The story of the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin has evolved into a nation-wide discussion. Most readers are probably familiar with the series of events: on February 26 Trayvon Martin is found dead in Stanford, Florida, killed by a 28 year old neighborhood watch captain named George Zimmerman. The police believed Zimmerman’s story, that he had shot the teenager in self defense, without much investigation. Over the following days the parents of Trayvon call for Zimmerman’s arrest but the police refuse. The situation escalates and heavy criticism is laid on Sanford Police Chief Billy Lee for mishandling the case, and he is eventually forced to temporally step down. Meanwhile Zimmerman still hasn’t been charged (partly due to Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law), and the campaign for his arrest has grown across the country. Over 900,000 people have signed an online petition for his arrest and events called “Million Hoodie Marches” made thousands take to the streets.
Initially the media ignored Trayvon’s murder, but as soon as outrage started to build, coverage started full force and it made the issue even stickier. Since Zimmerman was injured in the conflict, cable news shows debated ad infinitum whether he acted in self defense or not. Was he racist, or did he want to play the hero? Geraldo Rivera even went as far as to blame the teenager’s hoodie for putting him in harm’s way (inadvertently causing a spike in the hoodie’s popularity). But that’s not all. Zimmerman has received death threats and has gone in to hiding. As a response the New Black Panthers have put out a $10,000 bounty for Zimmerman’s “capture.” Most recently film director Spike Lee tweeted, incorrectly, Zimmerman’s address, making a neighborhood woman a target for those angry at the police’s inaction.
But for the most part this discussion was a social issue, and it only crossed over into the political world when President Obama was questioned about it at an unrelated event. When listening to Obama’s response it’s clear that he’s on tenterhooks, trying to balance an emotional response without diffintively weighing into the issue. But his mere mentioning of Trayvon’s’s death opened a can of political worms that are doomed to wriggle across the political sphere until some sense of closure is obtained.
Read more after the jump.
Instead of just letting Obama’s words be what they were, a gesture of sympathy to grieving parents, some Republicans are turning it into a point of contention. Republican presidential nominees Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum have both made comments that make this tragedy about race. Gingrich’s comments are the most venomous:
“What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful. It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background… Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him. That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban or if he had been white or if he had been Asian American of if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.” – Gingrich on Hannity Radio
Of course Obama was never trying to turn it into a racial issue. Ever since the Henry Louis Gates controversy and Obama’s famous “beer summit,” the president has been cautious to jump into racially charged topics. His statement that if he “had a son he would look like Trayvon” is simply showing empathy, and is no comment on the nation’s racial politics. Gingrich and Santorum are just clutching at straws, but in effect they are dragging the muck of politics into this tragedy. Their criticism has more to do with their party lines than anything else and it accomplishes nothing.
The case of Trayvon’s death has grown to the size where it can’t help become politically charged, but when partisan politics gets involved, something gets lost along the way. It becomes sensationalized and it stops being about one family’s tragedy. Not all political figures have lost all sense of context, even Bill O’Reilly gave an even handed report of the controversy. Still, it just goes to show how one event can cause an outburst of racially charged sentiments across the country. Recently there was a flood of angry, racist tweets over the new wildly popular “The Hunger Games” movie, because one of the characters from the book was portrayed by a black actress. Whatever the spark is, be it the casting of a fictional character or the death of a very real child, we as a nation tend to let our emotions about racial issues get in the way of being rational and tolerant.
But none of this, not the politicizing by Republican candidates or the sensationalizing by those outraged, will result in any fulfillment of justice or peace of mind for Trayvon Martin’s family. When stories become so big so quick it’s inevitable that some people will spin it for their own personal gain, or become so completely incensed that they miss the point entirely. Beyond racial politics and hoodies, this issue is about one family’s tragedy and it should be respected as such, without third parties railroading for their own purposes.