Taking Stock of the Trayvon Martin Case

COMPLICATED PICTURE: After a week of protests and media hysteria, the Trayvon Martin case has taken yet another turn as information emerges that calls Trayvon's character into question.

Yesterday was the one month anniversary of when Florida teen Trayvon Martin was shot to death by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. If it weren’t for the work of journalists, this story would never have made national news and the U.S. Department of Justice would not be investigating the case for civil rights violations. Neither would a grand jury have been convened in Florida to hear evidence about it, nor would the Sanford, Florida, police chief have “temporarily” left his post and been replaced with a black man. But, if it weren’t for the work of journalists, the rush to judgment about the case also would not have happened.

Conflicting Accounts

In the past week, we’ve learned that Martin was on the phone with his girlfriend moments before the shooting. She has said that Martin told her someone was following him and that she heard Martin ask the man why before a scuffle broke out between them. But Sanford Police Department sources told the Orlando Sentinel that Zimmerman said Martin attacked him as he was walking back to his SUV and that Martin tried to take his gun and slammed his head into the ground.

Maligning and Defending Trayvon Martin’s Character

Conservative websites have begun to malign the character of Martin, who had been portrayed as a wholesome teen. They published pictures and status updates that they claimed were taken from Martin’s Facebook and Twitter accounts to show that he had tattoos and gold teeth and implied he sold drugs, as if these supposed facts were somehow relevant. But a website reportedly owned by conservative pundit Michelle Malkin issued an apology for publishing one widely circulated photo, saying it was not, in fact, the Trayvon Martin who was shot to death by Zimmerman. And journalist Geraldo Rivera was roundly criticized, even by his own son, for suggesting that Martins’s choice of attire was as responsible for his death as Zimmerman was.

In response, Martin’s parents held a press conference. His father, Tracy Martin, said, “Even in death, they are still disrespecting my son, and I feel that that’s a sin.” His mother, Sybrina Fulton, said, “They killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” The family is asking for donations to keep their fight for justice going and Fulton has reportedly filed for trademarks to the phrases “I am Trayvon” and “Justice for Trayvon.” She, of course, has been criticized for that. Martin’s friends, meanwhile, say they can’t imagine Trayvon picking a fight with anyone.

Catalyst for National Discussion

On Friday, President Obama spoke out on the killing, saying we all need to do “some soul searching” and if he had a son, the boy would look like Trayvon. GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich immediately pounced on Obama’s statement, suggesting the president’s comments were racially divisive. At the same time, Gingrich and fellow GOP hopefuls Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum each called Martin’s death a “tragedy,” and Santorum suggested that Zimmerman’s actions were different from those protected by Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.

On Sunday, Christians (mostly black ones) wore hoodies to church in solidarity with Martin. On Monday, New York State legislators wore them on the senate floor. Everyone seemed to be talking about having “the talk” with their black children, and people, including me, began asking why white evangelical leaders have been largely silent on the issue. Others, including one former NAACP leader, accused the Revs. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of exploiting the situation.

Some, like Evangelical Covenant Church pastor Efrem Smith, wondered where the outrage is about black-on-black crime. Smith posted a series of tweets noting the lack of attention these victims receive. “A couple of months ago in Oakland multiple young blacks were victims of violent crime by other blacks but Al Sharpton didn’t come to town,” he said. Why not?

‘Justice Doesn’t Alienate Anyone’

Although Zimmerman’s friends continue to defend him and the authors of Florida’s “stand your ground” law defend it, Regent University law professor David Velloney told CBN News that if Zimmerman “was following [Martin] in somewhat of a menacing manner and he violently, or aggressively approached the teenager, then he becomes the initial aggressor in this situation and really then he loses that right to self-defense.”

I’ll give Velloney the last word on the case for now, because amidst all the discussion, debate, and hype, his comment gets to the heart of why this story blew up in the first place. People reacted to a grave, familiar injustice that was aided by an unjust interpretation of what may be an unjust law. Now that the road to justice has finally been cleared for the Martin family, perhaps it’s time we all calm down and take the words of Bishop T.D. Jakes to heart. “Justice doesn’t alienate anyone. It is truth,” Jakes told CBN News. “It is consistent with Scriptures that we investigate, and that we support the defense for all human life.” Amen to that.

