After facing a wave of controversy for their decision to release Trayvon Martin's private cell phone records to the public, George Zimmerman's attorneys are defending themselves by claiming they merely wish to demonstrate that Martin was "hostile." In their own words, their sole goal is to "assist the jury in understanding why Trayvon Martin chose to hide then confront George Zimmerman rather than simply going home."
To paraphrase Ernest Hemingway: If you believe that, it's time for you to develop a bullshit detector.
From the moment when Martin's shooting became a national news story, Zimmerman and his supporters have exploited racist stereotypes to assist their cause, and this latest incident is no exception. The defense team's documents brandish incidents in which Martin bantered with his friends about acting like a "hoodlum" or "gangsta," engaged in lengthy conversations about cannibis use (including references to a marijuana-related school suspension), discussed having arguments with his parents and making plans to skip classes, and took pictures of himself blowing smoke rings, giving the middle finger, and wearing a gold grill. At his ostensible "worst," Martin is shown bragging about winning a fistfight and talking about wanting to own a gun.
Readers with moderately well-oiled Hemingwayesque bullshit detectors will immediately notice three things about the previous paragraph's list:
1. Not one of the released texts specifically pertains to the actual events of the Martin-Zimmerman confrontation on the night of February 26, 2012. As such, according to the most elementary standards used to determine evidentiary relevance in criminal cases, these texts are entirely immaterial (and will quite likely be thrown out for that very reason).
2. None of the texts reveal anything about Martin that one wouldn't expect to discover when prying into the psyche of an average American teenager. For one thing, the handful of texts being highlighted to the public no doubt constitute a mere fraction of Martin's larger social interactions, especially given the extensive and complex socialization in which virtually all Western youth are involved today. What's more, even if our popular culture didn't glorify drugs, violence, and "gangsta" culture, young adults have been defined by their penchant for self-aggrandizing braggadocio and general rebelliousness all the way back to the days of Socrates (who himself complained of the "bad manners" and "contempt for authority" demonstrated by the youth of his time). Needless to say, most of these teenagers never engage in violent activity aside from standard juvenile scuffles (such as the ones in which Martin seems to have participated), so without proof of anything more serious from Martin's past, the released texts are meaningless.
3. The obvious motive behind releasing these cell phone records was to smear Martin's image in the eyes of the public and, by way of social osmosis, the jurors for Zimmerman's trial (although Judge Kenneth Lester will no doubt instruct his jury to disregard the texts, pre-existing impressions are hard to purge from the subconscious, much less conscious, mind). Even worse, much of the character assassination is firmly rooted in the tropes frequently conjured up to vilify and "other" urban black men. After all, of what relevance are Martin's fashion preferences (the gold grill) or slang choices (terms like "gangsta" and other chronicled uses of inner-city slang), unless one assumes that the culture with which they are associated is an inherently violent one? Why even mention that he smoked weed, hotdogged in social media for his friends, and didn't take his studies seriously, unless the implication is that these actions belied latent violent tendencies – and if so, are Martin's detractors ready to apply the same behavioral rubric to suburban whites as well as racial minorities (disingenous reassurances to that effect notwithstanding)? Even Martin's fascination with firearms isn't as automatically damning as Zimmerman's attorneys would like the public to believe. If liberals and moderates are to be regularly denounced whenever they question the benign intentions of the millions of Americans who staunchly oppose any form of gun control, what right do we have to condemn a Trayvon Martin for his own fixation with gun ownership?
If there is one good thing about cause celebres like the Trayvon Martin shooting, it is that they can shed light on deeper political and social illnesses in our country. Although this case tends to be compared to other events in American history involving violent outbursts of racial prejudice (and correctly so), I am most keenly reminded of the 1999 trial for Matthew Shepard's killers – i.e., the court case in which the idea that "gay panic" could be used as a defense for murder was exposed to the widespread public contempt it deserved. If nothing else, Martin's death and the subsequent actions of his killer's defenders make it clear that another form of hate-based panic is also prevalent in our society. While it's historic roots are quite different from those brought to light by the Shepard killing, they are no less pervasive or destructive. If we simply allow ourselves to come to grips with it, we may be able to prevent tragedies like Martin's death from happening in the future. All it takes is a willingness to reach a deeper understanding of the problems of the world in which we live ... problems which, as the very fact that these texts were released goes to show, we far too often make for ourselves.