Geraldo Rivera made a truly catastrophic appearance on Fox & Friends last week, when the man famous for finding bupkis in Al Capone’s vault felt the need to weigh in on the most tempestuous news story of the moment. When asked about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, Rivera launched into a tirade denouncing the malevolent force that caused Martin’s death. He wasn’t referring to the actual shooter, George Zimmerman, who gunned down the unarmed black youth, but instead blamed hooded sweatshirts for Martin’s passing.
Rivera made the rather case that Trayvon was a “gangsta wannabe,” pointing out that “everyone that ever stuck up a convenience store” was wearing a hoodie. Even though Rivera subsequently apologized (if you want to call it that) for his call for young black men to accede to racial profiling, his stupefying comments became a key talking point for conservative pundits, Zimmerman’s staunchest defenders. You don’t wear a hoodie, the reasoning goes, unless you want to be considered a “gangsta.” Certainly there aren’t any troubling implications to that line of reasoning.
It seems that the central rationale of the now-infamous hoodie argument is the idea that, if the public understands Martin as having “asked for it,” rather than having been the victim of an attack from a prejudiced quasi-vigilante, the affair will not raise any troubling questions about gun ownership, concealed firearms, and the sort of “self-protection” so cherished by gun enthusiasts. Those who are primarily motivated by a desire for unhindered gun ownership must, in particular, find a way to show that the events of February 26 do not throw into question Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law, which essentially gives civilians the right to deadly force against anyone they can prove they felt threatened by. For gun enthusiasts, Zimmerman must have been defending himself, an idea that becomes a lot easier to accept if we start from the proposition that Martin was a dangerous character.
As one might expect, drugs have played a central role in portrayals of Trayvon Martin as a thug. The accusations regarding Martin’s familiarity with drugs stem from a report, leaked from an unknown source, that, at the time of his shooting, Martin was on a ten day suspension from school for having been in possession of an empty sandwich bag containing trace amounts of marijuana. The very discussion of Martin’s suspension has incensed his mother, Sybrina Fulton, who powerfully declared that Zimmerman’s defenders “killed my son and now they’re trying to kill his reputation.” While one might be tempted to characterize Ms. Fulton in engaging in a bit of emotion driven, though understandable, hyperbole, she seems not to be exaggerating in the slightest. The introduction of Trayvon’s drug-related suspension has played into a concerted effort at character assassination that plays up both insidious racial stereotypes and continued anxieties pertaining to the ongoing flailing War on Drugs.
A fortnight after the killing, one doesn’t have to search hard for parties who are eager to label Martin a drug dealer or, worse yet, a gangbanger. Wagist.com’s Dan Linehan has promoted these ideas most vigorously and, it seems, most effectively. Linehan delved deeply into Trayvon’s social media activities, looking for reasons to insinuate that Martin was a dangerous kid. Linehan ultimately comes up with “evidence” to support his point, basing his argument that Martin was a thug primarily on the fact that he had tattoos, once wore a grill, and used marijuana, all characteristic that the general public has come to associate with the prototypical Scary Black Man. Perhaps it is just a bias on my part, but having tattoos (which I do) or smoking pot (which I did at Trayvon’s age) seem not to be indicative in the real world of anything other than Martin was a child of his time. Or, perhaps, it suggests I, too, am a dangerous criminal-type.
The attempt to depict Trayvon Martin as the aggressor in his own death has rolled up ideas of drug use, race bias, and age bias into a tight, ugly package. The staff of Michelle Malkin’s Twitter-like service “Twitchy” and the conservative site Business Insider were both so eager to flip Martin’s drug use and tattoos into a scary cliché that they used a picture of a menacing looking black child, who was not, in fact, Trayvon Martin. What’s more, the picture they identified as being Trayvon was first used to present the teenager as a dangerous menace to white society on the Neo-Nazi website Stormfront. Such a blurring of casual, systemic, and militant racism is undoubtedly troublesome, but it makes some sense in a world in which someone can feel justified in depicting a black teen as troublesome simply because they have smoked marijuana or listened to rap.
