It has been three weeks since 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was fatally shot by an admittedly zealous neighborhood watch volunteer, while walking with a bag of Skittles in his pocket, from a convenience store to his father’s home in a gated community, in Sanford, Fla.
This much is fact: Martin was unarmed. The man who shot him, George Zimmerman, 28, called police to report a suspicious black male and was told by a dispatcher to stand down and let police officers confront Martin, if a confrontation was warranted. And, in spite of Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee’s claims to the contrary, recently released 911 tapes feature Zimmerman making an issue, however minor, of Martin’s skin color.
Zimmerman, who has been referred to repeatedly in news reports as “white,” is of Hispanic heritage, according to a statement released by his father. Martin, a student at North Miami’s Krop Senior High School, did not have a criminal record or school disciplinary record for violent behavior. Zimmerman was arrested and charged several years ago with battery on a law enforcement officer for interfering with another police officer’s attempt to arrest Zimmerman’s friend. He ultimately pleaded guilty to misdemeanor simple battery, a move that allowed him to remain eligible for a concealed weapons permit in Florida.
WATCH A ‘TODAY SHOW’ INTERVIEW WITH TRAYVON MARTIN’S PARENTS:
And while the palpable tension amongst residents who argue that Zimmerman murdered Martin, the police who’ve taken on the de facto role of Zimmerman’s defense team, and “citizen observers” who’ve begun to weigh in on this incident online, is understandable, three key principles have been muddled in the fight.
First, Martin didn’t “ask for it.” A candy run to 7-Eleven does not constitute a death wish. Even though the recently released 911 tapes don’t clarify what happened in the moments before the shooting after the dispatcher told Zimmerman to stand down, an angry verbal scolding from Martin to the stranger who has admitted shadowing him in his car wouldn’t have translated into, “shoot me!”
Online reader comments on Central and South Florida news websites suggest otherwise, though, with hundreds of anonymous comments demanding a current photo of Martin, rather than the years-old school pictures that have been released to the media by Martin’s family — the implication being that, if it turns out Martin was physically larger Zimmerman, it somehow made sense for Zimmerman to disregard the dispatcher’s admonition, and leave his vehicle, gun in hand, to confront Martin.
Second, Chief Lee has lamented to the media that since his tenure began, his desire has been to foster positive relations with Sanford’s black community, given his department’s checkered history where race relations are concerned.
And in 2005, two armed security guards — both considered extended members of the Sanford Police Department family — killed a black man they say was trying to run them over.
If better relations are really what Lee wants, in this case the first thing he can do is avoid the appearance of impropriety by ceasing to refer to Zimmerman in terms and phrases typically reserved for defense attorneys. Rather than defend Zimmerman as being “clean” and a good guy, and denying things about Zimmerman that a listen to those tapes and a basic circuit-court records check can prove, Lee should step back and tell all sides dispassionately, that the police department is only interested in finding the truth of the matter, and his department will withhold opinions on this matter till after the Seminole-Brevard State Attorney’s Office decides whether or not Zimmerman should be charged with a crime.
To that point, Lee can order a separate investigation into his officers, whom residents say tried to intimidate them into claiming it was Zimmerman and not Martin they heard crying for help during the fatal confrontation.
Finally, all sides in this case insist to varying degrees that race did or did not play a role in Zimmerman shooting Martin. The uncomfortable truth is they may all be right.
There’s enough good science out there that suggests that even when we don’t think we’re weighing superficial qualities like skin color, often we are.
And political correctness be damned, it’s that sort of revelation that gives credence to the beliefs of some black men that even when they are minding their P’s and Q’s they are potential victims of law enforcement gone awry.
In a 2009 New York Times column, David Brooks cited a gathering of neuroscientists and academics where, among other things, scholars and students discussed just how ingrained a behavior it is to categorize people by race and then react to those people based on superficial judgments like skin color.
“Many of the studies presented here concerned the way we divide people by in-group and out-group categories in as little as 170 milliseconds,” Brooks wrote.
That’s pretty fast, certainly less time than it takes to pull a trigger, or to declare a victim or suspect innocent or guilty.
But if the importance of those studies isn’t clear to you, consider Brooks’ general take away from the neuroscience gathering: ”…But it also suggests that even though most of our reactions are fast and automatic, we still have free will and control.”