As the unnecessarily divisive and horribly overblown Zimmerman trial and its aftermath begin to fade into memory, it behooves us to gather our thoughts and ponder the notion that there are lessons to be learned from our folly, so that somehow, we can avoid the madness the next time a racially charged incident sears the consciousness of black people, reminding them of past — and present– injustices.
A folly, indeed. The incident that led to the death of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman is pregnant with counterfactuals, any one of which, if they had come to pass, might have allowed us to avoid the bitterness and sense of betrayal felt by so many. To wit:
1. If the shooting of Trayvon Martin had taken place in many other states, there would not have been 45 days between the time of Mr. Martin’s death and the arrest of George Zimmerman. Prosecutors in many states with narrower definitions of self-defense and no “stand your ground” law would have had far less leeway in deciding not to prosecute Zimmerman initially. This means there would not have been a need for a special prosecutor. Nor would the federal government have been given the opportunity to meddle in a purely local criminal matter and ratchet up racial tension by helping organize demonstrations against the Sanford authorities.
This is not to say that there would have been a jury in the U.S. that would have convicted Zimmerman. The reactions of the jurors in Sanford would probably have been the same as any in the country when presented with the same evidence. But the delay in indicting Zimmerman allowed groups and individuals with a political agenda to muscle their way forward to the microphone where they could scream their obscenities, half-truths, and outright falsehoods about Zimmerman, about Trayvon Martin, and about some people’s idea of “justice” in America. It is a sad commentary on the media that it is so often the partisan with the loudest voice and the most outrageous charge who ends up getting undeserved attention.
2. If the press had reported the story accurately, and fairly, the narratives that developed on both sides would have more closely resembled the truth as it was eventually understood and not been so wildly divergent as to give partisans ammunition with which to attack the other side. One expects agenda-driven journalism from most media sources. But one also expects the media to behave responsibly. NBC’s “mis-edit” of the 911 tape from that night that the network twisted to “prove” Mr. Zimmerman was profiling Trayvon Martin went beyond any agenda that might have been at work. In another age, there might have been an FCC investigation into whether the network would keep its broadcasting license. The reporting by Fox News (and much of the conservative media) on Trayvon Martin’s short life should also come in for heavy criticism. It played to the absolute worst stereotypes of a young black man in America. Martin was a “thug”; he smoked marijuana; he got into fights at school; he was perhaps immersed in the “gangsta” culture.
The fact that this description could be applied to a significant subset of young white males apparently was not considered relevant. Martin was no angel. Neither was Zimmerman. But bringing these “facts” forward about Mr. Martin was not intended to illuminate, but rather to justify Mr. Zimmerman’s actions.
3. If President Obama had picked up the phone and called Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, asking that they cease their inflammatory rhetoric, while issuing a statement asking for patience and harmony, the racial temperature might have been kept at a low simmer. Instead, it exploded into a hate-filled, exaggerated, near hysterical outrage, and the president of the United States took sides in the controversy by saying “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” and calling for investigating “every aspect of this.”
No one doubted whose side the president had taken. And in an already polarized situation, it was like throwing gasoline on a fire.