(/sites/default/files/uploads/2012/05/iPKYYGvJnFGI.jpg)The shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has seen the media at its sensationalist worst. Press reports have cast Martin’s shooter, George Zimmerman, as a trigger-happy vigilante looking to make trouble where there was none. Attached to this storyline has been the charged subtext that Zimmerman acted out of racial prejudice, confronting Martin simply because the latter was black. Not surprisingly, this media-made version of the shooting has roiled racial passions across the country, turning a tragedy into a referendum on American race relations and setting up one of the most polarizing legal cases in recent history. But there is in fact far more to the story, as a recent Reuters’ investigation illuminates.
Reuters’ report provides a complexity to the story that has been so sorely missing until now. Among other things, it calls into question the notion that white racism was the motivating factor in Martin’s shooting. That narrative was never entirely convincing, and not just because the mixed-race Zimmerman never fit into the media’s neat white-gunman-black-victim allegory. The New York Times’ designation of Zimmerman as a “white Hispanic” was only the most strained attempt to impose a racial framework on the shooting.
Reuters’ report muddles the racial element even further. It points out that Zimmerman was not only half-Hispanic but he also had black roots, tracing back to his Afro-Peruvian great grandfather on his mother’s side. So far from harboring anti-black racial resentments, he appears to have sought out the company of black friends and colleagues. In 2004, for instance, Zimmerman, an insurance agent, teamed up with a black friend to start up an insurance office.
Even more significant, perhaps, _Reuters’_ report makes clear that much of the media has simply failed to present the context in which the shooting took place. Yet that context is critical to understanding, if not justifying, why the shooting happened as it did. One would never suspect if from most media accounts, but Zimmerman had good reason to be suspicious of an unknown young black man walking through his neighborhood – and racism had nothing to do with it.
In the months before their fatal meeting, Zimmerman’s Twin Lakes community was hit by a crime wave that saw young black men commit a number of break-ins and burglaries. As the collapse of Florida’s housing market took its toll on the community, depressing home values and driving up crime, Zimmerman and his neighbors increasingly began to fear for their safety and for the security of their homes. Reuters reports that in the 14 months before Martin was killed, there were at least eight burglaries reported in Twin Lakes. Residents also reported dozens of attempted break-ins and incidents of burglars casing homes. Zimmerman’s city of Sanford was especially hard hit. According to Neighborhood Scout, a website that aggregates crime in American cities, on a 100-point scale where 100 is most safe and zero is least safe, Sanford had a dismal rating of 3.
Zimmerman was well aware of the breadth of the crime problem in Sanford. Indeed, he was one of the victims. The Reuters report notes that in July 2011, a black teenager walked up to Zimmerman’s front porch and stole a bicycle. Zimmerman also saw his neighbors victimized by burglars. On August 3, just a few months after his bicycle had been stolen, two black men broke into the home of Zimmerman’s neighbor Olivie Bertalan and attempted to steal her television. Bertalan, then home alone with her infant son, called the police, who arrived just as the burglars fled. Police reports show that Bertalan subsequently reported a digital camera and a laptop computer as stolen. Among those who had seen the robbery was Zimmerman’s wife, Shellie, who witnessed a black male teenager running through her backyard and reported it to the police.
Such incidents suggest that Zimmerman was justified in worrying about crime in Sanford. If he was suspicious of unfamiliar black men in his neighborhood, he was not the only one. “People were freaked out,” Bertalan told Reuters. “It wasn’t just George calling police … we were calling police at least once a week.” Significantly, those worried about crime committed by young black men included Zimmerman’s black neighbors. One black neighbor interviewed by Reuters said:
“Let’s talk about the elephant in the room. I’m black, OK? There were black boys robbing houses in this neighborhood. That’s why George was suspicious of Trayvon Martin.”
Tellingly, the woman refused to be identified. One can hardly blame her. By investing Martin’s shooting with racial connotations, the popular media and race demagogues like Al Sharpton have already incited a violent backlash, with black militants attacking whites under the banner of “justice for Trayvon.” That she wouldn’t wish to join the list of casualties of this racial revenge is understandable.
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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