H. Brandt Ayers: Justice seen dimly
Jul 21, 2013 | 5341 views |  0 comments | 24 24 recommendations | email to a friend | print
If you cringe and switch channels at the very mention of the Trayvon Martin trial, it is understandable if you choose not to read any further.

On the other hand, perhaps you are as curious as I am about how a small-town shooting in Florida could grow from no coverage to flooding the cable and the lead story plus an analysis on the front page of the mighty New York Times.

If you wonder as I do at what this national obsession and the reaction to George Zimmerman’s acquittal says about us as a people and our national institutions, then the case is worthy of further discussion.

I prepared for the discussion by reading every narrative I could find; particularly helpful was a long, well-documented account in Wikipedia, the Internet encyclopedia.

My first and overriding impression was of the power that race holds on the national conscience and imagination.

Second was the power of the media, especially television, to shape or distort the facts.

Next was the ability of black spokesmen and organizations to draw attention to their agenda.

Finally, I was reminded of the late, great Walter Lippmann’s distinction between news and truth. He said truth cannot be found in any single story, that truth emerges only over time through multiple accounts.

Because it makes so many uncomfortable, they would prefer to ignore the fact that race is a dynamic fact of American life. The Founding Fathers couldn’t handle the issue, and so we had the great national schism of civil war, which was followed in the South by legal discrimination, which eventually resulted in a national crusade to right that wrong.

Our experience has left a hidden undertow of guilt, which is easily awakened in its many forms, from denial to self-loathing.

In the Trayvon Martin case, there was no race issue until the Martin family employed a public relations firm to stir national attention. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson appeared; jack in the box, as they always do, when racial injustice is alleged.

Their lead was followed by the vast armada of national media, which imprinted on the national retina a picture of a sweet-faced child, not the strapping 17-year-old he had become.

The narrative then became an innocent kid on his way home from the store with candy and iced tea who was frightened by a stranger, ignoring a police dispatcher request to cease, following him. He got into a struggle with the man who shot and killed Trayvon.

It was also reported that Zimmerman had called the suspect “a coon,” which voice analysis made out to be “punk.” To its credit, NBC fired a producer  for false reporting and a local TV reporter was also fired.

Also missing from most reports was the fact that Zimmerman answered the advice to stop following Trayvon with “OK.” His last call was to ask the police to call him when they arrived at the scene.

An important element of the tragic saga left out of most reports is that a series of burglaries, thefts, a shooting and several attempted break-ins had created a climate of fear such that a neighborhood watch was formed and Zimmerman was chosen as coordinator.

Zimmerman’s actions ought to be judged in the context of the climate of fear in the neighborhood rather than active racist motives. There is nothing in his background to support a charge of racial prejudice, quite the contrary in fact.

Neither is there evidence that Trayvon was a thug or potential criminal. He was disciplined in high school a few times this year, but for adolescent mischief and being late.

Nor is there evidence that Zimmerman initiated the violent encounter. Eyewitnesses agree that the younger man, Trayvon, was punching Zimmerman, who was on the bottom, which would be an unusual posture from which to start a fight.

So at the end of the investigations and trials was justice done? Did Trayvon deserve to die for initiating a violent encounter through fear or anger? Did Zimmerman deserve 30 years in prison for doing what his neighbors choose him to do?

Perfect justice is hard to discern when two good people are drawn together in the dark under a cloud of fear and suspicion that is not the fault of either. We do not have justice, only tragedy.

H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.
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