By Faithful Okoye
The recent media frenzy over Trayvon Martin led the Association of Black Communicators at UF to question what role the media are playing in the case of the shooting of the black 17-year-old.
Like Trayvon, another unarmed black teen in Sanford, Fla., Tavares McGill, was shot and killed in 2005 when two security guards opened fire on his car. The 16-year-old was in a parking lot dropping off a friend when a guard shined a light on the car. According to Erin Sullivan of the Orlando Weekly, the teens panicked, and as Tavares tried backing up he hit the guards’ car. The guards then opened fire on him, eventually saying that they had thought he was trying to run them over.
Tavares was shot in the back, and a review of the evidence showed that the guards had continued shooting long after the teen was no longer headed toward them, according to the Orlando Sentinel.
When the case was brought to trial nearly four months later, the judge dismissed it as self-defense.
In that same city a few years later on Feb. 26 of this year, Trayvon Martin was shot by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood guard who claimed self-defense to the Sanford Police. The police let Zimmerman go.
But this time, unlike in Tavares’ case seven years ago, Zimmerman was arrested 45 days after Trayvon’s death and is now facing second-degree murder charges.
Last week, the Association of Black Communicators spoke with an eight-person panel to try to answer the question: Why was Zimmerman eventually arrested while other similar people have gone free in the past?
The group concluded that the main reason for the arrest of Zimmerman was because Trayvon’s parents and their attorney consciously targeted the media.The panel included a professor from the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program, Paul Ortiz, and a 1960s civil rights activist, Gwendolyn Simmons.
During the early days of the shooting, there was limited coverage. There was a brief mention of the death of a teenager by gunshot in the Orlando Sentinel. A local Orlando station, WOFL Fox, covered the police at the scene.
The 17-year-old had been walking back from a convenience store one evening when Zimmerman spotted him and called the police. He told the police that he spotted a suspicious black teen in the neighborhood.
Against police orders, he followed Trayvon. He told the police later that night that he stopped following the teen when Trayvon came up to him and they exchanged words. According to Zimmerman, the 17-year-old pulled him down and started hitting him against the ground.
Police reported bruises on Zimmerman’s head when he was arrested. He claimed that he was defending himself, and after questioning him, the police let him go.
“For more than a week, the story teetered near obscurity, at risk of becoming just another tragic but forgotten encounter on a rainy night in central Florida,” said Paul Farhi of the Washington Post.
Then, Trayvon’s family held a press conference calling for the Sanford Police to arrest Zimmerman, and the story garnered more attention from the media.
She said that the attorney and family had actually hired a public relations person to attract social media. For the most part, the Martin story found the media, a Washington Post article said.
“It is important to note that it was a conscientious effort,” Hilliard-Nunn said.
In Tavares’ case, there was no powerful attorney to represent him, and the judge let the police off on self-defense.
Simmons, a lecturer in the UF African Studies Program, said that she was encouraged to see “white, black and brown” putting their feet down to make America what it claims to be.
“Always claimed to be but never was,” she said.
The more African Americans pushing the story that hits home to them, the less situations like Trayvon Martin will remain unnoticed, Simmons said.