Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Smoke, mirrors, and Trayvon Martin

I thought we had all agreed that the Trayvon Martin case was disturbing, tragic, and horrifying. But over the last couple days a counter-narrative has emerged that calls my previous assumption into question (not to mention the simple human decency of an entire subset of the American population).

Before I get into specifics, it might be helpful to go over the basic, established facts of the Martin case. Here is what we know to a relative certainty: a young black kid was walking through a subdivision. He was carrying nothing remotely resembling a dangerous weapon. A neighbor saw him, deemed him suspicious (we know this because he told the 911 dispatcher), and pursued him with a loaded gun. The dispatcher told him to stop but he persisted.

Then some other stuff happened, the details of which are extremely unclear.

After that, the kid was dead of a gunshot wound. The guy who by all accounts shot the kid is taken to the police station and released. He remains out of custody.

Gap aside, I thought this was a pretty damning sequence for the shooter, George Zimmerman. But very recently, I've seen multiple people--and I don't just mean people on the crazy fringes of the internet, but people I go to school with--attempt an evil slight of hand with the facts. They point to the gap--the handful of minutes where reports differ--and suggest that until we fill it in with hard facts, we can't really judge Zimmerman for shooting Martin. After all, who knows what really transpired? Maybe the police had a valid reason for letting the guy go.

I'm only posting this because, to my chagrin, I've already seen this trick stump too many well-meaning people. But isn't the answer obvious? Who cares what happened in those few minutes? Unless someone wants to argue that Martin took Zimmerman's gun and shot himself, there simply isn't a way to fill in that gap that leaves Zimmerman looking less than a racist, authoritarian murderer. He went out the door to pursue an unarmed child, and ended up shooting the child. Do we really need to know what the kid said in order to be sure that Zimmerman's at fault? And if Martin fought back--well, who could blame him? He was being pursued by a strange, armed man! Whatever his worst fears were, Zimmerman was them and more. Do we care why Zimmerman drew his gun and fired? Why did he ever leave his house in the first place? The unarmed Martin never had any intention of chasing Zimmerman, while the armed Zimmerman had every intention of chasing Martin.

I know the answers to these questions might have legal consequences, but they don't have moral consequences. They don't change any of the most appalling features of the case, nor do they dissolve the racism at its core. We'll never actually know what happened between Martin and Zimmerman, but we don't need to know, either. Killing an unarmed kid is plenty abhorrent, with context or without it.