George Zimmerman, charged in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, was found not guilty on Sunday in a case that gripped the nation. Zimmerman, who claims to have felt threatened by Martin, shot and killed the teenager after concluding that he was acting suspicious. Martin was unarmed and had actually been returning home after purchasing Skittles and an Arizona brand drink from a local 7-Eleven.
The verdict cleared Zimmerman of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges and immediately sparked protest in cities throughout the United States, including in Chicago’s Daley Plaza and New York’s Union Square. On the other end of the spectrum, supporters of Zimmerman lit fireworks in celebration.
It was a polarizing case from the very start. It was also a media circus, as many people are so keen to mention.
The media frenzy surrounding the case certainly contributed to the polarity. Early coverage from NBC included edited recordings of Zimmerman’s 911 call, making it appear that Zimmerman voluntarily revealed to the 911 dispatchers that Martin was black as if to justify his suspicion.
Attention to Martin’s race only grew as media coverage shifted away from Martin’s actual slaying to the impending trial and the way it would pan out if race-conscious liberals could have their way. Fox News commentators were among the several vocal critics who wished for media attention on Martin’s race to be separated from the trial itself.
So when the verdict came in, it was unsurprising to see so many people applaud the jury for managing to distance itself from the media.
But therein lies the problem. Just because the media painted the case with clear racial overtones should not mean that the trial itself was required to neglect race. In a day and age when New York City police officers can stop and frisk black men with baggy clothes or when Chicago’s Mayor, a former White House Chief of Staff, can shut down dozens of schools catering exclusively to underserved black communities or when police brutality in the Bay Area can go on with little challenge, the circumstances leading up to and beyond Martin’s death are inextricably linked to race, racism, and racial disparities.
Now, however, another divide is forming, and this one is even more difficult to witness than the first. Among those who recognize or at least acknowledge the extent to which race played in the outcome of the trial, quite a collection of people are hardening up to the idea that Martin’s death deserves the media attention it has received. The reactions began mildly. ‘He is just one male, one black kid stuck in this oppressive culture that affects all minorities.’
But then it grew to be bitter, and unnecessarily so. ‘Don’t be fooled by the media attention. Black kids are being shot and killed everywhere. Just look at Chicago’s south side. This coverage is disproportionate. What else did you expect?’
Tactfully speaking, this is a pretty insensitive thing to say. If the point is that media attention is not given to the hundreds and even thousands of minority figures targeted in racially-motivated violence, this excellent and very honest point can be articulated in a better and more meaningful way. But if the point is to belittle those who might found out about the case through the media explosion or who might have become more attuned to the racial implications of the trial through the media’s hard emphasis on racial profiling, then that needs to end.
Yes, it is true that the shooting of Trayvon Martin earned more coverage than most, if not all, recent accounts of violence resulting in the death of an unarmed black youth. But is it wrong? Not necessarily, no.
Will the media circus surrounding the Martin case inherently ignore or even silence the hundreds of other similar cases? Not if we let it.
Did the media attention tokenize Martin and the black experience in America? That is open to interpretation, but the real answer lies in how we channel our frustration and how we learn to better understand systems of oppression.
Did the sweeping focus on Martin’s racial identity steer the case in a way that better suited Zimmerman’s defense? Possibly, but take a look at the streets. Look at the streets and the thousands who have packed them.
Characterizing the media attention as disproportionate may be quite accurate, but we should not shame those who utilized it or those who learned from it. The media attention largely brought the issue to Main Street America. In the first week and a half following Martin’s death, only news outlets in Florida were covering the tragedy. But when the story eventually broke loose, when people began to point out the racial implications of Zimmerman’s actions, when the public began to draw parallels between Martin’s slaying and the document (and undocumented) abuses faced by many American minorities, we put ourselves in a better position to understand the problem and to work toward eliminating it.
In other words, why criticize the media attention when taking advantage of it and using it to illuminate the forgotten cases and the ignored victims could offer so much more in the way of justice and dignity?
From my own personal perspective, I cannot bring myself to criticize the media attention. As a Palestinian who rarely finds news coverage that highlights the injustices faced by Palestinians on a daily basis, I understand just how tempting it is to celebrate the stories that do make it through. In fact, I fall to the temptation all of the time. For example, Palestinians are humiliated, verbally and sometimes even physically abused, and stripped of their rights every single moment they find themselves waiting for hours at an Israeli checkpoint. It is a daily occurrence, yet media coverage is so rare.
Every once in a while, Reuters will put a story out on the newswire about a Palestinian teen arrested in front of his family at a checkpoint while attempting to visit Al-Aqsa Mosque for prayer. Like Martin, this Palestinian teen will be one of so many others who face similar outcomes, and like Martin’s case, media attention surrounding the Palestinian teen’s arrest will far outweigh any attention given to the girl arrested the day before or the old man and his sick son turned back the day before that. But this provides an opportunity for me to share the story, to learn more, to teach others, and to bring attention to connected injustices.
The same should apply to the coverage surrounding the Zimmerman trial. All of its flaws considered, this weighty media coverage should still be utilized to remind “post-racial America” that racism never went away, that it was swept under the rug only to manifest itself into greater and more venomous forms of prejudice that are legitimized through trial and by law.
Although Trayvon’s death is a tragedy, the problem does not stem from the attention given to it by the media. The problem is that it will set another precedent – but only if we let that happen.