How Matthew Shepard Prefigured Trayvon Martin
In reading The Book of Matt, the stunningly honest new book by Stephen Jimenez on the life and death of Matthew Shepard, I felt as if I were reading the book I had just written on the life and death of Trayvon Martin, If I Had A Son. The parallels are uncanny and the implications profound.
In October 1998, Shepard was beaten to death by Aaron McKinney in Laramie, Wyoming. Within days, the media, Democrat strategists, gay activists, and the White House managed to turn Shepard into a martyr to the cause of gay rights.
In February 2012, Trayvon Martin was shot to death by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Within weeks, the media, Democrat strategists, black activists, and the White House managed to turn Martin into a martyr to the cause of civil rights. Activists in both instances pursued their causes with utter indifference to the facts of their respective cases and the rights of the accused.
In each case, the media traced the respective deaths to long-simmering societal hate. "Gay Man Near Death After Beating," read the altogether typical headline from the Washington Post -- "Hate Crime Suspected." Jacob Marsden of the Caspar Star Tribune would later tell ABC's 20/20, "I remember one of my fellow reporters saying to me, 'this kid's gonna be the new poster child for gay rights. Matt Shepard, gay bashed, symbol of the oppression of the gay community.'" How right he was.
Miami congresswoman Frederica Wilson spoke for many when she famously ranted, "Trayvon was hunted down like a rabid dog. He was shot in the street. He was racially profiled." For all her hyperbole, everything Wilson said tracked with what she might have heard on ABC, NBC, or CNN.
Each of the deceased was said to be childlike. The twenty-one-year-old Shepard, in the words of Newsweek, was a "slight, unassuming young homosexual ... sweet tempered and boyishly idealistic." The Denver Post described Shepard as "a small, slight man who threatened nobody."
The seventeen-year-old Martin, of course, was an innocent black "child" whose only sin was to carry the inevitable Skittles and iced tea back to his little brother while wearing a hoodie in a gated community. "That child had every right to be where he was," said prosecutor John Guy at the Zimmerman trial. "That child had every right to be afraid of a strange man following him."
Violating every canon of journalistic ethics, the media reinforced Martin's child-like persona by repeatedly showing photos of him as a pre-adolescent. For the record, the full-grown Martin was at least four inches taller than Zimmerman. Shepard was only two inches shorter than McKinney.
As portrayed by the media, the lovable Shepard was not just a young gay man, but "everyone's son." President Obama did Martin one better, reminding America, "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon." To give these deaths historic resonance, supporters turned to the same profanely inappropriate metaphor. "Please tread lightly," Sean Maloney, then head of the Matthew Shepard Foundation (now a congressman) warned Jiminez. "Matthew Shepard is to gay rights what Emmett Till was to the civil rights movement."
"Trayvon Martin is Our Emmett Till; Our Jury Selection Process Is No Better Now That It Was In 1955," read the misbegotten headline of a Daily Kos article, one of many that compared the self-proclaimed "gangsta" Martin to the brutally lynched fourteen-year-old Till. Martin's death also spawned a foundation that, like Shepard's, relied on a thoroughly false narrative to raise money.
The political class exploited both deaths ruthlessly. Shepard was killed four weeks before the crucial 1998 midterm elections. President Bill Clinton's future was in the balance. The House of Representatives had authorized an impeachment inquiry into Clinton's sexual escapades and subsequent cover-up just a day before the story broke nationally.
Even as Shepard lay in a coma, the always-opportunistic Clinton seized the moment to rail against those who challenged the ongoing shift in sexual mores. "There is nothing more important to the future of this country than our standing together against intolerance, prejudice, and violent bigotry," said Clinton piously. He would later compare Shepard's death to genocide in Bosnia.
Much to McKinney's undoubted surprise, Clinton was linking this soulless, fatherless, promiscuous, meth-addled loser to the religious right and the Republican Party. Actress Anne Heche, then Ellen DeGeneres's gal-pal, captured the spirit of the moment with talking point-precise perfection.
