No sooner had the jury’s verdict in the George Zimmerman murder trial been announced than a journalist friend posted on my Facebook page: “If it weren’t such a tragic case, I’d forgive you for feeling smug.”
Maybe I should have felt insulted. But I’ve got a thick skin. Besides, my friend doesn’t know me very well. I reminded her that I’d described the case as “a lamentable tragedy of errors marketed as a multimedia morality play on the combustible theme of race.” Absolutely nothing good could come of it.
And nothing has. Inchoate public reaction to the entirely predictable not-guilty verdict has only confirmed that view.
To me, the most poignant moment of the trial came when defense attorney Mark O’Mara questioned Tracy Martin, the victim’s father. Many pundits said the lawyer had made a terrible mistake. I thought otherwise. At issue was whose voice could be heard screaming for help on a neighbor’s 911 call that recorded the fatal shot — an unbearable thing for any father to hear.
Tracy Martin’s great dignity, sincerity and terrible sorrow ended up underscoring two points Zimmerman’s lawyers badly wanted to make. First, when he’d initially heard the 911 tape, he hadn’t recognized his son’s voice. Whether he’d said it definitely wasn’t Trayvon’s voice, as police said, or that he simply couldn’t be sure, as he testified, wasn’t as significant as his uncertainty.
Second, Tracy Martin’s change of heart came about only after political interference by Sanford’s mayor caused the tape to be played for the entire Martin family simultaneously — sure to affect their individual perceptions, but minimizing the usefulness of their testimony.
Equally important was the implied message O’Mara sent to the jury: that although a trial is an adversarial procedure, Tracy Martin was not the Zimmerman team’s enemy. They respected his grief, they trusted him to be truthful, and they didn’t fear his testimony. Rather, it was the prosecution that ended up looking as if there were aspects of the story they didn’t want told. Not a critical moment perhaps, but a telling one.
As a father of sons, I felt great empathy for Tracy Martin. Like the jurors, however, I also thought he was probably mistaken about the voice on the 911 tape. Common sense says it’s more likely the guy getting his head pounded into the sidewalk crying out for help than the guy doing the beating.
But then I saw the case as a tragic collision between two confused, frightened strangers rather than a melodrama pitting good against evil. Once a feverish, opportunistic media campaign to depict the crime as the racial atrocity of the century got underway, keeping a clear mind took effort. Debunking the incendiary falsehoods promulgated on MSNBC alone — seemingly at the behest of the Martin family lawyers — could fill several columns.
For example, no, Sanford police did not allow George Zimmerman to take his gun home on the night of Trayvon’s death as Salon reported even after the trial — author Edward Wyckoff Williams was evidently so fixated on “white rage” that he missed hours of testimony about the accursed thing.
“When it emerged that Zimmerman’s mother was Peruvian,” Rem Rieder points out in an astringent commentary in USA TODAY, “some news outlets took to referring to him with the rarely used phrase ‘white Hispanic,’ which is kind of like calling President Obama ‘white black.’”
Eager to showcase anti-racist bona fides, even normally sensible commentators descended into name-calling and pulp fiction. Zimmerman became a “wannabe cop loser,” a “vigilante,” a “stalker” and worse. His vile motives — purely imaginary for the most part — were widely condemned.
Obvious questions like exactly how an unfit, 5-7, 200-pound man managed to chase down a 6-foot high school athlete with a running start never got asked. Possibly because the most obvious answer — that at some point in their confrontation Trayvon Martin became the aggressor — would have taken the conversation into forbidden territory.
Meanwhile, and there’s no way to say this that won’t infuriate some readers, Trayvon Martin got journalistically “profiled” as an Innocent Angel — the symbolic incarnation of every blameless black man murdered by white mobs over 300 years. (For me, the only saving grace in the whole affair has been beautifully written evocations of that sordid history like Jelani Cobb’s New Yorker essay on the verdict — although for all his passion, Cobb never quite says Zimmerman was guilty as charged.)
But Trayvon Martin wasn’t necessarily a symbol of anything. His own impulsive actions appear to have had as much to do with his fate as George Zimmerman’s. Me, I’m with Ta-Nehisi Coates, the estimable blogger for the Atlantic who writes that massive and enduring racial injustice notwithstanding, he saw “nothing within the actual case presented by the prosecution that would allow for a stable and unvacillating belief that George Zimmerman was guilty.”
More a damn shame, then, than an atrocity.
(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org.)