With George Zimmerman out on bail last week after his latest run-in with police, it seems an opportune time to discuss the second killing of Trayvon Martin.
The first, of course, has been discussed ad infinitum since Zimmerman shot the unarmed 17-year-old to death last year. But then Trayvon was killed again. The conservative noise machine engaged in a ritual execution of his character and worth, setting out with breathtaking indifference to facts and callous disregard for simple decency to murder the memory of a dead child.
Geraldo Rivera blamed him for his own death because he wore a hooded sweatshirt – in the rain, yet. Glenn Beck’s website suggested he might have been an arsonist, kidnapper or killer. Rush Limbaugh made jokes about “Trayvon Martin Luther King.”
Some conservative readers even chastised me for referring to him as a “child” or a “boy” although at 17, he was legally both. Makes him seem too sympathetic, they said. One man assured me, absent any evidence or, apparently, any need of it, that contrary to reports, Trayvon was not walking to where he was staying that day but was in fact “casing” the neighborhood.
One woman forwarded a chain email depicting a tough-looking, light-skinned African-American man with tattoos on his face. It was headlined: “The Real Trayvon Martin,” which it wasn’t. It was actually a then-32-year-old rapper who calls himself The Game. But the message was clear: Trayvon was a scary black man who deserved what he got.
I sent that woman an image of Trayvon from the Zimmerman trial. It shows him lying open-eyed and dead on the grass. “This is the real Trayvon,” I wrote.
It was a waste of time. “They’re both pictures of Trayvon,” she insisted. So deeply, bizarrely invested was she in the idea of Trayvon as thug that she could not distinguish between a fair-skinned man with tattoos, and a brown boy with no visible markings. Literally, they all look alike to her.
And once again, a conservative movement which argues with airy assurance that American racism died long ago, disproves its thesis with its actions.
Here, someone wants it pointed out that Trayvon Martin was not an angel. Well, he wasn’t. He took pictures flipping the bird. He used marijuana. He was suspended from school at the time of his shooting. Obviously, he needed guidance. The same is true of many boys. Indeed, it is rumored that there are even white children who use marijuana.
But here’s the thing: Why did some of us need Trayvon to be an angel in the first place? Why did they feel such a pressing urgency to magnify – and manufacture – his failings? Why was it so important to them to make him unworthy of sympathy?
It is a question that assumes new potency the more we see of George Zimmerman. On the day he shot Trayvon, this hero of the conservative noise machine, this righteous white Hispanic man who was, they say, just standing his ground, already had a record that included an accusation he attacked an undercover police officer. That same year – 2005 – a woman sought a restraining order against him, alleging domestic violence.
In September, Zimmerman had a fresh run-in with police over a domestic violence accusation by his estranged wife. In this latest episode, a girlfriend said he pulled a gun on her. In court, she said that once, he even tried to choke her.
Granted, none of these charges has been adjudicated, but there is certainly a pattern here. It ought to give decent people pause and the conservative noise machine shame – assuming it is capable of that emotion. That pattern paints in neon the machine’s willful blindness, the reflexive alacrity with which it assigns the thug label to the black kid – and innocence to the white man.
Well, look again. George Zimmerman seems awfully darn thuggish to me.
• Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla., 33132. Readers may contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.