The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

April 1, 2012

Is this circus what Trayvon would want?

By Adam Smith

— The media circus that has unfolded following the Feb. 26 shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin has gotten a bit out of hand.

That’s saying a lot, because I’m a media prognosticator.

I will be the first to admit the shooting of a 17-year-old by a 28-year-old neighborhood watchman named George Zimmerman is a tragedy. The incident, however, has again created a great divide between white and black that threatens to unravel the ideal of racial harmony in the 21st century.

We have two sides arguing about an incident that no one knows the truth about except the two people involved. Unfortunately, one of those people is dead and the other is in hiding and in fear for his life.

The only thing we know for certain is that Martin was shot dead by Zimmerman while walking through the neighborhood where his father’s fiancée lived. We don’t know what led up to it, whom provoked whom first or if Zimmerman felt threatened enough by a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt to be within Florida’s “stand your ground” law.

The law, similar to Alabama’s “Castle Law,” allows a person to shoot first and ask questions later if he or she feels physically threatened by another party.

I had a journalism professor who loved to recite a famous quote by Benjamin Franklin: “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” The quote certainly applies in this case, even though there are only two people involved.

On the upside, the incident has once again opened up the centuries-old wound of racial misunderstanding and forced Americans to have some real and frank discussions about how whites and blacks view each other. It’s also led to — unsurprisingly — an opportunity to profit from what many view as a national tragedy.

Who’s profiting? The makers of hooded sweatshirts, for one. Martin’s death has also raised questions about when a sensible garment can also be viewed as threatening apparel.

In his call to dispatchers that fateful evening, Zimmerman reported a black male in a hooded sweatshirt walking slowly around his gated community after dark. Martin’s parents claim their son was wearing a hooded sweatshirt because he walked to the store for Skittles and a can of iced tea and it was raining outside. It’s a sensible enough explanation and I myself have worn a hooded sweatshirt in the rain.

Feeling stereotyped by their choice of clothing, however, some who wear hooded sweatshirts on a regular basis began to defend the garment, and have asserted that Zimmerman may have shot Martin because he was viewed as “just another thug wearing a hooded sweatshirt” and “up to no good.”

There are two sides to this argument, however, and those who come to the defense of hooded sweatshirts really don’t have much of a case. I’ve been in the newspaper business for several years and I’ve seen more than three-dozen security camera photos of a perpetrator caught in the act. Not once have I ever seen a burglar or robbery suspect wearing a three-piece suit and top hat.

In more than half the security camera photos I’ve seen, the suspect was, in fact, wearing a hooded sweatshirt, though usually accompanied by a bandana and occasionally accented by a pair of cheap sunglasses.

Does anyone remember the famous police sketch of Ted Kaczynski, also known as “The Unabomber”? He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and sunglasses. Go figure.

Many of the protests over Martin’s shooting have featured throngs of protestors wearing hooded sweatshirts. I saw on TV only Thursday that some enterprising soul decided to make hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts featuring the likeness of Trayvon Martin, for sale, of course.

I hope the maker of that sweatshirt worked out some sort of deal with Martin’s parents, who have purchased two trademarks allowing them to profit from their son’s death. They said they would use the money to help other families struck by tragedy.

I wonder if anyone will keep track of that account and how many families they help? Maybe their generosity will inspire others to do the same.

If a Trayvon Martin T-shirt or “hoodie” isn’t your thing, there are also bumper stickers, buttons, posters and other clothing items. To say the least, it’s gotten out of hand.

In an era of 24-hour news cycles and social media overload, what would have been considered a small but significant community tragedy 20 years ago has reached ridiculous proportions.

I have found myself wondering what Trayvon would have thought about all this if he were still alive. What if it had happened to another teenager in the same neighborhood and not him? Would he be on the public outrage bandwagon, or would he have considered it overkill?

It’s a large philosophical question to be asked of anyone, let alone a 17-year-old who just wanted a can of tea and some Skittles.