With the firestorm over, but outrage over the Trayvon Martin shooting continuing to build, theGrio spoke with Joe Oliver, a friend and defender of George Zimmerman, who also happens to be black, a day after the 1-month anniversary of the fatal shooting.
“Now I get ‘the look.’”
Joe Oliver used to be known in the Orlando area as a news professional, working for more than 20 years as a reporter and anchor for a local NBC station and for CNN. Now, the 53-year-old is known as the black man who is supporting George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
Oliver, who has known Zimmerman since the 28-year-old began dating the woman he’s now married to (“his mother in law is a close friend of my wife’s,” Oliver told theGrio), reached out to Zimmerman’s lawyer, Craig Sonner, after he was unable to reach his friend as the uproar over the shooting grew. He asked if it was okay for him to speak on Zimmerman’s behalf.
JOE OLIVER: ZIMMERMAN FRIEND RECOUNTS BLOWBACK FROM FELLOW BLACKS:
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“My conversations with George were to confirm what I had been told via his relatives, and also to confirm that I was doing the right thing by standing up for him,” Oliver told theGrio. He said Zimmerman, who is in hiding, is being treated for “post-traumatic stress [syndrome], insomnia and depression.”
By coming forward, Oliver knowingly exposed himself to the same firestorm that engulfed his friend. “But I was quite adamant that I could not live with myself if I did not do what I knew was the right thing to do,” Oliver said.
“And that, unfortunately, has put me in this position. I do come from an extremely unique perspective, not just being George’s friend but being an African-American. Because I understand the outrage. If I didn’t know George, I too would be outraged. Because of the history of the Sanford police department I would question the information that was being leaked; the validity of the information regardless of who they put in front of the camera. I get all that. But I am in a unique position, in that I know George. And I know that there’s no way he would have put himself in a position where he’s in hiding, if he didn’t believe he had to save his life.”
Oliver reiterated — and said he believes — Zimmerman’s story about being attacked by Trayvon Martin on the night of February 26th, and said Zimmerman told him that he fired his gun after a “life and death struggle” with the teen.
He has not been to the rallies. He has not yet spoken with black friends about the incident. But he did talk with Rev. Jesse Jackson after a chance meeting in hotel lobby in nearby Lake Mary, where he had gone to do an interview Monday.
“I told this to Rev. Jackson yesterday…in the stereotypical big picture, race is the issue. But when it comes down to what happened with Trayvon and George, race had nothing to do with it.”
Oliver said he and Jackson talked briefly about the contagion of fear that has made life challenging for young black men, and that, he believes, is the real story in the Trayvon Martin saga.
This “has been building up for decades,” Oliver said, “George and Trayvon, they’re just the match.”
“The sad part is that all of this has just perpetuated the stereotype that has raised the voices of millions because of what has happened, and how young black men are portrayed,” Oliver continued. “The problem is, everyone is at fault: the media. Young black men, whites…. Everyone’s responsible. And we’re at a point where no one is willing to step back and take a look, and take responsibility for their own actions. I mean we’re at a point where millions of people are calling for justice and yet they’re willing to take justice away from one man.”
And how does he feel about being on what many in the African-American community would consider the wrong side of the Trayvon Martin case?
“Let’s just say now I get ‘the look,’ when I’m recognized [by black people],” Oliver said. “There have been veiled threats; not directly towards me, but there have been individuals that have found out where I work, and they have made contact with the executives of my company, trying to get me fired because of what I’m doing.”
“I wasn’t there. I didn’t shoot Trayvon. But I also know that if George hadn’t shot Trayvon, Trayvon would have shot George. I’m saying it was a life and death struggle; after that initial blow, it turned into life and death struggle and at some point a decision had to be made about saving a life. And that’s what he did.”
Oliver said he has not talked with black friends about the incident. But he said his wife and everyone else who knows George is scared. He said that even if there are others who know Zimmerman and believe his story, they’re afraid to come forward.
“There’s a bunch of people out there who are acting in just the same way they claim George acted that night. Where’s the justice in that?”
And Oliver, who said that he personally has faced racial discrimination and profiling, even as a prominent news anchor in Central Florida, said he feels it’s important to have the conversation about race that the Trayvon Martin case has started. “It’s more than just George. Our country’s on the edge. Our country’s on the edge because of the history of young black men in this country,” Oliver said, adding that much of the fault lies in the way the media portrays young black men.
“George isn’t the only Floridian walking around with a gun. There are several others walking around with a gun. In fact I would guarantee that every person in Florida who made the effort to get a concealed weapons permit does not leave home without their weapon,” Oliver said.
“They got the concealed weapons permit because they’re afraid, and they want to be able to confront that fear if it becomes a reality. And that’s really at the root of all of this. Until we address the fear that we have, for our own selves and for each other, we’re never going to further the conversation. There’s never gonna be justice. Because there’s always going to be somebody out there who says I did this because I’m afraid …or I’m going to do this because I’m afraid.”
“I mean, we have this issue about those profiling of young black men because people are afraid of them,” Oliver said, becoming emotional, “That doesn’t mean every young black male is someone you should be afraid of. But the portrayal of young black men, in the media, in the stories, I mean, we will hear every story that involves a young black male and some sort of felony crime….We will not hear every story of a young black male graduating from high school, graduating from college, putting himself through college, going on and being a successful individual…”
Oliver’s voice breaks on the phone, ”…and raising a family, so he can have another young black male to go out there and carry on his own legacy, and try to do something, where we can get rid of this fear, and he doesn’t have to be told as he’s growing up: ‘okay look son, this is what you’re going to have to deal with as a black man in this country.’”
“Okay? So that’s where I’m at. I’m on both sides. I’m on the side of George because George did what he had to do. And I truly believe that if we weren’t talking about George shooting Trayvon, we’d be talking about another young black man who shot someone else.”
And if George’s story turns out not to be true?
“I’m at the front of the million hoodie march.”
Follow Joy Reid on Twitter at @thereidreport