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Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the impressionable young mind

As a classroom teacher in the state of Indiana, I have often seen the power of media and popular culture to influence the thoughts of the young on social issues. In no way is this more true than in the case of Trayvon Martin. I have many African American students, and nearly all of them hold the strong opinion that Trayvon was murdered in cold blood by a racist white man who decided to kill him when first he glanced a black boy daring to take a stroll in his neighborhood. When the subject comes up (usually as students start to walk into class before the bell rings), I'll often just say, "Let's not judge anyone before the facts are all out."

This elicits a reaction, often vitriolic, of disgust. "Of course it was racism! Like anybody really thinks it wasn't! Zimmerman was white, Trayvon was black, and Zimmerman followed and killed him because he was black. Stop pretending something else happened! We all know what it really was."

This sort of animus is quite useful to certain people. The media feed off the interest in the story like sharks in bloody water. They exaggerate the story, even stooping to editing audio to create a false impression. They publish old, outdated photos of both parties to the tragedy in an effort to sensationalize the event.

Witness these images of Martin and Zimmerman.

Most widely published photos:

More up to date photos, starting with Trayvon (from his Twitter account):

And George Zimmerman (in a non-mugshot photo):

Now granted, the more recent photos are just as biased as the old ones being shown, what with Trayvon shirtless flipping the bird and Zimmerman smiling in a suit. Still, the age and build of the second set of photos does at least display that George Zimmerman might well have been physically afraid for his life in a physical confrontation with a large tattooed seventeen-year-old. What the more recent photos don't do is give the impression of Trayvon as an angelic eleven-year-old hunted down like a dog by a larger, armed adult.

Now, I don't claim to know exactly what happened. Personally, I think Zimmerman got carried away in his role as neighborhood watch captain (you don't need a gun to keep an eye on the neighborhood), followed Trayvon around until Trayvon became irate, and Trayvon lashed out in anger. He probably felt singled out, and perhaps he was. I don't believe there was a racial motive since several black families resided in the neighborhood in question, but it's evident that Zimmerman was angry at the break-ins and determined to find a culprit. If he was as involved in his community as it seems, he might have simply followed Trayvon because he didn't recognize him. Still, from the wounds on Zimmerman's head he was taking quite the beating. Most likely he panicked and used his gun in what he considered to be self-defense. Was it overkill? Certainly. In my opinion, George Zimmerman is at the very least guilty of manslaughter. However, these are opinions. I have no idea what happened, nor does anyone else outside of George Zimmerman and perhaps the police who responded to the incident.

What upsets me is the way young people, especially young people of color, are being militarized by the event  so as to cause a degree of racial hatred not seen for a very long time. It reminds me of the six-second (or so) clip shown relentlessly on the news during the Rodney King trial. According to the jurors, the full video of the incident told quite a different story than did the few seconds shown on television. Still, that fact did not sway the emotions of those who engaged in wanton violence and criminality, which they justified as a reaction to the verdict.

I don't think George Zimmerman can be convicted on a second degree murder charge. To qualify as second degree murder in the State of Florida, the killer must be determined to have shown a depraved mind with no regard for human life. Zimmerman has shown contrition. How can the state prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that he is mentally depraved to the point that human life means nothing to him? No, I think perhaps that he was charged with a crime that the prosecution knew had no hope of conviction. It was a way out. The district attorney can claim she was tough on the suspect, but that the system made the decision. It's likely that she believes he did indeed act in self-defense, and so raised the burden of proof well beyond what could possibly result in a conviction.

With emotions raging so bitterly, violence may well erupt if and when a Not Guilty verdict is read. I hope it doesn't. I hope the African American community can stop providing justification for racist stereotypes. I understand the anger. The death of a young man, despite whatever "tough guy" public persona he may have had, is tragic. Let's not allow this tragedy to tarnish the image of the African American community. That would be an even greater tragedy.

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