Recently, the world watched with bated breath as George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old Floridian, was acquitted of second-degree murder and manslaughter charges that were brought against him for the death of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American student from Sanford, Florida. The acquittal caused widespread public outrage across America, and led to the organization of numerous protests calling for an end to racism and white supremacy. Meanwhile, the very similar case of Jordan Davis, another 17-year-old African American Floridian who was shot dead only 9 months after Martin, has received far less attention from both the media and the general public. While many blame the media for this disparity, the reasons for it may not be as clear-cut as some believe.
While both murders are equally tragic, both mainstream journalists and social media users have dedicated more time and energy to covering Martin’s case because of the way it showcases America’s fear of young black men. The Martin case, slightly more than the Davis case, creates the possibility for a national dialogue on perceptions of race.
The differences between the two cases are subtle, but nonetheless important. On November 23rd 2012, Jordan Davis was shot and killed while sitting in a parked car with three friends listening to music. His killer, 45-year-old Michael Dunn of Brevard County, has been described as an "avid collector of guns" who received his first shotgun as a gift from his grandparents while still in the third grade. Dunn had just left his son's wedding, during which he consumed several glasses of Jack Daniels, when he decided to confront the teenagers about the volume of their music. The exchange ended in a confrontation which ended Dunn fired several rounds from the shotgun he kept in his car, killing Jordan Davis, who was sitting in the backseat. Dunn now claims that he believed the teenagers were armed, and had thus felt threatened. There is, however, no evidence that the teenagers had any weapon at all. In other words, Jordan Davis's murder is the sad story of a trigger-happy individual who, after having a few too many cocktails, took the life of an innocent teenager.
Trayvon Martin's murder was perpetrated somewhat differently. On February 26 2012, George Zimmerman, a volunteer of the neighborhood watch, observed Martin walking around one of Florida's many gated communities. The appearance of Martin, who was young, black, and wearing a hood, caused Zimmerman to call the police, claiming that there was a "real suspicious guy who looks like he is up to no good." What happened next is unclear. What we do know is that after Zimmerman hung up the phone, a violent encounter took place that ended when Zimmerman fatally shot the unarmed Martin only 70 yards from the backdoor of the house where he was staying.
While Davis was shot for a specific act, playing music too loudly, Martin died because his mere presence and physical appearance aroused suspicion in a self-appointed vigilante. Getting killed for playing music is a travesty. It is equivalent to getting killed because of your culture, your educational background, or your choice of food. Davis's murder is an injustice and an outrage that should never have been perpetrated. Martin, however, was killed for merely existing, and this fact has shocked enough people across America into re-examining the way we view young black males in this country.
Putting aside the obvious racial element of Jordan Davis's death, his demise goes farther to highlight the problems caused by America's gun culture, which favors personal security at all costs. Meanwhile, Martin's murder shines a light on the country's deep-seated racism. Although both issues are extremely important, the latter hits closer to home for many Americans.
The stereotype of the young, drug-filled, dangerous black man is endemic in America, and leads to policies like stop-and frisk and causes 1 in 3 black men to end up in prison. The United States is a country in which black men are feared, and in which it is considered justifiable to shoot someone because of that fear. As these two cases have proven, this combination can lead to the death of innocent young people. Not only does America need to get its gun laws under control, but it needs to address the all pervasive feelings of mistrust and the racism that plagues its culture.