Will There Be Justice for Trayvon Martin?

DEMANDING A RESPONSE: College students and citizens rallied today at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Florida, to demand the arrest of a neighborhood watch captain who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen. (Photo: Red Huber/Newscom)

On Feb. 26, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida, when 28-year-old neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman called the police to report him as a suspicious person. Zimmerman confronted Martin, despite being directed by police to stop following the teenager.

This morning, in a story about Florida college students protesting the fact that Zimmerman has still not been arrested, the Orlando Sentinel reported what happened next:

Zimmerman then stepped out of his SUV, while still on the phone with police, and followed the teenager on foot. The phone call ended, but the two somehow came face to face on a sidewalk; there was a fight, and [17-year-old] Trayvon wound up dead on the ground, a single gunshot to the chest. When police arrived, they found Zimmerman standing near him, blood coming from injuries to his nose and the back of his head, according to a police report. The back of his shirt also was wet and had grass clippings on it. A 911 caller described the fight as two people wrestling. A 13-year-old boy who witnessed part of the fight said he saw Zimmerman on the ground and heard someone calling for help. Zimmerman told police that was him. Lawyers for Trayvon’s family say it was the high school junior.

What has many people outraged is not only the volunteer crime fighter’s deadly actions, but also the Florida law that has thus far given him legal cover.

In 2005, Florida passed “one of the nation’s strongest so-called ‘stand your ground’ self-defense laws,” according to CBS News. The law allows a person to use deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”

Martin didn’t have to actually pose a threat to Zimmerman. Zimmerman just had to feel threatened by the teenager who had gone out to buy some Skittles and an ice tea, according to news reports.

At a press conference on Friday, the victim’s father, Tracy Martin, said Zimmerman could not have acted in self defense. “What was [Trayvon] gonna do, attack him with a bag of Skittles?” he asked. This morning on The Today Show, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said Zimmerman was “reacting to” the color of her son’s skin. “He committed no crime. My son wasn’t doing anything but walking on the sidewalk, and I just don’t understand why this situation got out of control,’’ she said.

Meanwhile, 13-year-old Austin McLendon “hasn’t been the same” since he heard the altercation that led to Martin’s death, The Huffington Post reported. McLendon “was standing less than 20 yards away from Martin when he was shot,” but “didn’t see much that night.” His mother told The Huffington Post that her son is upset about reports that said “a 13-year-old witness has claimed Zimmerman, and not Martin, was screaming for help” when both she and her son “are adamant that the teen could not see who was screaming.”

Trayvon’s parents have organized a petition at Change.org asking Florida’s 18th District State’s Attorney to investigate Tayvon’s “murder” and to prosecute Zimmerman for it. The petition describes their son as a hero, who, at nine years old, pulled his father from a burning kitchen. The grieving parents have also asked the FBI to investigate, ABC News reported.

Two other rallies are planned for this week, the Orlando Sentinel reported, and both the FBI and the U.S. Justice department have gotten involved, even as the Sanford police chief continues to defend his department’s investigation.

Zimmerman targeted “young black men who appeared to be outsiders,” The Miami Herald reported. He also “called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents” and was known to be strict, according to one teenager.

In a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, however, Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman, said his son is not a racist, but is Hispanic and grew up in a multi-racial family. “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever …,” the letter reportedly said. “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.”

At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been following the case closely, and his colleague James Fallows commended him for his efforts, noting though that the story isn’t just a “black story” about race relations. “It’s about self-government, rule of law, equality before the law, accountability of power, and every other value that we contend is integral to the American ideal.”  Thus one might wonder why, if Think Progress is correct, Fox News has only broadcast one story about the case, while CNN has broadcast 41 and MSNBC has broadcast 13. A site search of Trayvon Martin’s name at National Review also came up empty, as did one at The Weekly Standard. Don’t conservatives care about these issues?

What Do you think?

Is the Trayvon Martin case about more than racial profiling?