I have a new email correspondent—let’s call him “Joe,” because he doesn’t want to be named—who has suggested to me that the media storm about Trayvon is more than a little out of control. Joe writes: why isn’t there coverage to how many more young black men die at the hands of other black men? Why isn’t there a national uproar when black men murder white men? (He’s sent me clippings of a trial in one such Florida murder.) I’ve gotten hate mail, too, but from the exchanges we’ve had, my sense is that Joe’s different; he’s seriously trying to have a conversation.
So let me say this: what’s deeply upsetting to me is that, more than a month after a teenage boy was killed while walking home with Skittles, George Zimmerman has not even been arrested.
Listen, I don’t know what happened in Sanford, Florida, on the night of February 26. I know I’m responding to Charles M. Blow’s columns, and to the stories that I know of black men being treated as dangerous simply because they’re black, and to my own worries about would happen to my stepson. I’ve been grateful, this weekend to read serious background reporting from the New York Times, and to read and hear measured media analysis that aims to calm down the commentary (including my own distressed emotions). Alicia Shepard, formerly NPR’s Ombudsman, wrote about the media’s selective use of the now-iconic pictures at Poynter; Howard Kurtz, Callie Crosley, and Frank Sesno talk here about the media prosecution (MSNBC) versus defense (Fox News) of George Zimmerman.
I know I shouldn’t be poring over articles like the Orlando Sentinel’s report that a forensic examiner who analyzed the infamous 911 calls declares “with reasonable scientific certainty that it's not Zimmerman" who’s screaming for help. I know I should be stepping away from the video of George Zimmerman coming in for questioning, in which, as the AP put it, Zimmerman “shows no obvious signs of injury from a fight. Zimmerman told police that Trayvon Martin punched him and slammed his head against a sidewalk.” I have to turn away from analyses like that of Think Progress’s round-up of what it calls the smear campaign against the dead teenager, noting that, “Unlike Zimmerman, Trayvon has no documented history of violence.”
But why hasn’t Zimmerman even been arrested?
A teenager is dead. The man who says he shot and killed an unarmed boy is walking around free. The circumstances are, to say the least, contested. Does anyone think that Zimmerman would be walking around free if the colors were reversed?
Maybe it was self-defense, at least under the definition of the "stand your ground" law. So let a real judge and jury consider the evidence, according to all our accumulated rules, regulations, and laws. Let them hear the prosecution’s evidence and expert analyses and the defense’s testimony and rebuttals.
I suspect nothing will happen until the Justice Department finishes its investigation. That’s distressing—in part because I don’t think this shooting should be charged as a hate crime, given what I know, which (see above) is limited. But then, hate crimes laws make me queasy. Bill Keller at the New York Times puts it well:
… hate crime legislation resembles something from an Orwell dystopia. Horrific crimes deserve stern justice, but don’t we want to be careful about criminalizing a defect of character? Because our founders believed that democracy requires great latitude for dissent, America, virtually alone in the developed world, protects the right to speak or publish the most odious points of view. And yet the government is authorized to punish you for thinking those vile things, if you think them in the course of committing a crime.
If we must have hate crimes laws, let’s use them only for the most egregiously bias-filled crimes, the ones unmistakably intended to send a message to an entire community: burning a black church because Obama was elected, vandalizing a mosque with references to 9/11, bombing a gay bar.
Even if George Zimmerman shot his gun in part because his brain (like most Americans’) was primed to react faster to black skin than to white, don’t charge him with hate. If it’s murder, that’s hateful enough.