Trayvon Martin, the Media, and Individualism

If you’re on the Internet right now, it is almost assured that you saw the backlash from the jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in February 2012. My Facebook and Twitter feeds were chock full of opinions on the ruling, ranging from thankfulness that Zimmerman “got off,” to anger—even threats of violence, from folks who thought he should have been convicted.

Quickly after the ruling other examples of racial profiling, extravagant sentences for minorities, and the fallibility of the justice system started being spread around social media. One example in particular got a lot of play.

In a 2012 ruling, “A Florida Mom Gets 20 Years for Firing Warning Shots” tells the story of a woman, Marissa Alexander, who warded off her abusive husband by firing at him, and was rewarded by being denied the protections the controversial Stand Your Ground laws under which Zimmerman was found not guilty.

While on its face the story seems to be nothing more than yet another example of racism within the “justice system,” a closer look should at least give pause. In this case, as in many, the details are a little more complicated than can fit in a 300 word report, and (what may be) the true story is a lot less sexy than a splashy headline that invokes strong emotional responses.

A close cousin of slacktivism, the social media outrage over these two cases allow people to presume that they know more than the jurors, judges, and lawyers who have spent the last year and a half on the case. Every media outlet (this one included) has an angle, a story that they’re trying to sell, and click-bait gets them viewership, and riling up emotions gets people to pay more attention.

While I am certainly not advocating we put our complete trust in a justice system that has proven itself to be faulty over and over again, maybe we should focus our consternation on the root of the problem. A society that groups people into black and white, good and bad, thug and harmless teen. A government that develops laws such as the “Stand your Ground” law that leaves the ultimate decision of its usage up to a politically elected or appointed judge, and three strike rules such as Florida’s “10-20-life” rule that doles out excessive sentences for the sake of appearing tough on crime.

What would prevent tragedies like the death of Trayvon Martin? I think we could take a huge step in the right direction if we started valuing individuals, began thinking about the honesty and validity of what we choose as our news sources, and stopped using the mechanism of government and its monopoly on force to pick and choose which forms of violence society celebrates, and which types we vilify.