A leaked police report has fueled the controversy surrounding the shooting of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by neighbourhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in Florida. Protests have taken place across the US calling for justice for Martin after Zimmerman avoided arrest under the state’s self-defence law.
Martin’s girlfriend insisted she was talking to the teenager at the time of the incident and that he was being pursued by Zimmerman, who had called 911 to report a suspicious person in the area. But according to The Orlando Sentinel, the 17-year-old punched the neighbourhood watch volunteer as he attempted to return to his car. “Then Trayvon climbed on top of George Zimmerman and slammed his head into the sidewalk, leaving him bloody and battered, law-enforcement authorities told the Orlando Sentinel,” said the paper.
The leak comes on the heels of what some commentators believe is a concerted attempt to smear Martin’s reputation in the face of public outrage over the killing. Stories have emerged claiming the teenager was suspended from school in Miami after traces of marijuana were found in his schoolbag, and that an anonymous witness saw Martin attack Zimmerman.
Will the leak affect the media portrayal of the case? “To this point the story has been framed by an account from Trayvon’s family, which depicts Trayvon as an innocent youngster pursued by an armed vigilante,” pointed out Peter Grier at The Christian Science Monitor. And Grier suggested the leak is unlikely to change this: “Zimmerman would of course put himself in the best possible light, claiming self-defense, in this view. Witnesses who have corroborated his story remain few, and anonymous. Other witnesses tell a different story.” The Martin family’s lawyer insisted that the key point is that Zimmerman got out of his car to pursue Martin against the advice of a 911 operator, reported Grier.
“They’ve killed my son, and now they’re trying to kill his reputation,” said Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, after news broke of his past suspension from school, reported The Daily Beast.
Why blame the victim? “Like a rape victim, Martin’s past is being excavated for evidence that he might have provoked the harm done to him,” wrote Michelle Goldberg at The Daily Beast, pointing out that past marijuana use, if true, is hardly relevant to the shooting. So why the focus on the teenager’s background? “Some on the right are deeply invested in the idea that anti-black racism is no longer much of a problem in the United States, and certainly not a problem on the scale of false accusations of racism… If you don’t want to believe that racism is a problem in the United States, it helps to believe that Martin had it coming,” Goldberg wrote.
Police panic. “To point out the obvious, the police in Sanford, Fla., where the shooting took place, are the definition of embattled… No wonder someone in the department got fed up and leaked facts that support the cops’ decision-making,” said Emily Bazelon at Slate. Bazelon pointed out that the law enforcement authorities usually control the media narrative in murder cases – but not this time: “Now it’s the cops’ turn to grind their teeth, resort to leaks, and hope they can somehow turn the direction of the tsunami of news coverage.” But the police need to prove in court that their decision to let Zimmerman go free was justified, said Bazelon, rather than resorting to anonymous leaks.
“A group identifying itself as the New Black Panther Party is offering $10,000 to anyone who makes a citizen’s arrest of George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin slaying,” reported The Los Angeles Times. Zimmerman and his family have also received numerous death threats.
So what if Martin did confront Zimmerman? “Sadly, it’s necessary to point out that there isn’t an imaginable scenario in which an armed man can shoot an unarmed child to death and it be okay,” wrote Kai Wright at Colorlines. Maybe Martin did confront Zimmerman; after all, he lived in a society where black males are treated as a threat; but that doesn’t mean he deserved to die. “Trayvon Martin was just 17, and maybe he hadn’t yet put together his own strategy for dealing with life as the object of America’s nightmares. So when he found himself being stalked down a dark street, having just been suspended for a crime that his middle class white peers laugh about, perhaps he improvised.” Racism in the US may not be as “lethal” as it was a generation ago, but the same prejudices persist, said Wright.
The waters have been further muddied by news that the lead homicide investigator in the Trayvon Martin shooting recommended that George Zimmerman be charged with manslaughter. “But Sanford, Fla., Investigator Chris Serino was instructed to not press charges against Zimmerman because the state attorney’s office headed by Norman Wolfinger determined there wasn’t enough evidence to lead to a conviction,” reported ABC News.
Wait for the evidence. “There’s still so much gray area in a case that so many want to view in terms of black and white, literally,” wrote Richard Roeper at The Chicago Sun-Times. “It’s just as premature to jump to the irrefutable conclusion Zimmerman was acting in self-defense as it is say you ‘know’ Zimmerman is a murderer.” Roeper argued that the personal histories of both men are irrelevant; what matters is the chain of events that led to the killing.
More on the killing of Trayvon Martin