Eric Zorn: Here’s why, eight years later, the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman story won’t go away

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So George Zimmerman filed a lawsuit against two Democratic presidential hopefuls on Feb. 18 alleging they defamed him on Twitter earlier this month when marking the 25th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s birth.

Martin was 17 when, eight years ago Wednesday, Zimmerman, 28, shot and killed him during an altercation on a rainy night in a Sanford, Fla, subdivision.

Martin was African American. Zimmerman was what has been described as “white Hispanic.” Police initially found that Zimmerman had fired in self-defense when Martin attacked him with his fists, and the national eruption of indignation that followed sparked the Black Lives Matter movement and resulted in Zimmerman being indicted and tried for second-degree murder. His acquittal in July 2013 did little to alter the conventional belief that Zimmerman was a wannabe cop who profiled an innocent, unarmed teen, ran him down and shot him in cold blood.

On Feb. 5, former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg tweeted: “How many 25th birthdays have been stolen from us by white supremacy, gun violence, prejudice and fear?” Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s tweet on the subject called for an end to “gun violence and racism.”

Neither tweet mentioned Zimmerman by name, but the suit, which was filed in a Florida court and asked for $265 million in damages, maintains Buttigieg and Warren defamed him nevertheless because “the name ‘George Zimmerman’ is 100% synonymous with the incident that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin.”

The suit rests heavily on claims advanced in “The Trayvon Hoax,” a book and documentary released in September. The book and film lay out the case that Rachel Jeantel, a key prosecution witness who said she was in a romantic relationship with Martin and testified that she was on the phone with him the moment he was shot, was an impostor.

Zimmerman filed an earlier lawsuit in December based on the same claims in which he and his lawyers accuse members of Martin’s family, their attorney Benjamin Crump, various law enforcement officials, Jeantel and the woman she allegedly impersonated of perpetrating a massive fraud on the court when the prosecutors brought Jeantel forward to testify. In her account, Martin told her he was trying to elude a “creepy cracka’” who was following him, then she heard Zimmerman confront Martin — “What you doing around here?” followed by the sounds of a scuffle in which Martin protested, “get off, get off!”

“The Trayvon Hoax” author and filmmaker Joel Gilbert lays out a comprehensive case — based on voluminous texts, photos, call logs and social media posts related to Martin and other key players — that Jeantel stepped in for Martin’s reluctant actual love interest. This explains some curious aspects of her testimony, such as her inability to read the letter she ostensibly dictated 22 days after the incident to memorialize her account, and the fact that the letter was signed “Diamond Eugene,” not Rachel Jeantel.

Jeantel claimed “Diamond Eugene” was her nickname, but Gilbert identified a young woman named Brittany Diamond Eugene as the actual person on the phone. that night. He posits that she didn’t want to get involved because she’d been cheating on her boyfriend with Martin.

Two prominent African American intellectuals — Brown University economist Glenn Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter — found “The Trayvon Hoax” sufficiently persuasive to discuss it in-depth on two episodes of Loury’s talk show on, and to underscore the point that no one should cling to a narrative just because it supports their social and political views.

The main problem with “The Trayvon Hoax” is that Gilbert is something of a right-wing crackpot, as Loury and McWhorter readily acknowledged. He’s a favorite of the cruel, batty conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, and among his previous efforts is a documentary alleging Barack Obama is lying about the identity of his biological father.

Attorney Crump, on behalf of himself and the Martin family, released a statement in December calling Zimmerman’s suit based on the findings in the book “unfounded and reckless … and a shameless attempt to profit off the lives and grief of others,” but he has not offered evidence to undercut those findings.

I, for one, would like to see them to put the test in court, which just might take this story out of the headlines at last.

Forget the girlfriend issue. When you juxtapose the timeline of events on the night of the killing with a map of the subdivision where the tragedy took place, you can see that idea that Zimmerman hunted down Martin like a dog is as phony as the idea initially put forth that Martin was just a little kid

Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch busybody, profiled Martin as a potential burglar as Martin was walking back to his father’s townhouse from a nearby convenience store. He called police, got out of his car and began hoofing after Martin, who, he reported, began running away. The dispatcher told Zimmerman not to chase him. “OK,” said Zimmerman. Martin was about 100 yards from his father’s house when Zimmerman lost sight of him. About a minute later, according to time-stamped police phone records, he told the dispatcher “I don’t know where this kid is.”

A minute and a half later, as he waited on a sidewalk for police to arrive, Zimmerman hung up with the dispatcher. Two and a half minutes after that, neighbors begin calling 911 to report the sounds of a fight outside, again about 100 yards from Martin’s father’s house. The sound of the single, fatal gunshot is heard 45 seconds later.

The six-part documentary TV series “Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story” never mentions or wrestles with the implications of this timeline. Attorney Lisa Bloom avoided it entirely in her 320-page book “Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It.”

Why would that be? Because the tick-tock wrecks the story by all but proving Martin doubled back so he could administer a beating to the short, doughy guy who’d profiled him.

And it strongly suggests, as the jury found, that Zimmerman pulled out his gun and shot in self-defense because he was getting his butt whipped.

That’s why police took forever to charge him. That’s why he was acquitted. That’s why the feds never filed civil rights charges against Zimmerman. And that’s why Martin is far from an ideal martyr.

This reality is nothing to fear. It doesn’t erode the animating reality of the Black Lives Matter movement that racism is a virulent, endemic poison particularly dangerous to young black men.

But truth matters, too. Let’s get to the bottom of it and put this sad story behind us once and for all.



Eric Zorn is an op-ed columnist for the Chicago Tribune.


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