Some time back, I argued that, while the Trayvon Martin story is tragic and worth studying, we were making a mistake by allowing it to dominate our news cycle for an extended period to the exclusion of so much else. I pointed out that such incidents are, by definition, anecdotal, and do not necessarily warrant treatment as the defining issue of the moment. Implicit in that argument was that hot-button issues like this can morph in unpredictable ways and push us toward more, not less, conflict.
I knew, in part from covering the aftermath of horrible inter-racial or inter-ethnic tragedies in Central Africa and the former Yugoslavia, that it's a huge mistake to take any incident and turn it into a national cause--because another incident will always come along to rally those who are on the defensive about the first.
Now, unfortunately, I have been proven right, based on a different incident involving a young black man, older whites, and a horrible death. This time, however, the victim is white.
Trayvon Martin case, meet the Tyrone Woodfork case.
First, a Trayvon recap:
On February 16, George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old, mixed white-Hispanic, neighborhood-watch captain in a multi-ethnic, gated community --The Retreat at Twin Lakes, in Sanford, FL -- shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, an African American. Zimmerman was the sole volunteer among his neighbors to play a role in the watch program. Zimmerman is now awaiting trial for second degree murder. The core of the case is whether Zimmerman was justified in believing that he -- or anyone -- was in imminent danger from Martin, who was returning at the time to his father's townhouse from an errand, and who was unarmed. The case became largely about racism and racial suspicion, as well as about so-called "Stand Your Ground" laws that provide extra legal protection for those using weapons outside their homes when they feel threatened.
Now, the other case:
On March 14, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, someone broke into the home of an elderly white couple, and viciously attacked and robbed them. Eighty-five-year-old Nancy Strait is said to have been sexually assaulted before being beaten to death, and her 90-year-old husband Bob suffered a broken jaw, broken ribs, and was shot with a BB gun.
Tyrone Woodfork, 20, African American, who was found in possession of the Straits' car, was arrested and charged with first-degree murder, two counts of robbery and burglary. Police suspect he had accomplices.
The first story became an international sensation. The second story has gotten very little attention outside of Tulsa. But it is now being pushed by those frustrated with all the attention given to the Martin case, and who feel that Zimmerman is the victim of a lynch-mob mentality and being railroaded.
In both situations, a simple moral may be drawn. In the Zimmerman-Martin case, it is obvious that anyone should be able to walk down the sidewalk without fearing for his life -- and that one's skin color should not put one in peril. In the Woodfork-Strait case, it is that no one should have to live in fear that malefactors will attack them in their home.
The activists who rallied in Sanford to seek "justice for Trayvon" felt that the case should become a lightning rod for discussion of racism and gun laws that may lead to and justify avoidable homicides. But what is to stop activists in Tulsa from arguing that the Strait case should also become a lightning rod -- for discussion of a fear of lawless young blacks and a logical desire to arm oneself and take whatever measures are necessary to stay safe? In truth, neither case represents a common situation -- very few comparable shootings have occurred involving Neighborhood Watch volunteers, and there are relatively few home invasions overall.
Furthermore, both cases confound efforts to reduce them to racially polarizing stereotypes. Zimmerman comes from a Hispanic background, lived in a multi-ethnic community, and was hardly a KKK type. (To appreciate the importance of balance and perspective, read this Christian Science Monitor profile of George Zimmerman, which adds shades of grey to this heretofore black-and-white story.)
Woodfork, it should be noted, had a suspended sentence for a previous burglary conviction. This will surely be used as a sort of Willie Horton moment by those who believe that locking everyone up will make us safer. But the choice is not really between locking up first-time offenders forever (shades of a fascist state) and lawless anarchy. The effectiveness of new approaches to enhancing public safety, including the "focused deterrence" promoted by criminologist David Kennedy (which concentrates on convincing violent drug dealers to change their ways) has been documented.