On the evening of February 26, 2012, a local neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman from Sanford, Florida, called 911 to report what he perceived to be suspicious activity. When police arrived at the scene nine minutes later, 17-year old Trayvon Martin lay face down, dying of a gunshot wound. Zimmerman had injuries to his face and head. Martin was pronounced dead at the scene, while Zimmerman was treated for his injuries by EMTs and taken into police custody. He was questioned for five hours and then released, the police initially concluding that Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was plausible. Following media fury, Zimmerman was eventually charged with murder under a new prosecutor. These are the most basic, skeletal-level facts of the case, condensed largely from the Wikipedia page dedicated to it. There are huge gaps in this narrative.
As you discuss this case with the people around you and think about it on your own, there are three points I’d like you to keep in mind.
1) How we fill those gaps has almost nothing to do with facts and everything to do with our ideologies. When we first heard this story, we identified quickly with one of the two men, turning one into a protagonist and the other into a villain. This initial reaction makes all the difference in how we interpret the data the rest of the way. Do you identify with the man you see looking out for his community and insert a narrative of him being a decent human being, trying to prevent a crime in progress, only to be pounced on? Or do you identify with the teenager, enjoying a little rainfall to go with his Skittles, and insert a narrative of a defenseless kid, unfairly profiled and targeted for violence?
2) Experiences with racial profiling alter how we view these events. I have no idea what it’s like to be a black man in America. When I’ve been pulled over, I could safely assume it was because I had broken a traffic law. But there are those who can’t make the same assumption. Racial profiling happens in a big way in this country. For those who have ever been unfairly detained or accused of a crime based solely on their skin color, it is easy to see this case through that lens. Now, you may say it’s wrong or unfair to do that. But we all bring experiences and assumptions along with everything we observe and interpret. Of course it’s not wrong to do that. But we need to be aware of it when we do.
3) This only became national news because of a political agenda. Do you think it’s a coincidence that a polarizing and energizing issue emerged in a swing state in an election year? Or that the Department of Justice secretly sent workers to help organize and manage the anti-Zimmerman protests? Do you think it was by accident that NBC edited the audio of Zimmerman’s 911 call to make him sound like he was focusing on Martin’s race? Any of these things by themselves would be reasonable to ignore, but in concert it plays a pretty clear picture: persons looking out for political interests ramped up the tension in Sanford to advance their agenda.
Trayvon Martin was less than 100 yards from his father’s house when he was shot and killed. His father, Tracy, would not learn of his son’s death until the next day. I keep thinking about that, about being less than a frisbee’s throw away from where someone I love is bleeding to death, and not knowing about it. I can’t imagine how heart wrenching it would be to deal with at all, but to think, “He was so close, and he didn’t know what was going on.” And then I get on Facebook, and I see dozens of people who claim absolute certainty. George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder charges by a jury, six women presented all the known facts of the case. We might as well be debating a coin toss.