need, as a society, for spectacle and our desire to try cases in the court of public opinion, often with limited facts available, has surpassed our willingness to allow cases to play out in the court of law. And more disturbing, Martin’s death has shown just how easy it is to manipulate public sentiment, particularly with the rise of social media.
For instance, news of Martin’s school suspensions has as little to do with the events of Feb. 26 as the widely circulated picture of his shooter George Zimmerman in what appears to be an orange jail jumpsuit. Don’t get me started about the photo of someone other than Martin raising his middle fingers at the camera. Even if the picture depicted Martin, would that make a difference?
Martin’s case is far from the first to push the limits of media saturation and it won’t be the last. What is unique about his death and the outrage that followed is it appears to provide an examination of race in America in 140 characters or less. That is how this case differs from, say, the Casey Anthony murder trial that received obscene amounts of media coverage a few short months ago.
Bear with me ….
George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman, confessed to shooting an unarmed Martin Feb. 26, alleging he did so in self-defense. Zimmerman will go before a Florida grand jury April 10. His defense is predicated on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which allows a citizen to use deadly force if they reasonably believe someone else is about to use deadly force or commit great bodily harm on them.
Perhaps Zimmerman would not have gone before a grand jury had there not been a massive public outcry (especially on social media). Perhaps he would have, though I doubt it. The outrage associated with this case necessitated legal recourse. Otherwise the fallout would have been immense. It might still be. A case could be made, perhaps a strong one, that the Sanford, Fla., police attempted to cover up aspects of this case. Why else would they leave Martin as a John Doe for three days?
I would argue putting Zimmerman before a grand jury is the best, and most fair, scenario. Let a group of his peers hear the facts behind closed doors and make a decision. Good luck finding people who are unaware of this case though.
The Martin-related stories I mentioned above all dealt with perception — the perception Martin was a thug or an innocent slain because of his skin color. They do nothing to get closer to the circumstances that led to Martin’s death. They only reinforce the consumer’s bias, whether that be drawn upon racial lines, distrust of police and their investigations, or even a disdain for pro-gun lobbies like the NRA.
For instance, if you believe people who wear “grills” are thugs then a picture of Martin flashing a “grill” in his mouth will likely lead you to believe he is a thug and somehow contributed to the events that led to his death. Or you could side with TV personality Geraldo Rivera who said Martin’s hoodie led to his death.
Sure, there have been reports Zimmerman suffered a broken nose from an altercation with Martin. There have also been reports that a video disproves Zimmerman’s story. It is hard to know what to believe.
One thing remains true: A 17-year-old boy is dead from a gunshot wound. That alone seems criminal but does that mean Zimmerman committed a crime? We should know more April 10.
It will be much later before we know whether the media blitz surrounding this case served to satisfy our morbid need for entertainment and faux outrage or whether it sparked meaningful dialogue about race in America.
And no, I don’t view celebrities wearing hoodies in photos as meaningful dialogue. Even though I do think hoodies can serve, in this case, as powerful symbols against police profiling and perhaps provide an avenue to discuss other issues, such as the inherently racist criminal justice system that exists to lock up young black men.
Will hoodies spark such a discussion?
Color me skeptical.