The case of Trayvon Martin
How inane laws and the mainstream media made a bad situation much worse
Editor’s Note: This piece’s deadline was before the announcement of the second-degree charges against George Zimmerman were made public at 6 p.m. on April 11.
As the Institute closed its doors over break, many of my friends and I escaped to warmer climates to get a much-deserved break from the fast-paced academic scene that is MIT. Finally getting a chance to catch up with the news after a couple of weeks of exam-induced recluse, I was disturbed to read about the Trayvon Martin case. Below is a short summary of the events that culminated in his untimely death.
George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Floridian and a community watch coordinator, saw Trayvon walking home from a convenience store with a pack of Skittles in hand. Zimmerman said he felt “threatened” by the 17-year-old. As he followed Trayvon closely, Zimmerman promptly called 9-1-1 and told the dispatcher: “This guy looks like he is up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” Now here’s where things start to get nonsensical: after being told by the police not to take further action, Zimmerman replied by saying “OK” but kept pursuing the now-fleeing teenager. According to a report by ABC News, Trayvon’s girlfriend, who was speaking to him on the phone at the time of the incident, reported hearing Trayvon say, “What are you following me for?” with Zimmerman responding, “What are you doing here?” shortly before shooting and ending poor Trayvon’s life in cold blood.
While I believe that Zimmerman’s actions are deplorable and that he should be brought to trial for the murderer that he is, I do not believe that this shooting was simply one man’s fault. It is rather a disturbing combination of a multitude of shortcomings that plague our society, which include, but are not limited to, racism, an unnecessary desire for sensationalism, and legal system that needs thorough reexamination. The dynamics at play in the development and analysis of the story are nothing short of profoundly unsettling. First off, the mere existence of laws that turn a blind eye to — and even enable — such heinous crimes are downright embarrassing for the modern, logical, and progressive society that we pride ourselves on being. Second, the overtly nonchalant expression of racism displayed thus far in reaction to the shooting has been nothing short of disgusting. Third, the supposed “solidarity” of cable news networks has, in my opinion, proven to be truly weak and juvenile attempts at sensationalism. Let’s begin by observing the severe shortcomings of legislation and how they practically enabled the tragic shooting of Trayvon.
One law that seems mind-bogglingly illogical is Florida’s so-called Stand Your Ground law, thanks to which Zimmerman has been able to evade prosecution thus far. According to the law, “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself.” The vagueness of this strange law is maddening. According to this law, all someone has to do to shoot and kill someone in Florida is to assert that he or she felt “threatened” by the victim’s mere existence. And in the Zimmerman case, this defense had been found viable. The law does not clarify whether the other person needs to be wielding a weapon, be overtly threatening, or have actively engaged in harmful behavior in any way. Under this law, any John Doe can simply Google “where to buy guns,” click on the first link, proceed to the handguns page, order whichever handgun fits his style (with free shipping!), start a killing spree, and then state that the people he killed made him “feel threatened.” Sounds about right!
Of course, laws have not been the only negatively contributing aspect of the Trayvon case; the handling of news by large media companies is also to blame. National news coverage of the event went a step further by expressing a disturbing level of racism against minorities. On a live Fox News show, journalist Geraldo Rivera stated: “I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters particularly to not let their children go out wearing hoodies. The hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as Zimmerman was.” Now most of us are fully aware of how “high-quality” Fox News’ coverage has been lately, and I believe this statement is nothing less than a perfect example of what 21st century journalism is turning into: poorly researched and hastily assembled news stories and broadcasts. A very good illustration of this phenomenon is the fact that, recently, careless and overt expressions of racism have started to take to the center stage. Blatantly telling parents on national television of minority children to keep their kids away from hoodies because they may be portrayed as criminals due to the way they dress clearly illustrates this point. It’s time that people, especially these so-called journalists, start to use their brain facsimiles to filter out nonsense before it escapes their mouths. Contrary to what Rivera thinks, the so-called “image of the hoodie” does not need rehabilitation. What it needs is for people like him to stop perpetuating the imagery that facilitates racial and social description and profiling. Contrary to the saying, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” words can inflict an immense amount of pain. That is why, despite the fact that Rivera later retracted his statement, the damage had already been done.
Equally racist was the NBC transcript of the 911 call that Zimmerman made where he reportedly said “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.” In reality, however, what Zimmerman said was “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about,” to which the dispatcher responded by saying “OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?” Zimmerman’s answer to this second question was “He looks black.” Now, I don’t know about you but that small omission changes a lot. I don’t believe that this is to say that it exonerates Zimmerman of his crime; it doesn’t. It does, however, change people’s attitudes toward the situation by provoking a sentiment of racism instead of a proper treatment of the incident. Just as with Rivera, a simple apology on NBC’s part will not be enough to simply remedy all those who have been negatively affected by incorrectly transmitted information.
Racism in the news isn’t the only problem, however. It is important to also address the issue of increasingly sensationalist and rating-hungry media reports. Shortly after the hoodie comment, many minority groups and supporters wore hoodies in mass protests in response to the disturbingly racist comments. In a particularly feeble attempt at camaraderie and empathy, many live news anchors for agencies including CNN and MSNBC also wore hoodies — on live television. While some people may see this as an act of respect and care for the late Trayvon, I see it as quite the opposite. Journalism is supposed to be defined as the investigation and reporting of events. It is not supposed to entail active participation in the latter. I understand that just like everything else, the news media agencies’ primary concern is to be profitable. I also feel that when dealing with topics as sensitive as this, however, it is important to retain a certain measure of composure and objectivity if for no other reason than to be respectful.
We take pride in being a modern, progressive, and caring society. Unfortunately, almost everything that has happened and has been said on the Trayvon case paints a rather bleak image of what we are becoming. If we are as attached to our “values” as we consistently claim to be, we must either work toward practicing them or starting to redefine them. Let me be clear, I am not advocating religious or traditional values; however, I firmly believe that a society without ethics is doomed not to learn from any of its mistakes, perpetuating them indefinitely and experiencing the same unnecessary heartache forever.