The last thing the family of Trayvon Martin needs is Al Sharpton.
The family of Martin, the teenager who was shot and killed last month in Florida by a neighborhood watch volunteer, has yet to get any justice. But the case is getting lots of attention -- from editorial and op-ed pages, on cable talk shows, even from the president. All without the help of Sharpton, thank you.
As Barack Obama tried to say on Friday, Martin is everyone’s son. Even if you can look away from the cases of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, arrested on his own front porch in 2009 for burglary, or Amadou Diallo, the unarmed African immigrant gunned down in a hail of 41 bullets in 1999 by undercover New York City cops, you can’t look away from the killing of Martin.
He was a typical teenager, bright-eyed in every photo, beaming in his Wolverines football jersey, hugging his brother and mother on a skiing trip. He was the kid who washed cars and painted houses for extra money while taking advanced math and English in preparation for college.
As with rape victims, the past is now being mined for evidence that Martin asked for that bullet to the chest. Some Facebook photos and a residue of marijuana in a plastic bag, which got him suspended from school, have been adduced. However upsetting to his teachers and parents these revelations may be, they have nothing to do with what happened that night.
Walking While Black
He died for the crime of Walking While Black, or maybe Eating Skittles While Black. George Zimmerman now says he shot the unarmed Martin in self-defense after Martin broke his nose and banged Zimmerman’s head on the ground (although Zimmerman did not seek immediate medical attention). But from the 911 recording we know Zimmerman called the police to report his suspicions and was told not to follow Martin but did anyway.
That recording is all you need to have for probable cause for the arrest of Zimmerman. Yet Martin is dead, and Zimmerman is free.
The role of Al Sharpton in this case would be to divert attention from Trayvon Martin and onto Al Sharpton. This is what happened with the Tawana Brawley case in 1987, when Sharpton was a perpetrator of racial injustice intent on making a name for himself. Sharpton joined two other black activists, Alton Maddox Jr. and C. Vernon Mason, in glomming onto 15-year-old Brawley, who’d disappeared for four days from her upstate New York home and was found lying unresponsive in a black garbage bag, smeared with dog feces, with racial slurs written on her body. She claimed that two to six white men had abducted and repeatedly raped her.
There was no forensic evidence to back up her story. In fact, there was much evidence to indicate she was lying, that Sharpton knew she was lying, and that he didn’t care as long as the cameras were clicking. Brawley refused to testify on the advice and with the support of Sharpton, who said to cooperate would be like “asking someone who watched someone killed in the gas chamber to sit down with Mr. Hitler.” He didn’t relent even after local authorities were removed and a special prosecutor named.
As it turned out, there were so many inconsistencies in Brawley’s story that the grand jury threw out the case. The rape kit showed there was no sexual assault. Despite four days of supposedly being held in the woods, she did not suffer from exposure, was well-nourished and had recently brushed her teeth. Her clothes were burned, but she wasn’t.
Items recovered from the Brawley apartment supported the contention that she’d inflicted her own injuries and scrawled epithets on her own body. Schoolmates testified that she’d been at a party during the abduction. A neighbor looking out her window before the case exploded had called the Dutchess County sheriff out of concern over a girl crawling into a garbage bag behind the apartment.
Sharpton lost a defamation suit filed by Steven Pagones, then the assistant district attorney of Dutchess County, who was accused by the three activists as one of the rapists. With an extremely heavy burden of proof against a public figure, Pagones proved the falsity of Brawley’s allegations and Sharpton’s complicity. Sharpton was ordered to pay $65,000 in damages. He refused. (The amount was ultimately paid off by friends of Sharpton’s who didn’t want him to be held in contempt.)
Brawley made Sharpton famous, even as the case made race relations worse. Pagones was beaten down by 10 years of litigation, lost his wife and three children, and never got his career back on track.
Every time the screen fades from a picture of Martin to Sharpton, I see a demagogue with kerosene. Yes, Sharpton may now be a semi-respectable MSNBC host, but he also makes it harder to hear the pleas of parents telling us that the situation confronting their young sons is so dangerous that they have to school them in safe behavior from an early age: Don’t put your hand in your pocket. Don’t walk too close to a white woman or her purse. Don’t stay in a store if a salesperson is eyeing you. And don’t wear a hoodie -- advice that Martin, like millions of others, did not heed.
Sharpton needs Martin, but Martin’s family doesn’t need Sharpton. If anything good is to come from the case of Trayvon Martin, it will be that it forces Americans to see how much more we need to do to make it safe for a black child in America. Sharpton doesn’t help us with that. Instead, he gives those who most need to join this cause a reason not to.
(Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
Read more opinion online from Bloomberg View.
Today’s highlights: The editors on China’s clean-coal technology, Ireland’s economic woes and Syria’s muddled opposition. William Pesek on Japan’s workplace discrimination. Margaret Carlson on Trayvon Martin and Al Sharpton. Meghan O’Sullivan on Iraq’s economic salvation. Clive Crook on the writings of a potential World Bank president. Peter Orszag and Peter Diamond on Mitt Romney’s Social Security plan. And Simon Johnson and James Kwak on how the U.S. became banker to the world.
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