Online comment sections in most newspapers are rarely the best place for thoughtful dialog on controversial issues of the day. Which is why I glance at the comments under the Miami Herald articles covering Trayvon Martin's shooting with very low expectations. But last week, I saw a brief conversation that I think summarizes most Floridians' gut reaction to the killing and its aftermath. You see, the first few weeks after Trayvon was killed by George Zimmerman, I truly believe that the instinct of most Floridians was to think that the whole thing was a tragedy and that Zimmerman should be arrested. In my conversations with people from all walks of like, there was confusion as to why an arrest hadn't been made in the case. As the weeks wore on, that instinctive and seemingly unanimous call for basic justice seemed to fade as a debate re-shaped along racial and political lines. Or has it?
A recent Gallup poll does indeed paint a bleak picture that confirms that new talk on Trayvon's shooting has in fact fallen along predictable fault lines based on class, race, political affiliation, etc. According to the poll, barely 30% of "non-Blacks," versus 70% of African Americans, believe that Zimmerman, who admitted to killing 17 year-old Trayvon, is guilty of a crime. While many people find those numbers alarmingly low, after watching the news for the past month, I was more shocked that after everything we are seeing, more than a third of all Americans (at least the ones that answered the poll) still believe George Zimmerman is guilty of something! After all, we've all been subject to confusing and conflicting reports on everything, including what both Zimmerman and Trayvon actually look(ed) like. But as someone who lives in Florida and witnesses some conversation about Trayvon everyday, I feel like the most significant thing about the Gallup poll is the questions it didn't ask. Significant because those questions, and their answers, make their way into almost every conversation about Trayvon that I hear locally.
"Do you believe George Zimmerman should have been arrested?"
The fact that almost of third of any group isn't sure if George Zimmerman is guilty of a crime may have a lot to do with the understanding that we live in a country where, no matter what, people are suppose to be innocent until proven guilty. But when you ask the simple question of whether or not Zimmerman should have at least been arrested, even the flame wars in the comment section of our newspapers simmer down in quick agreement.
In a recent article in the Herald, two frequent "contributors" to the comment section, one with the handle "Charles_Darwin" and the other "IntelligentLife" had what should have been the standard verbal cage match about the case in a piece appropriately titled, "Trayvon Martin's shooting draws partisan battle lines." It is important to note that Charles_Darwin's photo associated with his handle seems to be a 1980s-era pic of the Rev. Al Sharpton us eighties babies saw on the news frequently as children. After a short back and forth where Charles Darwin calls out Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and other "leftists" and "race-baiting haters forming lynch mobs" and IntelligentLife responds that all the "right wingers" should be ashamed of themselves, they seem to settle in agreement on one fact:
Charles_Darwin: "Granted, an arrest should have been made..."
IntelligentLife: "We are pretty much in agreement then... But most of your fellow right wingers argue the guy should not be arrested at all."
Charles_Darwin: "Some, but not all. Most people feel there should be an arrest, but through due process and not through the lynch mob mentality. I think you'd agree there is a little hyberbole on the far ends of both sides of the political spectrum."
That agreement was reached in about two lines, after which Charles_Darwin and IntelligentLife returned back to trading jabs over the Sharptons and right-wingers of the world, respectively. How much did an older and thinner Rev. Sharpton's words differ at a recent Miami rally for Trayvon when compared to the person who mockingly uses his younger and plumper photo for his online comments? Not much. At that rally on Bayfront Park in downtown Miami, Rev. Sharpton's rallying cry wasn't "kill Zimmerman," "electrocute Zimmerman," or "feed him to the sharks." Instead, it was a rather straightforward assertion that he enlisted the crowd in repeating:
"Zimmerman, tell it to the judge! Your daddy said this, your brother said that, your friend said the other. Line 'em up and tell it to the judge!"
For some reason, the Gallup poll failed to ask (or report) the question and answer that may be the only thing that Charles_Darwin, IntelligentLife, the real Rev. Al Sharpton and the Dream Defenders, a group that risked arrest to shut down the doors of the Sanford police department on Monday, don't disagree on, that Zimmerman should have been arrested. I am not a polling company, but I live in Florida (Miami, to be precise). And there are a few things I hear most people agree on, right before they go back to vociferously disagreeing on everything else. One is that George Zimmerman should have at least been arrested and had a day in court for this case. The other, even among the people that defend Zimmerman as not being racist, is that the authorities (the Sanford police and prosecutors) really messed up in their handling of the whole thing. In fact, even the late night pundits that stick up for Zimmerman rarely rush to defend the people whose job it was to process this case properly. So is the debate on Trayvon Martin's shooting dividing the country? Maybe. But if we take a step back and ask each other the right questions, we may be surprised at how much we agree on.
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