I was slow to get on the Trayvon Martin case and I’m still not sure that I’m handling it right.
The first hint that I was behind the curve came during my weekly slot as a guest on Mark Thompson’s Make It Plain show on Sirus/XM, several days after ABC had run revelations of police misconduct in the case. As usual, I had tabbed on my computer the stories I thought might get mentioned on the show so I could quickly find quotes and facts. There was no tab for Trayvon Martin.
Yet nearly an hour was taken up with listener calls on a story to which I had paid so little attention. About all I said of interest was that I thought the federal government should enter the case, which it did the next morning.
In the days that followed I tried to make up for lost time. But as I did, I found the story different from the one the media and others were telling. The story was exploding in importance – heavily weighted towards the purported racist tendencies of George Zimmerman and the role of the stand your ground gun law.
But, I wondered, let’s say Zimmerman was a racist killer. How did that make him national evil news object? Why was this case so much more newsworthy than all the other such assaults that happen in America?
As for the gun law, if anyone had a claim to stand his ground, it was Trayvon Martin but the story wasn’t being told that way.
As I looked into the matter, a couple of things stood out: the way the police had mishandled the case and the way that Zimmerman’s purported bigotry paled in comparison with growing evidence of some sort of broader psychological problem. Zimmerman had, after all, found dangerous people in many places (46 of whom he had reported to the police) , he had been involved involved in a number of assaults, and on two such confrontations later described himself as the victim. Yes, Zimmerman had confronted a black man, but he had also confronted two women and a police officer. An interesting story, to be sure, but perhaps not one full of the deeper and national meaning being ascribed to it.
One could explain the phenomenon in several ways. An example in support of various agenda including fighting racism and restricting guns? A covert reference to black-latino conflict? A nation yearning to have faces for its anger on various issues? A nation yearning to express an anger it can’t even explain?
Maybe as a country we had become a little like the George Zimmerman someone had described:
“Usually he was just a cool guy,” he said. “But it was like Jekyll and Hyde. When the dude snapped, he snapped.”
For myself, I felt like I was missing something. Maybe it was because, as Marion Barry once said, “Sam’s a cynical cat.” For me it was an all too familiar story. I could still recall, as a Washington radio reporter, checking with the DC police dispatchers in the 1950s to find out what had happened overnight and being told on a number of occasions something like, “Not much except for a few nigger stabbings.” Or the fact that DC white cops wouldn’t drive with black officers into the 1960s. Or that in one recent year, New York City cops made over a half million stop and frisks and that 87% of them involved blacks or latinos. Or that the white police chief of Washington had blockaded a whole black neighborhood at night, requiring those entering to prove their purpose as though they lived in South Africa under apartheid or in Gaza.
Or that some of us had, over and over again, reported police incompetence, abuse, or misconduct, despite knowing that the chances anyone would do anything, or even say much, about it was virtually nil.
In which case, the public reaction to the Trayvon Martin case should have pleased me even as it surprised me.
But it seemed too muddled, it had too many eccentricities that made it a weak metaphor. After you got past the fact that Sanford, FL, had a lousy and bigoted police force, what did you really have other than a story with a lot of angles that people who had already made up their minds could pull one way or the other.
So the only thing left was the facts. As the facts came out, it seemed that there was less of a lesson in this story than it had appeared. It didn’t make it less of a story; it was just the grand moral message that had lost ground. After all, as Freud supposedly said, sometimes a cigar is just a smoke.
A journalist is lucky at such times. You’re meant to just handle the facts and let the message and the meaning come on their own. You’re under no obligation to solve the story until the facts are there.
But it’s sure is harder to do when everybody’s shouting the answer at you.