“There are no Rachel Jeantels on CSI.” -John Guy, during his closing argument in the George Zimmerman trial
Like most people who keep a television on in the daytime, I’ve been watching the George Zimmerman trial. You have to. That’s all the television will show you.
When the news broke last year, it almost instantly ballooned from a story of a 17-year-old kid who had gotten killed into a metaphor for our feelings about race, our feelings about guns, and anything else you cared to throw on the pile. Everyone who looked saw something different. The case was like the old fable about blind men groping an elephant. Everyone found something that stood out that was the Most Important Thing About It.
The ups and downs of the Trayvon Martin case and George Zimmerman trial reveal the danger of transforming a person into a metaphor.
Trayvon Martin didn’t know he was about to become a symbol for anything. He was just walking back to the house with Skittles and iced tea.
George Zimmerman didn’t know either, for that matter.
But the whole point of these Big TV Trials is that you have to be convinced it’s something other than real life. If it’s just people, even if it’s a terrifically sad story, why are millions of us tuning in? Why aren’t we watching, you know, Egypt, or a cruise ship with sanitation problems, or something?
That’s not Jodi Arias, the TV Trial Machine says. That’s the Face of Evil. That’s not Casey Anthony. That’s an excuse for you to fight out the skirmish in the Mommy Wars about Who Can Show the Greatest Indignation. That’s not a person. It’s something else, something bigger. It’s an excuse to make Nancy Grace’s head explode.
Trayvon Martin started out as a person, but the more people started staring the more he disappeared. He was his hoodie. He was What President Obama’s Son Would Have Looked Like. When we located his Twitter and actually got to hear the jokes he made to friends, it was almost an affront to the image that we’d created around him. How dare he be anything other than that one picture, than a glowing symbol? The idea of Trayvon had ballooned far beyond what any one person could hope to contain, let alone a 17-year-old kid. He couldn’t be a person. He had to be more than that.
This desire to transform actual people into capitalized Ideas and Symbols and Metaphors even happens in the courtroom, to the point that people seemed almost stunned that Rachel Jeantel, clearly a person, not a symbol, not a type — The Quietly Noble Bereaved Friend or The Indignant But Restrained Survivor — would testify. Could no actors be found to portray a Rachel Jeantel character without edges, who would not say “Sir” in that tone? they seemed to ask. If I had a dime for every minute the lawyers have spent apologizing to the jury for the fact that Rachel Jeantel was not made-for-TV, I’d be able to buy a DVD of the inevitable CSI spinoff of this story.
These flashy stories rub up uncomfortably against real life. Everyone’s weighed in now. The giant images we’ve created are staggering above the courtroom, where a group of real people have to decide what comes next.
This is the story of a person being eaten by a story and then the story being eaten by its own story. Everyone has some story to tell about this. Everyone has hold of a different part of the elephant. What did it mean?
In a way, it’s the inability to see the person beneath the shadow that made this happen in the first place. George Zimmerman didn’t see a 17-year-old kid with Skittles. He didn’t see a human being. What he thought he was following was something else, something faceless and frightening.
This whole case has been a story of not seeing things as they are — mistaking a kid for an allegory, a 17-year-old with Skittles for the menace threatening your neighborhood. What should you be afraid of? What story do you believe? What is the deeper significance? What does the way we watch say about us? What will the verdict say? What will our response to it say?
But this isn’t a Hollywood story, as John Guy pointed out in the rebuttal. George Zimmerman didn’t shoot a symbol. He shot a kid, a 17-year-old, named Trayvon. Symbols are much easier to come by.