Commentary: Why Trayvon Martin Trumps Presidential Politics

While the GOP candidates circled around each other and wondered aloud if President Obama is a socialist, the rest of America debated about civil society and the rights of an unarmed 17-year-old.

Posted: 04/11/2012 05:30 PM EDT

Early Tuesday afternoon, former Sen. Rick Santorum announced he would be suspending his presidential campaign. A few hours later, lawyers for George Zimmerman walked in front of a bank of microphones in Florida and announced they were withdrawing as legal counsel for their client.

As these two big news stories collided and competed for national media attention, only one was destined to remain part of our national dialogue for weeks to come.

With storylines connected to race, politics, law, civil rights, civil liberties and the influence of money on public policy, the Trayvon Martin story reflects the very issues we might expect presidential aspirants to discuss. But in our modern, televised and scripted presidential campaigns, disciplined candidates rarely delve "off message" into issues that might reveal who they really are. So while the GOP candidates have been busy debating silly questions about whether President Obama is a socialist, the rest of America is debating what type of social union we live in.

Deprived of the opportunity to watch the Trayvon Martin case play out in a court of law, Americans retreated to predictable sides in the familiar terrain of the court of public opinion. But instead of debating the facts of the case, we found ourselves debating competing visions of America itself.

On one side is a Second Amendment order-based vision of a country where armed citizens roam the streets protecting themselves and their neighbors from thugs, criminals and outsiders. On the other side is a Fourth Amendment fairness-based vision of a nation where the justice system protects the privacy and the sanctity of the powerless and fights for the rights of the oppressed.

The reaction to the Trayvon case raised other constitutional issues, including the First Amendment's freedom of speech, as a New Orleans police officer was suspended for posting an online comment describing Trayvon as a "thug" and a Michigan school teacher was fired for organizing a fundraiser for Trayvon. And as we quarreled over Bobby Rush's hoodie and John Derbyshire's "talk," we debated the boundaries of acceptable public discourse.

On the other side of the free speech equation, the case has raised questions about the freedom to remain silent as we pondered the role of money in politics. A few weeks ago, I asked on Twitter why Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic team had said nothing about the killing of a young black NBA fan in their own backyard. After all, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the entire Miami Heat squad had already donned hoodies for Trayvon, and Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire had followed suit as far away as New York.

But the Magic's silence became more understandable, although no more laudable, once I learned that the team's owner, Richard DeVos, is also a former Republican National Committee finance chairman, a Rick Santorum supporter and, most important, a supporter of the business group called ALEC that pushed to pass Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law in the first place.

Ironically, the same billionaire who "owned" some of the players and the arena Trayvon hoped to watch on the NBA All-Star Game the night he was killed was also the man who gave his killer an argument to slay him. If ever there were a glaring example of the tragic influence of money and politics, this was it.

From the very beginning, the Trayvon Martin case has also been framed by the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent, which George Zimmerman has mostly done for 45 days, except in comments on his website and through his spokespeople. In America, everyone — even George Zimmerman — is innocent until proven guilty. But so, too, was Trayvon Martin. He, also, deserved a presumption of innocence, which was taken away from him the night he was identified as "suspicious."

Yes, there were far too many times when the Trayvon story veered off into sidebar controversies about Spike Lee, Geraldo Rivera and Joe Oliver. We even debated whether a reporter at a news conference should have asked Trayvon's mother if her deceased son ate chicken. But at the core, we were debating what kind of society we want to live in and which side we were on in the larger debate over two distinct and competing American visions of our country.

In fact, in our increasingly divided and polarized union, the Trayvon Martin debate does not divert us from the issues of the presidential race. Instead, it presents some of the most essential questions that any presidential candidate must be prepared to answer.


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