Monday, January 22, 2018
Politics

Trayvon Martin case fuels intense political debate on left and right

From suspect to victim to cultural symbol, Trayvon Martin has metamorphosed into a political point of departure over race.

When President Barack Obama spoke about how his son could have looked like the 17-year-old, his white Republican rivals quickly accused him of being racially divisive.

When Gov. Rick Scott established a task force to investigate the "stand your ground" gun law connected to Martin's shooting, a state Democratic leader rebuked him for wanting to wait until the case is adjudicated.

Liberal and left-leaning media have taken up Martin's case, with calls to arrest his shooter, George Zimmerman. Conservative and right-leaning media have called for a get-the-facts first approach, while some have published images of Martin portraying him as a thug.

Groups from the NAACP to the National Council of La Raza, to white and black supremacist groups, have entered — or been drawn into — the political fray as well.

"It's campaign time, and unfortunately, it has come to that. But that's what we get these days, unfortunately," said Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, the only elected black Republican in Florida's Capitol.

Carroll, who's chairing Gov. Scott's task force on stand your ground, said the group needs to take its time and not interfere with the investigation. She also wants to avoid partisan and racial politics.

But Carroll noted that race infuses the case and our justice system, especially with the high-incarceration rates of African-Americans. But she still wanted to focus on whether the state's stand your ground law, authorizing the use of deadly force, needs to be tweaked. The National Rifle Association is sure to fight that, while gun-control advocates are trying to get the law stripped from the books.

The Florida Senate's incoming Democratic leader, Chris Smith, criticized the decision by Scott and Carroll to hold off on investigating the law. But Carroll said the task force needs time to gather facts for the "emotional" and increasingly partisan case.

The politics won't go away.

"Once the story went national, we first dealt with the tragedy but very quickly you saw political questions starting to be asked,'' said James B. Peterson, a professor of Africana Studies and associate professor of English at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. "Race is a powerful political tool.''

"Immediately, you have the right and left at the table. It's unfortunate that this case has become such a hotbed. Both sides can easily go back to their stock characters,'' he said. "On the left, it's marching and protesting and talk about institutional racism. On the right, it's talk about rushing to judgment and accusations of race-baiting. The irony is both sides are demanding justice.''

And both sides have 24-hour cable channels, websites and Twitter armies that push their narrative about what happened.

State Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, has changed his Twitter avatar to depict him wearing the type of hoodie sweatshirt the unarmed Martin wore on his last night. U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., wore a hoodie on the House floor, prompting Florida's highest-profile black Republican, U.S. Rep. Allen West, to criticize the action as "gimmickry."

Meantime, the Internet's atwitter over the decision of the Daily Caller, a conservative website, to obtain and publish apparent tweets from the teen's now-closed Twitter account. The messages depict fairly typical rap-fueled, sex-obsessed misogynistic lingo common to urban and suburban youth in Miami Gardens.

A New York Times blogger criticized the Daily Caller and others for "cherry picking" images about Martin to make him seem more threatening. It failed to mention that the paper's liberal columnist Charles Blow has said little of Martin's school suspensions and his dalliance with pot in favor of discussing his "cherubic" countenance.

When the nation's first black president said, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," the political floodgates over race broke open again in the presidential election.

"Is the president suggesting if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be okay because it wouldn't look like him?" Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity wondered. "That's just nonsense. I mean, dividing this country up, it is a tragedy this young man was shot."

Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich echoed the sentiments.

In Florida, Lt. Gov. Carroll can personally relate to having a child who looks like Martin. She has two grown sons and a daughter, and she pointedly declined to criticize the president.

"That's his personal interpretation and how he feels. So that's nobody else's business to interpret what he is saying," Carroll said at an event with her 25-year-old son Nolan Carroll, a Miami Dolphins defensive back.

"As old as Nolan is, I still call him. Are you home safe? It's night time, I'm going to sleep," said Carroll, who initially didn't want her son to play football as a kid.

But now that her son plays professional football, how can she worry?

"Even at that," she says. She still calls and asks, "Are you home?"

Miami Herald staff writer Audra D.S. Burch contributed to this report.

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