CHICAGO, March 18, 2012—Trayvon Martin is at the eye of the latest internet social media storm. Martin is dead, killed by George Zimmerman, and the social media mobs are howling for Zimmerman’s head. The power and speed of social media are amplifying their howls into a national roar.
Social media create awareness, generate massive publicity, and drive people to action. They do this with a hyper speed unheard of a few years ago. In the process, social media drives become the news and narrative, as in the Koney2012 explosion last week. Real stories, and maybe truth, get lost in it all.
Trayvon Martin was a black 17-year old visiting his father in Sanford, Florida. He was shot and killed on February 26th.
Not much is known about the shooting. Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, is described as an armed “neighborhood watch captain” in his sub-division.
Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person. Against the advice of the police dispatcher, he chased Martin through the neighborhood, and finally caught him. A struggle may or may not have ensued; a shot was fired, on purpose, accidently, or in self-defense.
Trayvon Martin is dead, shot in the chest by George Zimmerman.
No eyewitnesses have come forward. Zimmerman claims he fired in self-defense. Others claim Zimmerman was a loose cannon roaming the streets with a gun. Charges of racism are rearing their ugly head.
The police turned their investigation over to the prosecutor, who will determine whether there is probable cause to charge Zimmerman with a crime and enough evidence to convict him.
This is not enough for the social media mobs. They demand that justice move at the speed of the Internet. They want reality to reflect the speed and certainty of an episode of CSI, preferably without the time-consuming commercials.
A petition at Change.org has garnered over 300 thousand signatures calling for Zimmerman’s prosecution. Twitter is chirping with tweets. Over two thousand people right now like the “Justice for Trayvon Martin” Facebook page.
There are some real concerns that merit our attention.
- No eyewitness has come forward to dispute or defend Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. 911 tapes, while dramatic, are useless as eyewitness testimony, raising as many questions as they answer.
- For the time being, it appears Florida law, which is all that counts, is on Zimmerman’s side.
- Zimmerman is described as a “police wannabe,” or “buff,” as they are known in police circles. Too many of these people wind up injured or dead, in altercations they should have stayed out of, or, as in the case of Trayvon Martin, they kill someone.
- It is way too easy to cry racism from behind computer screens and microphones. Unproven accusations of racism only fuel mass anger and rage, sometimes getting officials to move with careless haste. The Duke Lacrosse rape case is a memorable example of that.
- Speed causes critical legal mistakes and missteps that could have severe consequences down the line. A guilty man can go free. An innocent man can go to prison.
- There is a social media mob mentality forming to charge George Zimmerman with a crime. Arrest him, indict him, convict him. Do it now. The digital lynch mob cannot understand why Zimmerman is still walking the streets while Trayvon Martin lies in a grave. They neither understand nor care that investigations can take weeks, months, or years to obtain results.
What is the hurry? What good would it do to arrest Zimmerman and have him go free after a trial, or maybe not be tried if a judge tosses the case for lack of cause?
Prosecutors need more than a tragedy to bring a case into court. They need evidence, witnesses, and probable cause.
George Zimmerman and his ilk are nevertheless a problem. They want to play cops. They are vigilantes with over-developed imaginations and a thirst for drama. They see criminals around every corner, behind every tree, and under their beds.
They join ridiculous and useless “crime watch groups,” roaming their neighborhoods to look for felonious behavior and hot action. They’re like the people who run around with those cute little red berets, though the Guardian Angels, unlike Zimmerman, are not armed and do have training requirements.
Vigilante buffs see thieves, rapists, and vandals in every group of people not like them. If the cops can’t do their jobs, then dagnabit, they will.
When they take action, as they inevitably do, they cause nothing but headaches for law enforcement, prosecutors, and judges.
The growing phenomenon of social media creates on-line analogs to vigilante buffs like Zimmerman. The speed and reach of the internet gives desk-bound Walter Mittys, with their own ideated sense of vigilante justice, the methods, means, and sense of power to live out their overblown fantasies of getting back at the man and the establishment.
These are the new lynch mobs - tech rioters and petitioning protesters. Just like Zimmerman, they cry out for justice in a world where they perceive none. They demand action where they perceive inaction.
Trayvon Martin is dead. George Zimmerman killed him. That is all we know. Under Florida law Zimmerman may be guilty of murder, innocent, or something in between.
The truth, whatever it is, will eventually come out, and no one will be satisfied.
The vigilantes and their social media lynch mob equivalents believe the same code: “There is no justice. Just us.”
It is always just about them.
Peter V. Bella is a retired Chicago Police Officer, freelance writer and photographer, cook, and raconteur. He likes to be the sharp stick that pokes, prods, and annoys. His opinions are his and his alone.
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