Yesterday’s decision by Florida prosecutors to put George Zimmerman on trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin may serve to calm some of the racially charged anger about the incident in which an unarmed African-American youth was killed. Though some are already claiming the Zimmerman case will resemble the O.J. Simpson murder trial in the way it divides the public, it’s clear most Americans are content to let the justice system sift through the evidence and hope that justice will be done. Outside of the usual suspects seeking to inflame racial tensions (i.e., Al Sharpton, a veteran huckster whose efforts along these lines received the bizarre praise of Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday), there is another political agenda that is being pushed forward by the Martin killing: derailing efforts of the National Rifle Association and other conservative groups to enhance the right of self-defense via “Stand Your Ground” statutes or the “Castle Doctrine.”
Though we have yet to learn the full account of what happened between Zimmerman and Martin on the night of the latter’s death, it’s fairly clear that neither of those legal principles had much to do with the neighborhood watch volunteer’s shooting of the young man in the hoodie except in the most general sense, as the shooter asserted he was attacked first. But the effort to associate laws that back up citizens’ rights to defend themselves on their own property with Martin’s killing is becoming a touchstone of liberal rhetoric and reportage, as today’s New York Times feature on the subject illustrates. The conceit of the piece is to pin the nationwide drive to enact such legislation on the NRA and along with it the responsibility for any innocent blood shed because of these measures. Yet, what the Times and liberal critics of the laws fail to understand is that the popularity of such laws has to do with what most Americans believe is the defense of their liberty and safety and not race.
When Americans first heard the story of the death of Trayvon Martin, many in the public and in the media decided on a narrative for why George Zimmerman killed the unarmed black teenager in Florida on the night of February 26. It was decided that Zimmerman, a “white-Hispanic” (should we now start classifying President Obama as the first white-African American president?) pursued and shot an innocent unarmed black teen in cold blood, because of his own racial bias. Over time, details available to the public have come to light as the narrative on the night changed. Many of the new details have emerged because eyewitnesses have come forward and police reports have come to light. There are a significant number of details, however, that have been shaped and then changed by the media and the biased lens they used to frame the case.
One of the key ways in which the media portrayed the story as one driven by racial violence was by playing the audio of the 9-1-1 call Zimmerman placed the night Martin died. While covering the case, NBC played excerpts of the call which made Zimmerman sound like nothing less than an armed member of the KKK. From the call NBC played the audio:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
This morning, the president of the United States overshadowed his own introduction of the new World Bank president by making remarks about the shocking case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed 17 year-old shot to death in a Florida town by a wannabe cop who claimed self-defense and was not charged with a crime. The Justice Department is looking at the case, a grand jury has been convened to consider the case, and the nation is in an uproar about the case—all signs that, with the exception of some extremists who crawl out of their repugnant redoubts, everybody is able to see the horror in a story like this and has a gut reaction that something profoundly wrong must have taken place here. The president said some moving words—”when I think about this boy, I think of my own kids…If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon—and some not-so-moving things. Particularly this: “I think all of us have to do some soul searching to figure out how does something like this happen. And that means we examine the laws, the context for what happened, as well as the specifics of the incident.”
Hey, wait a minute. What soul-searching exactly is it “all of us have to do” here? A black kid was shot by a Hispanic adult apparently besotted with law enforcement whose volunteer work for neighborhood watch had him calling the cops in his Orlando suburb nearly 50 times in a year to report on his suspicions. That adult lives in a state where a “Stand Your Ground” law does not require people to retreat in the face of a threat outside their homes. A police chief where he lives decided that owing to the Stand Your Ground law, he had no grounds on which to arrest George Zimmerman for the shooting death—who claims he was attacked by Martin—and let him go. This is a very, very, very specific case—involving a podunk PD, an evidently problematic individual who had been slightly empowered by a private watch system, and a teenage kid in a hoodie on his way to buy candy for his brother. It took place in a state where 19 million people live. The circumstances may not be duplicable. Ever. Even so, the leading officials in the state—its governor, Rick Scott, and its superstar young senator, Marco Rubio—have already said the Stand Your Ground law may need revision in the wake of the case. The response has been overwhelming, and all in one direction.