Gawker’s Adrian Chen provides us with a particularly powerful look at the manipulation of Trayvon’s identity. Chen describes the actions of an unknown White Supremacist who has, in the last few days, hacked Trayvon’s e-mail and Facebook accounts and repackaged his private messages in an attempt to portray the teen as a degenerate drug dealer. On the anarchist message site 4chan, the hacker “Klanklannon” posted a number of slides with titles such as “Trayvon Martin Used Marijuana Habitually” and “Trayvon Martin Was a Drug Dealer,” the implication being that marijuana dealing or even smoking are signs of severe moral turpitude and should render any defense of their character impotent. That the messages about Martin’s drug use vary little between Business Insider, Michelle Malkin, and David Duke should be extremely worrying to any black people who partake in the occasional spliff.
By and large, the legal and intellectual community have tended to take an oddly legalistic tack in responding to those harping away on the Martin’s drug use and supposed dealing. The Martin family’s lawyers, for instance, have rightly called the teen’s drug use irrelevant, refusing to weigh in on the ethics of marijuana use. It has been exceedingly rare, however, to find members of the media who will emphatically make the case that the attacks on Trayvon for his drug-related suspension and his use of marijuana are troubling signs of racial discrimination in unto themselves. Shanoor Servai of Policy Mic was one of the few pundits to jump on the media’s discussion of Martin’s empty marijuana baggie. Servai claims that allowing the news of the suspension to influence our views of his death is tantamount to “criminalizing the victim” and perpetuates “the deep-rooted racism that stereotypes young African American men as drug offenders.” These are powerful statements, though they have had far more traction in the radical press than they have with major papers and periodicals.
Time, normally a bastion of conventionalism and the political “mushy middle,” has produced the most emphatic, and most complete, condemnation of the drug-use argument to date. Staff writer Maia Szalavitz’s “Blacks, Bias and Marijuana: Did Drug Stigma Contribute to Trayvon Martin’s Death?” sensibly notes that, not only do a majority of Americans experiment with marijuana use, but research shows no correlation between pot use and aggression, “findings that fall in line with pop culture’s mellow image of stoners.” Far more important to the issue, Szalavitz notes, is the fact that the United States’ “vehement antidrug rhetoric is rooted in explicit racism.” She spouts off a number of oft-repeated statistics – the disproportionate likelihood that blacks will be searched and tried for drug possession, for instance – before deftly tying together the story’s tragic and absurd elements. She argues that, “if Martin’s school had not suspended the boy under its ‘zero tolerance’ policy for drug use — one that punishes students for possession of an empty plastic baggie with trace amounts of marijuana as severely as for possession of heroin or a gun — he probably would never even have crossed paths with the man who shot him.” In the end, she rightly notes, drug-related hysteria has made fools of us all.
As effective as the arguments found in Time, Policy Mic, and even The Socialist Worker may be, they do not alter the fact that we live in a world in which Trayvon Martin’s marijuana possession and use are considered somehow relevant to his shooting death. The very fact that the family’s legal counsel would have to address the issue speaks volumes about both American race relations and the nation’s schizophrenic attitude toward marijuana. Having grown up with dynamically different portrayals of black and white pot users, however, this issue makes a great deal of sense if it considered a predictable part of the racist ecosystem of American life. The story of Trayvon Martin encapsulates much of America’s post-World War Two struggles with race, showing the willingness of the public to accept blacks to the extent that they exceed the expectations placed upon whites. Delving into Trayvon Martin’s personal failings but not into those of, say, Cheryl Araujo makes no sense outside of a racialist context. That is to say, neither should be considered something other than a victim and neither should be judged against an unreasonable level of “innocence.”
Reading the variety of perspectives on this case got me thinking about Louis Armstrong. Now considered a national treasure, largely due to his schmaltzy late-career hits “What a Wonderful World” and “Hello Dolly,” Armstrong had a legitimately tough childhood. A juvenile delinquent by almost any measure, Satchmo was a child of the streets and, despite eventually affecting the kindly disposition that made him so popular with the media, he kept some of his childhood habits with him his entire life. In particular, Armstrong – like most jazz greats – smoked weed almost every single day of his adult life. This is rather remarkable, if only because the majority of the Americans seem to view Armstrong as having been a kind, dignified, and talented man. So what are we to make of this? That Trayvon Martin – who was likely nowhere near being the “criminal” or “dope fiend” Louis Armstrong was – will be vindicated in his death? That it’s okay for black men to use drugs as long as they’re jovial celebrities? That Trayvon should have done a better job hiding his marijuana use? It seems to me that any answer we could come up with would have some very troubling implications.