What is true of the stopped clock is also true of the perpetually aggrieved, shamelessly exploitative publicity hound: Through sheer chance, he occasionally will be right.
The Trayvon Martin case appears to be one of those instances for Al Sharpton. The longtime provocateur and MSNBC host has a leading role in the protests over the lethal shooting of the 17-year-old Martin at the hands of a zealous neighborhood-watch volunteer in the Florida community of Sanford.
During halftime of the NBA All-Star Game, Martin left the home of his father’s girlfriend to walk to the local 7-Eleven for Skittles and iced tea. It was about 7 p.m., and he caught the attention of 28-year-old George Zimmerman, who had taken it upon himself to patrol the neighborhood armed with a gun. He considered Martin suspicious and called 9-1-1, which dispatched police. Ignoring the 9-1-1 operator’s urging not to pursue Martin, Zimmerman followed the young man, got into an altercation with him, and shot him dead.
Zimmerman claims Martin attacked him from behind and he fired in self-defense. But while he was on the line with 9-1-1, Zimmerman was the one chasing Martin. At the same time, Martin talked on his cell phone to his girlfriend, complaining of a man watching him. She told him to run away, which he apparently did during the interval Zimmerman was on with 9-1-1. The girlfriend claims she heard Martin say, “What are you following me for?” before the call went dead.
The tape of another 9-1-1 call from a neighbor has yells of “Help” in the background before the gunshot. We may never know what exactly happened in the altercation. We do know this: Through stupendous errors in judgment, Zimmerman brought about an utterly unnecessary confrontation and then — in the most favorable interpretation of the facts for him — shot Martin when he began to lose a fistfight to him.
Florida has a “stand your ground” law that stipulates that someone doesn’t have to retreat and may use deadly force if facing a threat of death or bodily harm. It is one of the reasons that the police didn’t press charges against Zimmerman. But the law is not meant to be a warrant for aggressive vigilantism. It was Martin, chased by a stranger who wasn’t an officer of the law, who had more reason to feel threatened and “stand his ground” than Zimmerman.
So, Sharpton and his usual complement of allies are right about this: The Sanford police appear to have made the wrong call in letting Zimmerman off. Of course, the usual suspects can’t leave it at that. In their telling, the case is a wholesale indictment of American society.
One MSNBC anchor compared the case to the notorious lynching of Emmett Till in 1950s Mississippi. On a visit from Chicago, the 14-year-old Till talked to a white woman and was subsequently murdered, mutilated, and thrown in a river. His murderers got off. The Till case exposed a system built on injustice and hatred. The Orlando suburbs in the 2010s aren’t remotely comparable, and George Zimmerman manifestly did not set out that night to kill Trayvon Martin, or he wouldn’t have bothered to call the police.
News accounts tend to leave out that Zimmerman is a mixed-race Hispanic. That doesn’t mean he can’t be a racist. (Although it’s murky, it sounds as if he mutters a racial epithet on the 9-1-1 call.) But a Hispanic-on-black killing lacks the narrative clarity of a white vigilante chasing down Trayvon Martin in the tradition of the worst practices of the Jim Crow South.
The attention devoted to the case has forced the chief of police of Sanford to step aside temporarily, and it’s hard to see the grand jury that is now looking into the shooting not handing down charges against Zimmerman. If so, he shouldn’t be effectively tried during street protests or on cable TV. There’s already been enough vigilantism in Sanford, Fla.