For a minute there, it looked like Trayvon Martin might avoid the kind of horseshit thunderstorm that tends to accompany the shooting deaths of unarmed African-Americans. It seemed like everyone agreed that the police had fucked up. Fox News had only one segment on the killing in the weeks following. Not even white racists wanted to defend Martin's killer, George Zimmerman: when I wrote about the case last week, the worst response I got was from one particularly dedicated nutcase, who set up a Twitter account to harass me for not properly specifying that Zimmerman is Hispanic.
But the horseshit is raining down now, helped along by a desperate Sanford Police Department doing everything it can to make Martin look like he deserved to die, and by the champion point-missers of the internet right wing, who hardly need convincing that a 17-year-old black kid was up to no good.
You can see it in the incompetent and widely-circulated "investigations" into Martin's social media presence and in the sudden rise in concern among your Facebook friends over black-on-white crime. You can see it in the faux-naïve concern trolling of the National Review and Business Insider, or on the Drudge Report, where for the second day in a row notorious race hustler Matt Drudge is pimping headlines about "new details" and "multiple suspensions," accompanied by a photo of Martin, baby-faced, mugging for the camera, sparkling grill in his mouth. And you can see it outside the bodega on your way to the subway, on the front page of today's New York Post, which reads "TRAYVON HOODWINK: Tragedy hijacked by race hustlers."
The "race hustlers" in question are Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, favorite targets of the Post, which alights with glee on a Daily Caller interview with "former NAACP leader" C.L. Bryant in which the Rev. Bryant accuses Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson of "inflaming racial passions." Bryant, former "self-professed 'Democratic Radical,'" was once the head of the Garland, Texas chapter of the NAACP. His latest project is a documentary called Runaway Slave, "a movie about the race to free the Black community from the slavery of tyranny and progressive policies." If his charges sound familiar, it's because they're the same concerns brought to bear every time black people in this country make demands. The Post, knowing it can't smear Martin, yet, settles for Bryant's incoherent appeals to racial harmony.
The Drudge Report doesn't need to make a choice. Beneath a now widely-circulated photo of Martin showing off his grill to a webcam, Drudge links out to the first wave of mainstream Martin smears: "'You ain't tell me you swung on a bus driver'... New details emerge on Trayvon... Multiple suspensions from school: marijuana, grafitti, 'possession of burglary tool,' jewelry... House Dems to bring parents to Capitol Hill... COPS: Zimmerman says Trayvon decked him with one blow, hammered head on sidewalk... 'Suffered broken nose and had injury to back of head'... Former NAACP leader accuses Sharpton, Jackson of 'exploiting' death... Mother seeks to trademark dead son's name... 'Cracker' T-shirt hits Florida streets..." (At least he spells Martin's name right. Yesterday, Drudge had Sharpton and Jackson exploiting the death of a Treyvon Martin.)
The "details" that are emerging are coming, largely, from two sources: police leaks, and an "investigation" — really, an extensive examination of Martin's social media presence — on the blog Wagist.com. The police leaks should seem familiar to anyone who watched the case against Dominique Strauss-Kahn evaporate as a parade of anonymous informants lined up to call his accuser a whore in the pages of the Post. In the Orlando Sentinel, police sources say a witness saw Martin beat Zimmerman; the witness, whose account contradicts that of Martin's girlfriend, with whom he was talking on the phone at the time, is anonymous, and it's difficult to corroborate news of Zimmerman's injuries with police photographs from the scene when there are none.
Meanwhile, in the Miami Herald, a leaked Miami-Dade Schools Police report reveals that Martin was suspended, once for truancy and tardiness, once for "marijuana residue," and once for graffiti and "possession of a burglary tool" — a screwdriver recovered by a "school police investigator" who saw Martin write "W.T.F." on a door with marker. Inside his backpack was some jewelry, which Martin said belonged to a friend; it was confiscated, and there's no evidence at all it was stolen. The Herald writes that the "suspensions paint [a] complicated portrait of Trayvon Martin." It seems too obvious to even say, but smoking pot, skipping school, owning a screwdriver and writing on walls are not evidence of anything other than being in high school. They are certainly not capital crimes. And yet this anonymous witness and Martin's supensions are being cited as key facts — as more important, than, say, the fact that Zimmerman had a gun, and Martin didn't, or the fact that Zimmerman followed Martin, who was doing nothing wrong — by people who insist they're only interested in "truth."
