There are two extremely powerful narratives surrounding the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, and they’re both contributing to an immense polarization in this country. One side tells the story of a young 17-year-old kid, out for a quick jaunt to pick up some iced tea and skittles, targeted and hunted by a overzealous vigilante because he’s black and wearing a hoodie. This story pulls heavily on a person’s empathy and leverages this country’s history with regards to race relations to make George Zimmerman out to be a racist, blood thirsty coward. And might I add, it’s quite compelling. When you process the trial through this lens, like many others have expressed in the media, you become outraged. How could someone be found innocent after he gunned down a child on the streets of his neighborhood? This was the first narrative presented to the public when news of shooting broke out across the nation, and so many snap judgements were made right then and there with no regard for the other side of the story. Many people did not wait for Zimmerman’s account of that night’s events, they just launched into a ‘guilty until proven innocent’ stance that called for his arrest and trial.
The second story started to trickle into earshot, that Zimmerman was suspicious of the young man because he was wandering the neighborhood “looking about” and as a volunteer neighborhood watch member, had never seen Martin in the neighborhood before. That Zimmerman alerted the police to the suspicious behavior, rather than handle things himself. That idea alone flies in the face of the idea that Zimmerman was a “vigilante” that wanted to attack Martin because he was black. The second story goes on to say that Martin initiated the confrontation because he didn’t like being followed and disrespected and needed to teach Zimmerman a lesson. That Zimmerman acted only out of self defense in firing his weapon after Trayvon began pummeling him. Maybe this story doesn’t have the emotional connection with our empathy that the first story does, but it definitely preys on our assumptions towards race and gun legislation. “How dare we punish someone for protecting themselves against an attacker?” became the rallying cry of the second story camp.
Now that a verdict has been reached in the trial, the voices on both sides of the fences have been amplified. Largely because no one wants to check their bias at the door. The story that resonated with them the most before the trial has bounced around their preconceived notions like a pin ball and the reverberation has exploded into social media filth, racist rantings, and state-wide boycotts. The problem is we don’t know what happened that night, not for sure. To think through both narratives, it’s easy to see that perhaps a man with a gun strapped to his belt had the extra shot of courage to confront a teenager in his neighborhood because he was suspicious. That Zimmerman was simply afraid of a black man in a hoodie walking in his neighborhood and felt he had to do something about it. Racism still happens every day, and we can’t be naive about that fact. But maybe a 17-year-old felt so disrespected about being watched or followed that he just had to confront the guy, and possibly with violence. I’ve been 17, I’ve been around 17-year-olds, I’ve seen kids get worked up to the point of violence for petty things, let alone something as grandiose as the belief that you’re being followed because of the color of your skin. Both stories resonate so well because both scenarios are absolutely plausible and believable. But we can’t truly know what happened.
There’s a conversation to be had here. There are serious issues that this case brings to light; racism and race relations in the US, gun legislation and 2nd Amendment rights, ethics in media reporting and the media’s influence on public opinion, and countless other things. Before we can have those conversations, we need to let go of our bias, we need to let go of the idea that because someone believes differently than us then they must abhor our core values. We need to be fair-minded, critical thinkers to understand the nuances of a case like Trayvon Martin and weigh other opinions and possibilities that we don’t agree with or don’t believe. Moving forward it’s important to remember that our justice system requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt and that in the outcome of this case, the jury of peers did not believe the State provided that proof. We can even rejoice in the fact that the system we’ve built does its best to ensure that people are prosecuted based on available facts and evidence as opposed to the sway of public opinion. But please remember to balance that with the deep sorrow that a young man with an entire lifetime ahead of him was killed and that a family lost their son. So often, the narrative we find ourselves in, is the story of a world that just doesn’t work the way we all know it should.