At the start of May, right after Elizabeth Warren’s first, toothache-inducing explanations for why Harvard had called her a “minority” hire, I started seeing a two-panel photo-editorial pop up on Facebook. On the left: An image of George Zimmerman’s first mug shot, the one taken in 2005 after an accidental altercation with an undercover cop. On the right: A photo of a smiling, blonde-and-blue-eyed Warren. The Zimmerman photo had been labeled “CRACKER.” The Warren photo: “MINORITY.” The caption: Welcome to Left-Wing Bizarro World.
The illustration originated at IOwntheWorld.com, a pugnacious conservative news-and-jokes site. The site went live on Jan. 20, 2009, just as Barack Obama was putting his hand on the Bible. Its better images were printed in full color and pasted to Tea Party rally signs. When the president said “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” IOwntheWorld was ready with an image of Obama donning a hoodie. There’s a theme here: The media and the race hustlers told us that George Zimmerman was a white, racist, murderer. You lied to us.
Six weeks passed between the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the arrest of his shooter. If the Martin case was a campaign, you’d say that his family’s attorneys “won” those weeks. Martin, dead at 17, was introduced to the world as an all-American kid, shot because he wore a hoodie. Zimmerman? The first image people saw of him was a mug shot of a “white Hispanic” guy. The first they heard from him was a heavy-breathing 911 call, one of many he made when he saw interlopers lurking at the Retreat at Twin Lakes.
But ever since Zimmerman turned himself in, he’s gotten the better of the story. NBC News, nationally and in Orlando, has apologized for a dishonest edit of the 911 call. (It was the dispatcher, not Zimmerman, who brought up Martin’s race.) Investigators have released drips and drabs of their findings, including photos of a bloodied-up Zimmerman from the night of the shooting, and witness statements that suggest the armed, neighborhood watch volunteer feared for his life.
In a normal case, we’d let the defense and the prosecution work this out. This is not a normal case. This is a national story, elevated by a statement from the president, a threat from the Justice Department, and several hashtags. It forced the resignation of Sanford, Fla.’s police chief. It got the Republican-run state of Florida to scramble and create a task force to look at the Stand Your Ground law, the hard-won legislation that would allow someone like Zimmerman to act in self-defense without first trying to retreat. The American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative consortium of state legislators, even deep-sixed the task force that had been work-shopping model Stand Your Ground language in different states.
So Zimmerman’s accidental allies learned to stand their ground. Gun rights advocates, who’d lobbied for Florida’s law, were among the first to criticize the press for making the defendant look guilty. “Everyday victims aren't celebrities,” said NRA Vice President Wayne LaPierre at the group’s annual convention. (He took the stage right before Mitt Romney.) “They don't draw ratings, don't draw sponsors. But sensational reporting from Florida does. In the aftermath of one of Florida's many daily tragedies, my phone has been ringing off the hook.”
It wasn’t easy, sticking up for Zimmerman. But there was real anger out there about how he was being treated. The media was making him out as a thug and making Martin out as a saint. If you picked your news carefully, you could reverse the story. Before the arrest, conservative blogs found Martin’s Twitter accounts and YouTube page and challenged the media’s portrayal of a skinny, innocent kid. Meanwhile, according to Rush Limbaugh, Zimmerman just “got a little overzealous,” and the media called him a “white Hispanic” because “you need white-on-black here to gin this up.”