If the police leaks seem familiar, from the dozens of times America has attempted to exorcise its demons in the course of a single criminal investigation, so should the half-baked investigation undertaken by Wagist.com and widely disseminated by eager skeptics. The blog's conclusion — based on a photo of Martin's friend throwing a sign, a comment from a friend who "need[s] a plant," a reference to "[swinging] on a bus driver" — is that Martin was a drug dealer involved in gang life. (They also write several paragraphs about his tattoos: "Sabrina," his mother's name, on his wrist, and a larger piece on his arm which says, as far as I can tell, "Nana.") The one thing you can say in favor of Wagist.com's investigation is that it confined itself to the internet life of the real Trayvon Martin. Michelle Malkin's bizarre Twitter news site Twitchy posted an image macro over the weekend featuring a photo of the wrong Trayvon Martin. (The same image was featured on white supremacy message board Stormfront, where Business Insider picked it up.)
That right-wing cranks, caught in the storm of their own horseshit, would be unable to distinguish between "being 17" and "being a criminal" isn't particularly shocking (to most of them, there is no distinction). It's embarrassing for a theoretically respectable site like Yahoo! to provide cover for clearinghouses like Drudge with equivocating articles that worry about "the difference between the typical teenager Martin's family and supporters say he was and the way he presented himself on social media" and quote the "we don't know what happened" hems and "it's complicated" haws of Business Insider's Michael Brendan Dougherty and PolicyMic.com's David Shane.
But mainstream and gutter are both running from the same source: an anxiety about young black men. That's why it doesn't matter that Martin's suspensions are completely irrelevant to the case, and it's why there's a push to sidestep the specifics of the encounter in favor of interrogating Martin's character.
The insistence, on Stormfront as on Drudge, that the media needs to show photographs of Martin flashing his grill is telling. "Gold front teeth on someone that young signify an adherence to urban/gangsta lifestyle," a tipster wrote us last week, emailing another photo of Martin with a front in his mouth, "which is contradictory to the image you wish to portray of [Martin] as a 'sweet faced angel.'" "How would the story have been received by the public if this was the image of Trayvon Martin in your newspaper, rather than the earlier ones we've seen everywhere else?" Dougherty wondered, about the photo of the wrong Trayvon Martin, in his piece.
There's a prevailing belief — expressed both by semi-literate commenters and featured Tumblr writers — that the media has failed to portray Martin as the dangerous young man he actually was. If people saw photos of Martin with his dental accessories, this theory goes, if they knew he was 6'3", they'd feel differently. If they knew he'd been suspended they'd understand where Zimmerman was coming from.
One problem is that to those of us outside the self-shaking horseshit snow globe, smoking weed and having tattoos aren't evidence of anything. Most of us look at all the charges marshaled against Martin and see a kid. Many of us see our friends, or ourselves. There's a tragic irony to the fact that the only people Trayvon Martin was really able to fool into thinking he was anything but a baby-faced high schooler were the same people who think he deserved to be shot.
But the other problem is the terms of the debate itself. Whether or not Martin was a good kid or a bad kid, an angel or a thug, a normal teenager or a dangerous deviant, he had every right to walk in the streets of his soon-to-be-stepmother's neighborhood without fear of being shot. A criminal record, a manner of dress, a height: none of these make the shooting of an unarmed, law-abiding teenager justified. And yet here we are, forced to defend Martin's honor, as though if he had been a gangster there'd be nothing to say. As though the minute a black man is anything but a choir boy it's okay to shoot him in the street.
We should have known this was coming. Maybe not for most of last week, when for once everyone seemed to be on the same page. But we had to have known it would get here on Friday morning, when Fox News symbolically broke its silence with a Geraldo Rivera segment urging young men of color to stop wearing hoodies — so as not to get shot — the hilariously inept logic of which failed to mask its true intent: to shift the blame for Martin's death back on to Martin.
A few hours later, the president stood in front of journalists in the Rose Garden and, taking a question about Trayvon Martin, said "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." That was it. Rivera had given the horseshit its window, and Obama had given it its direction. What jacked-up rightblogger could stop himself then? Who could resist calling the president's son a thug?