I think there are multiple reasons why the Trayvon Martin incident has become a big deal socially. I have a low opinion of the motives of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and I think Carl gets at some of the truth. When something gets this big, a lot of different kinds of people and a lot of different interests get involved. You get the Jesse Jackson coming to town and you get NBC editing the George Zimmerman audio tape. But the Trayvon Martin controversy was more than that and there was something spontaneous in much of the reaction. A lot of young African-Americans and Latinos with little or no interest in politics took a very sudden interest in the shooting of Trayvon Martin. I’ve talked to some of them (a tiny fraction of course.) They don’t know and don’t care about Jesse Jackson. They weren’t born the last time Jackson ran for president. They would no more choose to watch Al Sharpton’s MSNBC show than they would watch choose to watch C-SPAN3. The Trayvon Martin shooting, as it was originally reported, resonated with them. They had experience of being followed or hassled by suburban cops. They had the sense that, if they were away from home ground and anything went badly wrong and the situation was at all ambiguous, the local authorities would collude to screw them over. It wasn’t Jim Crow and they knew enough of history to know it wasn’t Jim Crow, but it still felt like the majority of the places in the country were hostile ground to them. It made them feel peripheral and they knew that there were millions of other Americans who could, as strangers, walk those same streets and face fewer hassles and risks. Whatever happened in the Trayvon Martin shooting, these feelings are real.
So the reporting of the Trayvon Martin shooting fit into a narrative that these young people carried around with them. A local adult suburban racist picks a fight with a innocent black kid who was getting Skittles. The black kid kicks the racist’s butt in a fair fight. The racist then shoots the black kid and the authorities cover it up. It sounded right and it was infuriating. It felt like their own experiences (or those of their friends) only taken to heroic proportions and ending in martyrdom. It was the clearest possible example of how they felt the world worked for them and a lever to focus their efforts not only to get justice (as they saw it) in this one case but also a way to get other people to acknowledge what happens to them on a much smaller scale – a scale that doesn’t show up in the murder statistics.
More of the facts will come out and we’ll see how much and what parts of the above narrative hold up. I don’t have any public policy suggestions.