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The Zimmerman trial: A case of race and guns

Eighteen years ago, I was teaching a large “survey of the media” class at Wayne State University when word came that there was a verdict in the O.J. Simpson case. I put television on.

This was a Wayne State University class with almost equal numbers of black and white students. When it was announced that OJ had been acquitted of the murders of his wife and her friend, the reaction seemed almost Pavlovian.

The white students were openly disgusted. The black ones, pleased. Times have changed. Today, we have a black President. 

But my guess is that if I had been teaching a similar class when the Trayvon Martin verdict was announced, I would have seen something like a mirror image. Certainly the African-Americans would have been outraged; though I am not sure the white students would have been all that pleased with George Zimmerman’s acquittal.

Yet make no mistake about it; as a cultural phenomenon, this case was about race. But it was about something else, too. I’ll get to that, but first, I was startled after the verdict, when one of the prosecutors said two things, both of them clearly false.

She claimed this wasn’t about race, and not about the right to keep and bear arms. Well, of course that’s nonsense. Had this been a case of a black lower-middle class man shooting a black teenager, or a similar white man shooting a white one, we never would have heard of it. Indeed, this case got essentially no publicity at first.

But since race was involved, the wagons were circled, and cable stations gave it the kind of publicity that ought to be reserved for something like the Nuremberg trials.

Several listeners have asked me why I haven’t previously said or written anything about Trayvon Martin. In fact, I didn’t intend to now. Neither the people involved nor the killing had anything to do with Michigan. And though by chance I met Trayvon’s parents last December, I really don’t know anything about what happened. Except for this insight, which is worth sharing: You almost certainly don’t know anything about it either. I know that because I have covered high-publicity trials, and the view inside the courtroom often is very different from that on TV.

The Kevorkian assisted suicide trials are good examples. When I watched excerpts shown on the news, his guilt seemed established beyond any doubt. But time after time, juries acquitted him.

That’s because what went inside the courtroom looked, sounded and felt very different. To some extent, certainly in the Oakland County trials, the not guilty verdicts were due in part to prosecutorial incompetence. I am not saying that was the case here.

But I am saying that there was another factor that we aren’t willing to talk about: guns. We know this: The adult had a gun, and the teenager didn’t, and the teenager ended up dead. Nobody seems to be questioning whether a 28-year-old mortgage underwriter with a history of domestic violence and an arrest for shoving a cop should carry a gun. That’s because no one wants to suggest that maybe it isn’t a good idea for everyone to carry firearms.

However, I just did. 

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, the University of Michigan.  

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