How Is Zimmerman Doing In The Court Of Public Opinion?

Besides the courtroom trial going on in Sanford, Fla., for Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, the larger issues are being discussed online and in public demonstrations.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And we want to bring another voice into the conversation here. NPR's Gene Demby joins us in the studio. He's been following this trial very closely, writing about it on our website.

And Gene, you wrote something very interesting. You said there's one trial going on in the courtroom, but that you've been following a second trial that began much earlier. What do you mean by that?

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So, at the very beginning activists starting coalescing around the trial. Within about a month there were rallies all over the country in places like Oakland and Philadelphia and Chicago and it sounded like this...

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST RALLY)

CROWD: (Chanting) I am Trayvon. I am Trayvon. I am Trayvon...

GREENE: I remember those rallies; I am Trayvon, people shouting. Where is this one?

DEMBY: That one is in Baltimore. And at a lot of those rallies, people wearing gray hoodies, which is what Trayvon Martin was wearing when he was shot.

GREENE: And back then also, I remember some things were coming out. We had these 911 tapes that a lot of people in the country seemed to be talking about.

DEMBY: Right. There was ones in which you could actually hear the shooting, there was someone yelling. There were the 911 tapes in which Zimmerman calls the police and says he sees someone suspicious. All those things were being debated about way before charges were actually brought against Zimmerman.

GREENE: I think I see what you're getting at. You had people in the country beginning to form their opinions about this case well before an actual trial started. What have you reflected on as you've watched this other trial out in the public?

DEMBY: So, I was actually covering one of the rallies in New York City last year. And you could have been forgiven if you thought that that rally was actually about stop and frisk, which is New York City's police tactic that gives officers wide discretion to pat down and search people they deem suspicious.

GREENE: And a lot of minorities in New York say that they are targeted under that program, we should say.

DEMBY: A study came out that found that 90 percent of the people who were stopped were black and Latinos. The issue of racial profiling seems to be central to the way people are reading the Trayvon Martin case.

GREENE: So it almost became a proxy war. I mean, this debate over racial profiling in New York, people were using the Trayvon Martin case to kind of get out there and talk about it.

DEMBY: Right, absolutely. But it wasn't just racial profiling. There were other conversations that were swirling around the case. One of the groups that had been a major proponent of the Stand Your Ground laws that were initially thought to have played a role in this case...

GREENE: We should say that's the law in Florida that allows someone to fire a gun if he can prove that it was in self-defense.

DEMBY: Right.

GREENE: That's an important part of this case.

DEMBY: Right. So, there were all kinds of other things, all kinds of other conversations that we're having in the country. Not just racial profiling, although that was kind of the central one.

GREENE: All the while then we get the actual case that begins in the courtroom, which doesn't involve a lot of these conversations. It's almost, there's a total disconnect there.

DEMBY: Yeah. The case itself in the courtroom is, like, hermetically sealed from these larger conversations. I mean, jurors are being asked to decide a very, very particular legal question, which is to decide whether or not George Zimmerman acted in self-defense. They're being charged with a superhuman task of kind of tuning out all the other discussion, all the other noise around this trial in order to decide that. So, there are so many ways that people who are following this trial very closely might be very disappointed with the outcome, in part because criminal trials are just very bad venues for us to resolve these larger, messy social issues.

GREENE: Why are they bad venues to solve some of these social issues?

DEMBY: Because the juries are asked to decide on really, really small technical points, right? Did Trayvon Martin attack George Zimmerman? Did George Zimmerman attack Trayvon Martin? And none of those things necessarily have any bearing on any of the larger conversations, right? I mean, it's possible that George Zimmerman did racially profile Trayvon Martin and did shoot him in self-defense, right? Those things can both be true. And that's why these things don't really solve any questions, right? They just complicate our conversation.

GREENE: As you've been monitoring social media, what are some examples of some of the conversations, debates going on about race or about gun laws sort of as this trial's playing out?

DEMBY: You know, initially, when the hubbub around this trial began, there were a lot of conversations about what you do if you're a young black man and you have some encounter with police officers. How do you comport yourself in a way to not escalate the situation? And that still seems to be a really resonant thread, it still seems to come up in conversations on social media. LeVar Burton, who is - LeVar Burton - Geordi La Forge, the guy from "Reading Rainbow" - was talking about, he puts his hands on the wheel; he doesn't move very quickly. And he says, because I live in America. And that seems to be the conversation that so many people are still having.

GREENE: It sounds like there are people who are seeing themselves in the two young men who were involved in this incident.

DEMBY: Right. There are people who are saying I understand why George Zimmerman may be scared. The people were saying that I understand what it's like to be followed or thought suspicious because I was brown, right? None of us comes to any of this without our own context and our own backstory.

GREENE: Gene, thanks for coming in to talk to us about the case.

DEMBY: Thank you so much again, David.

GREENE: That's NPR's Gene Demby from Code Switch, our team at NPR that covers race, ethnicity and culture. And you can find his writing at npr.org/CodeSwitch.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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