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Lessons from George Zimmerman verdict: Unanswered question becomes Rorschach test on race and media in America



From the beginning, this case came down to a simple question: Who started the fight?

If George Zimmerman pursued unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin and demanded to know where he was going in  Sanford, Fla. subdivision last year, sparking a fight which ended with a gunshot, his claim of self defense would be hollow. But if Martin started the fight as Zimmerman said, even if he zeroed in on Martin for his youth and race, the law would likely recognize the shooting as justifiable.

What has been obvious since protests first pushed Florida authorities into arresting Zimmerman last year, is that all of the activism, commentary and punditry has been focused on pushing the state to work hard as possible to find out what happened between these two men beyond a reasonable doubt. Because an unarmed teenager is dead, and someone should pay.

And the state failed.


There is no one, besides Zimmerman and Martin, who seems to have witnessed the beginning of their confrontation.

In the aftermath of that failure, cable news has been rewarded with ratings spikes, showbiz powerhouses such as Stevie Wonder and The Daily Show are excoriating Florida for its wide-ranging Stand Your Ground self-defense laws and political conservatives are accusing activists such as Al Sharpton of crying wolf over race issues.

Too much of this debate feels disconnected from the actual verdict; a fight over race and criminal justice in America that we have been spoiling to have, regardless of the issue at hand. Like a squabbling couple whose dissatisfaction can be ignited by any perceived transgression, we’re reliving all our past arguments about race and crime using the Zimmerman verdict as a trigger (if I had a dime for every email to me that referenced the O.J. Simpson trial or Duke University rape allegations, I wouldn’t have to sit in a newsroom writing this column). 

Overhanging all of this, is questions about how much of a role the news media played in sparking the passions of those on all sides of the case. I’ll be exploring that question directly today at the Florida Society of News Editors convention, leading a panel this afternoon dubbed: News Track: Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case: Lessons learned.

The panel is a unique assembly of people close to the case, including : Michelle Guido, Breaking News Editor for the Orlando Sentinel, Norton Bonaparte, Sanford City Manager; Allie Braswell, President & CEO of the Central Florida Urban League; and Francis C. Oliver, Curator, Goldsboro Historical Museum and mother of Martin family attorney Natalie Jackson.

I’ll want to know how the attention of the world’s media has changed Sanford and Florida itself; whether the news media was led astray by Martin family advocates – as some suggest – or manipulated into harming Martin’s image by Zimmerman’s defense, as others have said.

Earlier this week I wrote a column asking the jurors in the case to speak publicly, because so many people seemed to be making assumptions about what their verdict meant without any information from them.

But the emails reacting to that column were a Rorschach test all their own. Some accused me of demanding the judge reveal the jurors names (I didn’t; I expressed hope they would come forward on their own) or disrespecting their verdict (in fact, I suggested reasonable doubt in this case was nearly insurmountable) or ignoring worse black-on-black violence in cities such as Chicago (but in Trayvon Martin’s case, police knew his killer and declined to arrest him; that’s different than drive-by shootings committed by unknown perpetrators).

Some emails elevated Zimmerman’s account of his conflict with Trayvon Martin to established fact, pronouncing with authority that Martin started the altercation which ended with his death. Others state firmly that Martin was a thug-in the-making – the word “thug” itself  is becoming a more acceptable public shorthand for more despicable slurs which can end a multi-million-dollar celebrity brand in days.

From my perspective, many readers seemed to perceive my column as more critical of the verdict and te jurors than it actually was. My fear: they are not judging my words but my appearance and my past advocacy -- as if a black columnist with a history of writing on race can't have a nuanced view.

The truth is a bitter pill: No one really knows what happened to start the fight between these two men. And the desperation to fill in those blanks has led people on both sides of the issue to cite as fact circumstances they can only really suspect or believe strongly, reasonable doubt fully attached.

A poll by the Huffington Post website revealed that nearly equal numbers of those surveyed would have acquitted Zimmerman (41 percent) as convicted him of something (39 percent). But while 75 percent of black respondents said they would find him guilty of a crime, just 34 percent of white people polled had the same response. 

CNN’s interview with Juror B37, one of the case’s six jurors who chose to remain anonymous, revealed that this woman completely believed Zimmerman’s story and felt that Martin’s actions “played a huge role in his death.” She said it wouldn’t have made a difference if prosecutors charged him with a lesser crime – the law tied their hands – and race had no impact on the case. (four jurors have since released a statement saying she does not speak for them)

But she also said “I think he (Zimmerman) profiled him (Martin) just as somebody in the neighborhood who was suspicious” without explaining why Martin was considered suspicious.

Once again, we are stuck arguing about racial issues in the heat of a public controversy where each side is least willing to compromise or give ground.

More than anything, this verdict has forced us all to once again confront how differently different Americans see race issues. How we will cope with the knowledge, is yet to be seen.

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[Last modified: Thursday, July 18, 2013 8:59am]


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