It’s plausible, if perhaps unlikely, that the shooting itself had nothing to do with race, that George Zimmerman’s suspicions about Trayvon Martin – suspicions that set off a chain reaction culminating in the 29-year-old police academy reject and zealous neighborhood watchman shooting the unarmed 17-year-old last February in Sanford – would have been the same had Trayvon been white. Conversely, race could well have played a role even if, as his defenders insist, the half-Hispanic Zimmerman has black friends. Racial animus is seldom (pardon the expression) that black and white.
It’s plausible, too, that had Trayvon been white and Zimmerman black, Sanford’s Keystone Kops wouldn’t have been so credulous about Zimmerman’s version of events, and it wouldn’t have taken 45 days of national outcry to get prosecutors to act.
Every case has peculiarities that don’t lend themselves to sweeping generalizations, and this one is no different. I don’t presume to know whether Zimmerman is guilty, in a legal sense, of murdering Trayvon Martin. He’ll get his day in court, as he should, and the prosecution has a difficult case to prove.
There are, after all, only two people who know what happened that night, and one of them is dead.
But as jury selection begins this week, what’s become abundantly clear is how far Zimmerman’s defense team will go to convince you that Trayvon’s cold, dead body isn’t worth very much, that perhaps Zimmerman did the world a favor ridding it of not a teenage boy given to drug dabbling and hormonal bravado, but just another young black thug who wouldn’t have amounted to anything anyway.
On May 23, Zimmerman’s lawyers released a trove of documents to the media through their website, gzlegalcase.com. In these documents were photos and text messages from Trayvon’s phone. We saw images of Trayvon wearing gold teeth, Trayvon posing with his middle finger in the air, Trayvon smoking pot. We saw text messages in which Trayvon and his buddies tried to cop drugs and talked about buying a gun. We learned that he didn’t use the King’s English while texting, that he’d been suspended from school, that he participated in and perhaps refereed fights, that his mom wanted him to go live with his dad in Sanford so he would stay out of trouble in Miami.
A few days later, on May 28, Zimmerman’s attorney, Mark O’Mara, took his smear campaign even further. In court, he alleged that Trayvon recorded a video of two of his buddies assaulting a homeless man; this wasn’t true. Trayvon had come across a fight in progress between two homeless men and recorded it.
All of this, they knew, was inadmissible. And indeed, the court has ruled that the defense can’t bring this stuff up in opening arguments. But that wasn’t the point. The point was to publicly drag Trayvon’s corpse through the sewer, to paint him as not the victim of an excitable wannabe cop but a gangster in training, a punk prone to violence and fighting whose pot use made him paranoid and aggressive. (Marijuana, as medical research and common sense tell us, actually reduces aggression.)
Drugs. Fights. Guns. Gold teeth. These are signifiers that appeal to the basest of White America’s prejudices, trigger points for stereotypes and anxieties. Maybe the shooting wasn’t rooted in racism. This defense strategy, whether Zimmerman’s team is conscious of it or not, most certainly is.
Trayvon probably wasn’t an angel. Neither was I at his age. Perhaps, had he lived, Trayvon would have run afoul of the law. Then again, maybe he would have gotten his shit together, gone to college, gotten a job, had a family. Because of George Zimmerman, he’ll never get that chance. And if Zimmerman’s defense team gets its way, Trayvon will be frozen in time as just another young black thug who probably had it coming.
Follow Jeffrey C. Billman on Twitter: @jeffreybillman