Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman and the blurry line between conservative media and the far-right
A man is known by the company he keeps. One day before Florida courts charged George Zimmerman with the murder of Trayvon Martin, armed neo-Nazis in shiny black boots were patrolling the streets. “We want to be sure that white residents of the area feel safe,” one of them told The Independent’s Guy Adams. But their conflation of protection and victimisation is nothing new in Sanford, Florida. For the last few weeks their online counterparts have been uncomfortably close to the conservative media in a campaign to smear the dead teenager before his killer was even charged.
Zimmerman is in the hands of the law, now, and his guilt or innocence remains to be proven. But his case has been political dynamite (on Tuesday came the bizarre twist that George Zimmerman was confiding in conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity even while his lawyers were desperate to contact him). Campaigns for an arrest had gone on for some time, but once the President got involved, things got partisan. After Barack Obama told Martin’s parents “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”, blogs and websites surrounding key conservative figures like Glenn Beck and Dick Cheney began calling for the country to ‘wait for the facts’ and respect ‘due process’, rallying on Twitter around the #teamdueprocess hashtag. They did this by implying that Martin was a criminal.
On March 19, Beck’s website, The Blaze, speculated without much evidence that Martin could have been suspended from school for drug possession, “sexual harassment”, or “arson”. The Miami Herald spent four paragraphs listing ‘suspicious’ facts about Martin’s bags (like “women’s jewellery” and a “burglary tool”) and on the same day, The Daily Caller, co-founded by Dick Cheney, published a compilation of tweets reportedly culled from Martin’s deleted Twitter account, by an ‘undisclosed source’. The Conservative Review immediately branded the teen “a criminal thug on his way to a life in prison”.
The campaign of character assassination didn’t stop with the right wing media. On March 25, a Twitter news site run by another Fox News contributor, Michelle Malkin, posted a picture of an entirely different Trayvon Martin which had appeared one day before on the neo-nazi website Stormfront.
On March 29, a white supremacist hacker called ‘Klanklannon’ took up the work of Cheney’s Caller and leaked private messages he claimed belonged to Martin. The hacker invited people to log into Martin’s gmail account and see for themselves, having helpfully changed the password to ‘niggerniggernigger’.
Meanwhile, the conservative National Review had the nerve to fire contributing editor John Derbyshire on April 8 for looking beyond the controversy to the wider issues at stake. “Avoid concentrations of blacks not all known to you personally,” he wrote in an article for Taki’s Magazine, responding to Trayvon-inspired race debates by describing ‘the talk’ he gives to his kids. “Do not attend events likely to draw a lot of blacks,” he went on (each point was backed up by a link to a crime or scandal which happened to involve an African-American). Avoid amusement parks if they are “swamped with blacks,” he warned; “Do not settle in a district or municipality run by black politicians.”
In the Fox-News-o-sphere’s focus on Trayvon and its implication that Zimmerman needed “protecting” from a dangerous thug is the germ of the idea that brought Nazis to Sanford. Anything in Martin’s life that was remotely ‘suspect’ (or, often, youthful) became evidence that he was a threat – better evidence, apparently, than prosecutors could ever provide.
‘Protection’ has served as a worse excuse before. In his terrifying expose of post-Katrina killings in New Orleans, AC Thompson shows how a white militia group described as “the ultimate neighbourhood watch” attacked black citizens with impunity. 32-year-old Donnell Herrington was shot in the neck by vigilantes – he claimed there was no warning – in affluent Algiers Point, which one militiaman gleefully described as “like pheasant season in South Dakota”. “I’m not a prejudiced individual,” said another, “but you just know the outlaws who are up to no good. You can see it in their eyes.”
Then, as the New Statesman notes, there was Camp Grayhound, a “facsimile of Guantanamo Bay” built in two days by prison labour where the militias brought ‘arrested’ citizens to be thrown in outdoor cages and repeatedly pepper-sprayed. One was Syrian-American Abdulrahman Zeitoun, the subject of a non-fiction book by Dave Eggers, who spent three days there for no particular reason (“you guys are al-Qa’ida,” he was told; “We’re taking our city back”). According to the Statesman, police had claimed that babies were being raped in the refugee camps and that officers should “shoot looters”. Last year the entire New Orleans Police Department was placed under judicial supervision as a threat to the public.
For the Katrina militias, as for the Sanford neo-Nazis, protecting white America meant threatening blacks; for the conservative blogosphere, protecting George Zimmerman means dirtying the name of a dead youth. This uneasy parity in logic reveals the racist undertones of a campaign to thugify Trayvon which writers have shared with white supremacists. Zimmerman will be tried by the courts, now, and not by the media – which is all the protesters ever wanted. But in the meantime, the American far right must take a serious look at the company it keeps.Tagged in: conservative, far right, florida, george zimmerman, media, neo-Nazi, shooting, trayvon martin
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter