Avoid simplifying Trayvon Martin story

Danny Spatchek, Editor-in-Chief

More than five weeks ago, a white-looking neighborhood watch coordinator named George Zimmerman shot dead an unarmed black 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin as he walked down the street.

Zimmerman was not arrested because he claimed he shot in self-defense after Trayvon attacked him. The police report saying this was not released until weeks after the incident, though, and those close to Trayvon claimed he was shot because he was black. They also say Zimmerman, who is actually Hispanic, was not arrested because he is white or looks white. The high tension, highly-politicized national debate in the media over which story is true has been framed as a barometer for racism in America.

Each time a detail about the case emerged, talking heads seemed to proclaim it one that definitely proved their opinion – not just about Zimmerman’s motives, but about racism in America.

For something like a week, I tuned in to this rabble. It was entertaining, but by the end of it, I had not heard very much new evidence at all that proved anything about whether Zimmerman was morally guilty. Just a lot of people trying to say that each emerging detail somehow proved their opinions about the amount of racism in America and no acknowledgement that each detail was just that – a detail, one that just added another layer to a complex story.

On April 1, such an acknowledgement was finally made in the form of a 5,000 word New York Times story called “Race, Tragedy and Outrage Collide After a Shot in Florida.” It is extremely well-written, and reports facts about this case, George Zimmerman’s life, Trayvon Martin’s life, and the night of Trayvon Martin’s death. From it I gleaned many relevant details, and no eagerness to fit those details into a neat narrative that turns them into more than they are. Here are a few:

• Zimmerman had a history of being an overzealous neighborhood watchman, and of not having a problem with black people.

• Those close to Trayvon Martin thought very highly of him. Martin was suspended from his high school three times for minor offenses.

• Many people were moving in and out of the neighborhood this happened in. There were seven burglaries in 2011. Here is a line from the story: “Strangers had started showing up, said Frank Taaffe, 55, a marketing specialist, originally from the Bronx, who works out of his home in the Retreat. He made it clear that he was not talking about just any strangers. “There were Trayvon-like dudes with their pants down,” Mr. Taaffe said.

Again, just take those for what they are, details of a complex story that doesn’t fit a simple narrative.