An article appeared yesterday in the Associated Press with a headline that I felt was way off. Here is my letter to the editor of the AP.
I am writing to express my disappointment and anger over a very poorly worded headline “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or good neighbor?” article by Mike Schneider, published 3/21/2012.
It seems to me that the outrage and tremendous sorrow that this case has generated stems not from questions about the confessed shooter’s vigilantism or neighborliness, but whether or not that vigilantism tipped over into racially motivated and unprovoked killing. A vigilante, by definition, is a person who takes it upon him or herself to suppress or punish crime outside the sphere of law enforcement (Miriam-Webster). This term indicates taking the law into one’s own hands *when a crime is being committed or is about to be committed.* In the case of the slaughter of 17 year old Trayvon Martin, unfolding evidence– which was in the public eye yesterday prior to the publishing of this article– reveals that this young man neither committed nor was about to commit any crime. In fact, he expressed on the phone to a young woman moments before his death that he felt unsafe because he was being followed.
A more accurate question might have been, “Was Fla. shooter a vigilante or a murderer?” or “Was Fla. shooter a good neighbor or a cold-blooded killer?” The use of two suggested motivations– fighting crime and protecting the neighborhood, neither of which are borne up by the facts (no crime was committed prior to the shooting, and the neighborhood was not in danger)– negates the other side of this conversation, denying that there is something far more sinister and fearful behind Zimmerman’s actions, be it fear, racism, megalomania, or some combination thereof.
Language is powerful, and as our society wrestles with the terrible truth of what happened to Trayvon Martin, we must be as careful as possible to be respectful of both the nuances and the strong emotions enveloping the families of both the victim and the shooter, the community in which this killing took place, and a nation that still has a lot of work to do when it comes to overcoming violence and racism. I feel that your headline yesterday missed the mark, and missed an opportunity to contribute to this national conversation in an informative and sensitive way.
Reverend Rebecca Clark
I contacted the AP as suggested on their website by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also take action by signing a petition at Change.org calling for prosecution of the shooter, and by sending a letter as suggested by the Open Letter Campaign to the Sanford Chief of Police calling for justice (as a tribute to Trayvon, we are asked to send an empty skittles wrapper with each letter): Chief of Police, Sanford Police Department, 815 West 13th Street, Sanford, FL 32771