I find it odd — but not unexpected — that so many people were “choosing sides” last week in the Trayvon Martin-George Zimmerman issue based on their existing political/social narratives. The facts in the case seem to be constantly changing, so how can anyone have so much confidence about what happened to have a firm opinion about it?
It seems as though most black political leaders are absolutely sure that Martin was murdered by Zimmerman simply for being black in a gated community. They’re convinced that Zimmerman simply followed Martin and murdered him. They want him arrested and charged with murder.
Another group of people — mostly conservatives — are convinced that Zimmerman is innocent. Some of them have set up a defense fund for him and they’ve been gleeful at times to find negative things to report about Martin. To them, it’s all about gun rights, so any assertion that Zimmerman did something wrong is ignored in the name of Second Amendment rights.
I don’t know what happened. I mentioned early last week that I didn’t really have anything to say about the case yet because I didn’t know what the facts were. I still feel that way. As far as I’m concerned, it’s possible that an angry Zimmerman shot Martin in cold blood simply because he didn’t like him in his neighborhood. It’s also possible that Martin was angry at being followed and attacked Zimmerman, leading to Zimmerman shooting to defend himself. I’m sure there are other possible narratives that I haven’t even thought of. That’s the thing. I don’t know the facts. You don’t, either.
Sadly, what you do know has been shaped by watching television news, in most cases. And what you see there is only part of the story — sometimes because of bias, sometimes because of constraints of the medium and sometimes because of simple incompetence. It’s frequently hard to sort out which is which.
Here’s an example. The picture that’s mostly been used of Zimmerman shows a brooding guy in an old mug shot. He doesn’t look like someone I’d want to encounter on a dark street. On the other hand, the picture we’ve mostly seen of Martin has been of a baby-faced boy. His family supplied that photo. But another side of Martin has emerged. The picture above is one that Martin used on a Twitter account. It shows a tattooed, thuggish-looking kid shooting a bird at the camera. It’s a very different image. And what of Zimmerman? The booking picture was taken in 2005. A more recent photo shows a pleasant-looking guy who you wouldn’t mind having as a neighbor. (They’re the photos at the top of this column.) Some news people are starting to ask whether the pictures manipulated the story. I don’t think there’s any question about that.
The racial aspects might have been blown out of proportion, too. Take this example from NBC News, which NBC now says that it’s investigating. In the audio clip of Zimmerman’s 911 call, this is what the audio says:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black.
It appears that Zimmerman is assuming Martin is “up to no good” because he’s black. But now take a look at the unedited version. He only brings up race after the 911 dispatcher asked for a racial description. NBC edited that part out. Here’s the actual exchange:
Zimmerman: This guy looks like he’s up to no good. Or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.
Dispatcher: OK, and this guy — is he black, white or Hispanic?
Zimmerman: He looks black.
The context of Zimmerman’s racial response changes everything. It was a response to a question — simply giving information that was requested. The way NBC edited it makes it appear that Zimmerman was profiling and assuming that a black man must be up to no good. That’s the first thing I thought when I read the edited version last week. The reality is more neutral. It doesn’t tell us a lot.
The bottom line is that we don’t have enough facts to say what happened. There are conflicting stories. A witness claims that Martin jumped on Zimmerman, but Martin’s supporters point to video at one point that seems to show Zimmerman without the injuries he supposedly received in the altercation. Each side in the dispute is eager to believe the flimsy public evidence supporting the theory it believes. Based on everything I can see, there’s no way to come to a conclusion based on what we know.
Maybe the police did a shoddy investigation. Maybe Zimmerman should have been charged with something. I honestly don’t know. You don’t, either, because what you know has been picked up from the bits and pieces that media give us, edited and selected. We don’t know yet what bias has gotten in the way. We don’t know what incompetence got in the way.
The only thing we can say is that it’s a tragedy that a teen-ager died that night. Someone — and maybe both people involved — made serious mistakes that led to the death. The bigger tragedy, though, is that a lot of people are using the tragic death to push political agendas. They’re interested in political and social agendas, not the facts. Let’s wait for all the facts before we even attempt to have opinions about who was right and who was wrong.