In Defense of George Zimmerman
How the gun lobby, conservatives, and right-wing media have rallied to defend the man who killed Trayvon Martin.
Photograph by AFP/Stringer/Getty Images.
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.”
After the arrest, and as the police work’s come out, it’s gotten easier to defend Zimmerman. Shortly before he turned himself in, Zimmerman created a rudimentary website to raise money for his defense. He showed up for his bail hearing on April 20. Three days later, he made the $150,000 bail. The defense fund had filled up with more than $200,000. It was the least Zimmerman’s supporters could do, to stop the railroading. Among his angels were the founders of Legal Boom, a local gun rights group, who’d been running their own fundraising drive.
“We spoke with George personally, for about 30 minutes,” Legal Boom’s Chris Kossmann told me.* They ended their campaign so he could focus on his, but they proved that there was sympathy and solidarity outside of the court of public opinion. “If we hadn’t done what we did, George wouldn’t have raised that $200,000.”
After the first fundraising burst, the official defense fund has been taking in around $1,000 per day. That’s a steady clip, considering how public interest in the story has faded. The new updates on the case—the new bits of information from the investigation—have so far bolstered Zimmerman’s version of the story. On Friday, Harvard Law professor and incorrigible legal commentator Alan Dershowitz started writing op-eds about how the media and the special prosecutor were “biased against Zimmerman,” and how the charge of second-degree murder would never hold up. On Saturday, he appeared on Fox News’ Huckabee to expand on the theory. Where did the press get off, implying that Zimmerman had racially profiled Martin?
“It was the prosecutor who talked about profiling, in the affidavit itself!” said Dershowitz. “He didn’t have any basis. It was just made up.”
The host was flabbergasted. “White Hispanic?” asked Huckabee. “I’m not even sure what that means.”
Finally, after a public thrashing that made him infamous, Zimmerman was getting his story told. Few people were defending the way that the media had portrayed him—“white Hispanic,” the selectively edited 911 call. If the left thought it was going to turn this into a debate about gun laws, it picked the wrong villain and the wrong victim.
But this could have gone another way. There was one scenario that would have provided some swift justice for the Martin family without making Zimmerman infamous. That option: a timely arrest, and a police investigation. And that’s what the “hustlers” said they wanted in the first place.
Correction, May 22, 2012: This article originally misspelled Chris Kossmann's last name. (Return to corrected sentence.)
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.