THURSDAY, MARCH 3, 2022
...who told us the story we like: Long ago, and far away, a deeply unfortunate shooting death occurred.
Actually, it didn't happen that long ago. It happened exactly ten years ago last week.
As we all know, a very large number of shooting deaths occur in this violence-prone country. That said, the shooting death to which we refer generated a great deal of public attention—indirectly gave birth to a movement.
This deeply unfortunate shooting death took place out in the back, in the dark. To all intents and purposes, there were no real eyewitnesses. Basic parts of what happened that night remain unknown—until we start composing the story that we'll tell ourselves.
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," the late Joan Didion said. "The man with the candy will lead the children into the sea."
As that first example suggested, some of the stories we tell ourselves may almost suggest a lineage leading back to the realm of the fairy tale. Sometimes, we tell ourselves stories to massively over-simplify things, to create classic angels and demons.
Such simplifications are completely OK in the world of the children's playroom. In the world of journalism concerning important events, such simplifications may do real harm—and our tribe has been drunk with such super-simplification over the past stretch of years.
What actually happened that night, out in the back in the dark? Some basic facts still aren't known, and most likely never will be. In such situations, we flawed human beings often start making up facts.
Last week, when Slate decided to publish a recollection of that tragic event, it called upon a Harvard professor and an assistant state's attorney in Florida. Here's the start of the story they told:
LIGHT AND THOMAS (2/26/22): Trayvon Martin would be 27 this year had he not been gunned down on Feb. 26, 2012, just a few weeks after his 17th birthday. Martin, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by a self-appointed “neighborhood watchman” who notoriously disregarded a 911 dispatcher’s instructions not to pursue the “suspicious” teen.
With apologies for having to discuss this painful event at all, we were struck, in this particular case, by the use of the term "gunned down."
Later, we wondered why we bother having Harvard professors at all, now that such beings are willing and able to produce such copy as this:
LIGHT AND THOMAS: George Zimmerman’s acquittal on the charge of Martin’s murder in 2013 revealed one such pathway through which acts of vigilante violence could be justified as innocent, or even virtuous. Originally passed in 2005, Florida’s “stand your ground” law served as a model for 23 other states, including Georgia, by the time Martin was killed. Although it was not directly cited in court, the law facilitated Zimmerman’s exoneration by making it nearly impossible to prosecute someone who claimed to have been “in fear for his life” during a lethal encounter, even if he provoked it.
In courtrooms where the defendant is the only living witness, the invocation of “reasonable fear”—fear that appears reasonable to the jury—effectively reverses the roles of victim and perpetrator, often ensuring white or white-passing defendants a seamless journey out of legal trouble (Zimmerman is Latino; his light skinned appearance proved exonerating).
Why do we still have Harvard professors when they're willing to function like that?
The professor in question is Caroline Light. According to Slate, she's the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Harvard’s Program in Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality.
Caroline Light is a good, decent person. Still, let's consider some of the things she has said and implied:
With apologies for having to discuss this, George Zimmerman was acquitted—was found not guilty—of the two criminal charges for which he stood trial. Despite this fact, he remains guilty of an act of "vigilante violence" in the story we in our tribe insist on telling ourselves.
Why did a jury find him not guilty? Repulsively, the Harvard professor repulsively tells us this:
"Zimmerman is Latino; his light skinned appearance proved exonerating."
Ugly? Astonishing? Wicked? Repulsive? In this way, the Harvard professor crawls inside the skulls of the jury and explains why they ruled as they did.
She fashions the only type of explanation our elites know how to construct at this point. It's ugly, vile, repulsive work. If you aren't able to make out that fact, then the ugly has crawled inside you.
Back in their initial paragraph, the professor and the assistant DA have dropped a few other suggestions.
Zimmerman was "self-appointed," the self-appointed commenters say. This suggestive statement is hard to square with the (largely irrelevant) facts.
(For the report in the New York Times, click this. Citing that Times report as its source, the leading authority states it like this: "In September 2011, the Twin Lakes residents held an organizational meeting to create a neighborhood watch program. Zimmerman was selected by neighbors as the program's coordinator, according to Wendy Dorival, Neighborhood Watch organizer for the Sanford Police Department." Dorival conducted the meeting.)
Back to Slate! The professor and the assistant DA say that Zimmerman "notoriously disregarded a 911 dispatcher’s instructions not to pursue" Trayvon Martin.
In fact, it isn't clear that Zimmerman continued to "pursue" or follow Martin after his exchange with the dispatcher. And no, the dispatcher didn't tell Zimmerman that he should stay in his truck, a flatly false initial claim which was still being stated by major news orgs in their accounts of this matter last week.
Did Zimmerman pursue Martin that night, leading to their fatal encounter? As far as we know, it's possible that he did, and possible that he didn't.
Is it possible that Martin pursued Zimmerman? As far as we know, that is tragically possible too. (Teenagers often make mistakes. A bit more background tomorrow.)
What caused their tragic encounter out in the dark? This is one of the several facts which remain unknown. In fairness, people like the Harvard professor have spent the last ten years building "notoriety" around the claim that Zimmerman just kept "pursuing" Martin.
A fatal encounter occurred that night, with Martin and Zimmerman down on the ground. Of that fact, there is no doubt.
The use of the pleasing phrase "gunned down" invites us to construct a certain picture of that tragic encounter. In fact, Zimmerman was on his back, being pummeled as he lay on the ground, when the (one) fatal shot was fired.
Should he have fired that fatal shot? Tomorrow, we'll show you what Ta-Nehisi Coates said about that very question, all the way back in real time.
No one can ever be as scripted as a Harvard professor ten years later, but Coates went into substantial detail when he offered his assessments. We assume that you'll be able to believe that his assessments didn't stem from his fragility or even from his privilege.
One additional point:
As best we can tell, Zimmerman's defense didn't involve Florida's "stand your ground" law. As you can see, the authors offer a jumbled claim about the role played by that law at the trial. As best we can tell after all these years, Zimmerman's lawyers staged a basic claim of traditional self-defense.
We tell ourselves stories in order to live! In the story our flailing tribe has told itself about this event, the victim was Little Red Riding Hood. The wolf gunned him down from a tree.
The actual story is less simple-minded; elementary facts are unknown. Even though Light is a good, decent person, we think Harvard should be embarrassed to have her as a current professor—but we'll give Light and Homas major credit for the one completely irrelevant fact which amazingly didn't howl.
Evocatively, they say that Martin was "gunned down." Correctly, they say that he was unarmed.
But good God! To their credit, they kept the Skittles out of their story! Very few others did.
Tomorrow, we'll show you what others have said in the past week; we'll show you the story they've told. Also, we'll show you what Coates said about what happened that night—what he said long ago.
Basic facts about what happened remain completely unknown. But according to major anthropologists, we humans are very reluctant to come to terms with the things we don't and can't know.
When we don't know what actually happened, we tend to start making things up! Along the way, we fashion the plupotent stories we tell ourselves—about the main with the candy misleading the kids; about the innocent child with the candy being killed by the wolf in the tree.
He was "gunned down," the professor said. The vigilante's light skin got him off!
Tomorrow: As the Skittles stay in the picture, other key facts disappear