The Political War Over Trayvon Martin

Matthew Cooper

Jeffrey Toobin's seen it all. The New Yorker writer and CNN legal commentator was there for the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995 and he's helping to cover the trial of George Zimmerman, the Florida man who is standing trial for the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

"I think racial issues are difficult to understand or confront in large abstractions and we've always understood these issues better as stories whether it's Rosa Parks or O.J. Simpson," Toobin reflected when I asked him to compare the Zimmerman case with the O.J Simpson trial. "The Zimmerman case is a classic confrontation that raises a lot of larger issues."

Commentators and the public invest trials with cultural symbolism. Race. Class. Justice. Read deep meanings into a trial all you want. Ultimately, as any lawyer will tell you, they turn on the little moments--what judges allow or don't allow, the luck of the jury, the strengths of the legal team. If Zimmerman walks, it will be seen by many as a deep injustice, the release of a man who followed a black teenager armed only with iced tea and Skittles. Others will surely see a Zimmerman conviction as a legal system run amok, a prosecutor who sought murder charges only because of public pressure in the case. But the truth is that the verdict will be about the evidence presented to the jury, not the winds of the commentariat.

And there's a lot more commentariat these days and it seems to be affecting the way we think about these cases. The Zimmerman trial is very different than the Simpson trial that captured the American imagination but it's worth thinking about the differences between 2013 and 1995 for what they tell us about ourselves.

Simpson was a nationally known athlete, broadcaster and TV pitchman with a friendly mien; neither Martin nor Zimmerman had any claim to fame before that fateful night. In the O.J. case it was an African-American defendant and caucasian victims. This time, it's an African-American who had been slain.

Instead, viewers are seeing the Zimmerman trial through more of a political lens than a racial one. When the O.J. verdict came down the divide was decidedly racial. White liberals in West Hollywood and Georgetown seemed as appalled as folks in Nebraska. Now there's a more united vision of progressives, black and white, who see Zimmerman as a criminal who should be prosecuted and conservatives who see Zimmerman as being railroaded. Rick Wilson, a Republican political consultant from Florida, echoes the GOP disdain for the MSNBC view of the trial. "The certitude of MSNBC analysts of Zimmerman's guilt for his multistate murder, arson, cattle mutilation and cannibalism spree is absolute," Wilson tweeted. Is this progress? Not really.

The biggest difference may be that the Internet revolution hadn't arrived in 1995. "I didn't have a cell phone," Toobin recalls. "I called home using a Sprint card." There was plenty of commentary back then on television, the likes of Geraldo Rivera or Greta Van Susteren. But they were legal analysts on networks that, at least, bowed to fairness. There wasn't the same proliferation of political lenses with which to see the case. Al Sharpton wasn't a TV host but a political activist who, later that year, was leading a boycott in Harlem against a "white interloper"--a term Sharpton later apologized for using. Now he's covering the trial. If you want to follow the Zimmerman trial through conservative indignation of Laura Ingraham, Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck, you can. Same is true if you want to follow Melissa Harris-Perry or Chris Hayes of The Nation and MSNBC. In most cases, the proliferation of voices, left and right, is a good thing adding more debate to, say, the budget or Afghanistan. In the case of a trial like this, it seems to have the effect of inflaming passions without enlightening. 

At the time of the O.J. acquittal there was endless hand wringing across the country about the racial divide. But for most of the sturm und drang, the country went on as it was. Bill Clinton was reelected the following year. Simpson was found guilty in 1997 in a wrongful death suit and liable for millions. Today he sits without much fanfare in a Nevada prison convicted of kidnapping and robbery in another set of crimes. If Zimmerman is found innocent or guilty, it's not an indictment of the country. And the verdict won't make it any less a tragedy that a young man was killed.