Last Saturday, George Zimmerman was found not guilty in the shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Since then, everyone from protesters to politicians to pundits have weighed in. Brooke talks to Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans about the reaction and how the verdict has reignited discussions of race in the U.S.
[CROWD CHANTING/PROTEST HUBBUB]
That’s from a protest in Times Square last Sunday, the day after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Protests like this occurred all across the country, mostly peacefully, in the streets, on the airwaves and even in the White House. We are drawing conclusions from that verdict, based on our own beliefs, our own experience.
ROSLYN BROCK/NAACP: I think justice failed Trayvon Martin and the Martin family.
GERALDO RIVERA/FOX NEWS: They overcharged George Zimmerman, I believe, largely because of outside political pressure.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: There are very few African-American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: We brought back Tampa Bay Times media critic Eric Deggans, who predicted last week that the issue of race in America, underplayed in trial coverage, would now rush to the fore. But since the public has only one side of the story of what happened on that fateful day in a Florida gated community, Zimmerman’s side, everyone is filling in the puzzle with their own pieces, shaped by sorrow or vindication, and acting accordingly.
ERIC DEGGANS: In some ways, the circus is in town, man. Protests, threats of boycott, people saying this never should have been to trial, in the first place, all of it is a reaction to the frustration that comes from not being able to really know what sparked the fight between these two people. And, and that means we can't really put it in context.
I mean, the word “thug” is becoming a polite way of saying the “N-word.” They’re describing a certain type of black person who they feel is young, prone to violence and crime. Some people feel their vision of what a thug is and what a thug means has been confirmed by a court, and now they have a right to be suspicious of people like Trayvon Martin.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: “Race riot” seems to be a bit of a code too.
ERIC DEGGANS: Yeah, I think law enforcement would have been crazy to not at least say, okay, it’s possible that some hotheaded people might get out of hand, if they get frustrated about this verdict, and let’s just make sure we’re prepared for that.
But to suggest that “these people,” quote, unquote, are unruly and violent and that that's part and parcel of the ethic of people who feel that George Zimmerman should go to jail, that is unfair and prejudiced. It feeds into this idea that some particularly conservative commentators have that we now have this, quote, unquote, "thug mentality” that is somehow seeking unfair recompense from the government or unfair attention from the criminal justice system.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And you said last week that once the jurors come forward, we might have some insight into how the decision was arrived at. And so far, only one has come forward, anonymously, on Anderson Cooper’s show. We’re going to play a little bit of that.
ERIC DEGGANS: Okay.
ANDERSON COOPER: Do you think Trayvon Martin played a role in his own death…that this is something he also…
JUROR: Oh, I believe he played a huge role in his death. When George confronted him, and he could have walked away and gone home. He didn't have to, to do whatever he did and come back and, and be in a fight.
COOPER: And the other jurors felt that, as well.
JUROR: They did.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Four out of five of the other jurors said, “Hold on” anonymously -
ERIC DEGGANS: Right.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - “We don’t feel that way.” So, what kind of insight can we derive from that remark?
ERIC DEGGANS: This juror seems to have believed George Zimmerman’s story, that George Zimmerman was justified in defending himself. And she also said during that interview that the state’s Stand Your Ground laws influenced at least her decision, that she believes it influence the entire jury's decision.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So here I want to bring in Attorney General Eric Holder, who has been described, at least in the Washington Post, as being the voice of the President on controversial racial issues. He was discussing Stand your Ground.
ATTY GEN. ERIC HOLDER: These laws tried to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force, if - and the “if” is important – if no safe retreat is available. But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely.
ERIC DEGGANS: George Zimmerman says that Trayvon Martin was beating his head into the sidewalk, fighting to gain control of Zimmerman's gun. So, if he's on the ground, he doesn't have the ability to retreat. And that's why Zimmerman's defense team said that Stand Your Ground didn't even need to be invoked. Holder is coming to the NAACP and saying, I sense your outrage about Trayvon Martin, let's handle the Stand Your Ground laws. That's a wonderful thing to address, but it wouldn't have resulted in a conviction for George Zimmerman, I don’t think.
If you want to address that, then [LAUGHS] you’ve got to find something else. What can we do to change things so that that can't happen again? I wish we could have these kinds of discussions outside of the polarizing confines of a really, really controversial and frustrating verdict. And I did a story that was on the front page of our newspaper on Monday about all of this, and some of the emails I got from people, it's like the, the Zimmerman verdict let some people feel free to express their opinions about young black males in ways that were so prejudiced that he was really disheartening. Some people came to that column and felt like I was disrespecting the verdict, that I was demanding that the judge release those jurors’ names. They took the argument I was making and amplified it because of their own prejudices.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I’ll read the last line of your column –
ERIC DEGGANS: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: - which is incredibly inflammatory. You wrote, “I hope the jury reconsiders their stance and talks to America about how they reached their verdict because, damaging as it may be for them to go public, it may be the only thing which can help heal the country.” Shame on you, Eric.
ERIC DEGGANS: [LAUGHS] I know.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Shame on you.
ERIC DEGGANS: I know. But now it’s a Rorschach test and people can come to that column and they can accuse me of all the excesses that I'm trying to resist because they're not really reading the column; they’re seeing what they want to see. And that makes me wonder what happened when Trayvon Martin was walking home. And did George Zimmerman see what he wanted to see? And, and how do we address that? Can we even address that in laws? Can we address that at all?
The, the problem that we have with the Zimmerman/Martin case ultimately is that, on its face, it seems to be a very simple issue: An, an unarmed black teenager was lawfully where he should be and he wound up dead, but the details of their confrontation and, and the most important fact, that no one saw how their fight started, make it a much more complex issue-
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Right.
ERIC DEGGANS: - than we would have thought. Now, two weeks, three weeks, a month, two months from now, will we still want to have these kind of conversations when everything has died down and we can really get down to brass tacks? That’s the question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. Eric, thank you very much.
ERIC DEGGANS: Thank you for having me.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Eric Deggans is a media critic for the Tampa Bay Times, and author of Race-Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation.