Still, it is clear that to understand what happened in Sanford, crime and not race is the relevant factor. Worried by the surge in crime, Zimmerman and a group of neighbors formed a neighborhood watch. While that fact has been cited to suggest that Zimmerman was “paranoid,” the fact is that he had already been forced to watch as a man he believed to be a burglar got away scot free. On February 2, 2012, according to Reuters, Zimmerman called the Sanford police after spotting a young black man peering into the windows of his neighbor’s empty home. Zimmerman said that he did not want to approach the man, and the police dispatcher told Zimmerman that a police car was on its way. When the police arrived, however, the young man had already fled the scene.
In light of this history, it is not entirely surprising that when Zimmerman noticed another young black man in his neighborhood on February 26, he became suspicious. He placed another call to the police, but this time, in circumstances that remain unclear, an alteration took place between him and the young man. That young man, of course, was Trayvon Martin.
It goes without saying that Sanford’s history of crime and Zimmerman’s previous experiences with black criminals in his neighborhood do not by themselves justify his shooting of Trayvon Martin, which is now the subject of a murder trial. But viewed in context these facts do suggest that the popular perception of the shooting, in which a self-styled community enforcer provoked a deadly confrontation with a young man just because he happened to be black, is woefully incomplete.
Only the legal system can exonerate George Zimmerman. In the meantime, Reuters’ report goes a small way to providing some perspective on the case. In the process, it restores some hope that a tragedy won’t be compounded by a false narrative that sows racial strife and public division even as it has little do with reality.
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