The "complicated portrait??? of Trayvon Martin


The Miami Herald offers a more “complicated portrait” of Trayvon Martin than the one we’ve been getting:

The Miami Gardens teen who has become a national symbol of racial injustice was suspended three times, and had a spotty school record that his family’s attorneys say is irrelevant to the facts that led up to his being gunned down on Feb. 26.

In October, a school police investigator said he saw Trayvon on the school surveillance camera in an unauthorized area “hiding and being suspicious.” Then he said he saw Trayvon mark up a door with “W.T.F” — an acronym for “what the f—.” The officer said he found Trayvon the next day and went through his book bag in search of the graffiti marker.

Instead the officer reported he found women’s jewelry and a screwdriver that he described as a “burglary tool,” according to a Miami-Dade Schools Police report obtained by The Miami Herald. Word of the incident came as the family’s lawyer acknowledged that the boy was suspended in February for getting caught with an empty bag with traces of marijuana, which he called “irrelevant” and an attempt to demonize a victim.

Trayvon’s backpack contained 12 pieces of jewelry, in addition to a watch and a large flathead screwdriver, according to the report, which described silver wedding bands and earrings with diamonds.

(Emphases mine.)  Martin had also been suspended for “tardiness and truancy,” as well as painting graffiti on a school locker.  Questioned about the jewelry, Martin responded with “a friend gave it to me,” words familiar to anyone who has enjoyed sustained interactions with a teenager. 

That’s the way National Public Radio spun these new revelations, in an article titled “Trayvon Martin’s Life Looking Much Like Many Teens”:

While this morning’s Miami Herald concludes that emerging details about Trayvon Martin’s life paint “a complicated portrait” of a boy with “a spotty school record,” anyone who has guided their child through the teenage years may be more likely to see a fairly typical kid who had some brushes with authority and lots of dreams about the future.

According to the Herald, Martin was suspended from school three times in recent months, for incidents ranging from tardiness to writing graffiti on school property to having a plastic bag with marijuana residue in his backpack. He had never been arrested.

Martin was also, as The Associated Press has reported, “a swift athlete” who was active “in the Miramar Optimist Club, an organization that runs sports and academic programs for young people.” He volunteered “six days a week from June through November of last year to help run the team’s concession stand.” He “dreamed of becoming a pilot. He had flown on school vacations to various places around the country with his mother, skiing in Colorado one year, going off to Texas another.”

Note carefully which incident NPR does not mention.  Readers will have to click the link they provided to the Miami Herald to find out about the jewelry and “burglary tools.”

Martin’s family says they never heard about the jewelry incident, although the Herald says the family lawyer acknowledged the graffiti suspension and marijuana bag.  The family believes this new information is part of a campaign to smear Martin, and so does one of the public figures who has inserted himself into the case:

Trayvon’s parents viewed the new reports as an orchestrated campaign to demonize their son as a “junkie and thief,” a routine occurrence in such cases, the Rev. Al Sharpton said at an afternoon press conference. Zimmerman, Sharpton said, had no way of knowing about Trayvon’s school record — “because he didn’t interview him before he shot him.”

The only thing that’s relevant is what Zimmerman knew,” Sharpton said. “Let’s not play this double standard of trying to damage who is dead and sanitize who is the cause of the death.”

Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said her son never had any problems with gangs or the police. In fact, she said, when she transferred him out of Carol City High School to be closer to home, the school wanted him to stay at Carol City because they liked him and he was a good student.

“They killed my son, and now they are trying to kill his reputation,” Fulton said.

Sharpton is, unsurprisingly, dead wrong.  In the absence of dispositive witness testimony or physical evidence, any prosecution proceeding from this point will be profoundly interested in the character and background of both Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman.  Much will depend on whether a jury thinks Zimmerman had good reason to be suspicious of Martin’s behavior, beginning the encounter that ended in tragedy.  If the Justice Department presses hate-crime charges, it will be crucial to establish whether Zimmerman was motivated by racism.  Martin’s character will inevitably be examined in the course of making these determinations – which, let us all remember, must be conclusive beyond reasonable doubt to obtain a conviction.

Conversely, even if Martin had been arrested for burglary in the past, it wouldn’t prove he was doing anything wrong on the night he was shot.  It’s increasingly clear that Zimmerman was physically assaulted – a detail the mainstream media was remarkably slow to report – but that doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t provoke the violent encounter. 

Picking apart what actually happened that night will involve working around significant gaps in cell phone conversations, and conflicting witness testimony.  Some witnesses say Zimmerman was screaming for help before the shot was fired, others say it was Martin.  A great deal of the Justice Department’s potential hate-crimes case will rest on whether technicians can clean up a single second of audio from Zimmerman’s 911 call enough to determine whether he was muttering a racial epithet under his breath before he hung up. 

It’s not going to be easy, and anyone who pretends otherwise is doing a profound disservice to both justice and society.  If George Zimmerman is put on trial, he will be entitled to the same robust defense as anyone else.  Burying details of Martin’s history now would only make it seem more outrageous if that defense prevails in court, adding a little more dynamite to an already explosive situation.  From this point onward, it will be a character-driven story, and both characters are important.

Update: One reason the media coverage of this story is so frequently inadequate is their need to “concentrate” the background of the case during repeated reports.  

If this were a less sensational story, there might have been a few, fairly exhaustive articles with copious details of the case, and the news cycle would have rolled on to other events.  Instead, coverage became obsessive, and there is a need to quickly summarize the case at the beginning of each new report.  

This inevitably produces a lot of opening paragraphs that talk about “white Hispanic neighborhood watch captain” George Zimmerman shooting unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, without adducing any other details, before the writer hurries on to the latest development.  Those opening paragraphs will never summarize everything known about the case to date, so many details will be lost through concentration and repetition.