"Mr. Trent Lott, Mr. Newt Gingrich, Mr. Jerry Falwell, how many Christs must bear the crosses until we learn that we are all children of God?" said Heche. "You preach in support of groups that that encourage me to change who I am, to become more like you. I do not want to be like you."
Maybe, maybe not. Like many other activists, Heche focused her rage on those Christians offering homosexuals the opportunity to change their lifestyles. Gay activists argued that their orientation was as immutable as the color of an African-American's skin. To the LGBT community's dismay, Heche married a man within three years of her proud declaration of immutability. With the possible exception of Michael Jackson, no African-American has pulled an identity-switch quite that dramatic.
In 2012, President Obama's future was as much in the balance as Clinton's was in 1998. The crucial battleground state of Florida was to him what Congress was to Clinton. To preserve his presidency, the same Democratic-media cabal that turned McKinney into a fundamentalist Christian turned a Hispanic Obama-supporter and civil rights activist into what the Brady Campaign called "the embodiment of the gun lobby and its dark vision for America" -- and a white racist to boot.
From the media's perspective, Zimmerman was just one of many racist thugs haunting black America. "Blacks are under attack," Jesse Jackson assured the media, and they repeated this nonsense uncritically. In the wake of the shooting, this threat seemed to crystallize ominously at the scene of the crime.
"Trayvon Martin Case: Armed Neo-Nazis Patrolling Sanford," read the headline of the Huffington Post. "CHILLING: Armed Neo-Nazis Patrol Sanford," shouted a headline on the Daily Beast. The media were keen to link the alleged Nazis -- three of whom eventually showed up to pass out fliers -- to conservative Republicans. This was an election year, after all, and there was nothing quite like white supremacists to energize the base.
Gun control was a potentially winning issue for Obama as well, but only to the degree that Martin's shooting was free of ambiguity. To protect the chosen narrative, the media had to bury all evidence of Martin's troubled and violent history. "If this pertains to Trayvon Martin's criminal behavior, or evidence of burglary, we are not interested," Orlando Sentinel reporter Renee Stutzman responded when offered information by the Conservative Treehouse blog on Martin's troubled past. "Our editors and editorial board have decided that nothing about that has anything to do with the events in Sanford."
To protect the hate crime narrative in Laramie, those few journalists who cared about the truth were hindered, writes Jiminez, "by sealed court records and witnesses who had been ordered into silence." As a result, the public did not learn that Shepard was HIV-positive or that he had once been arrested for molesting two eight-year-old boys. Authorities "quietly concealed" his arrest record.
In Martin's case, the first action of the family's attorneys was to have his school records sealed. The Miami-Dade Schools Police Department stonewalled anyone who sought information. And the State of Florida tried desperately to conceal the incriminating information on Martin's cell phone and in his social media accounts.
In each case, the media chose to absolve the deceased of any responsibility for his death. As reported at the time, Shepard had never met McKinney before their chance meeting that fateful night in a Laramie bar. According to the Denver Post, Shepard "did nothing to provoke the attack except let his eventual assailants know he was gay." The message coming from the media, which McKinney's friends echoed in a bizarre attempt to mitigate his guilt, was that this redneck homophobe beat Shepard to teach him not to solicit straight people.
Although Hollywood would turn out at least three TV movies about the "crucifixion" of Shepard, two of which premiered in the week before Easter 2002, the homophobic storyline never matched the Wyoming reality. Shepard and the bisexual McKinney, both meth dealers, had sex together on numerous occasions. "Matthew was part of an interstate meth-trafficking circle," writes Jimenez. McKinney was "first his friend and occasional sex partner, then his competitor and adversary, and finally his killer."
On the night in question, McKinney went on a meth-fueled rampage. He pistol-whipped the vulnerable Shepard for drug money, pistol-whipped this own partner Russell Henderson, drove into town to rob Shepard's apartment, and then pistol-whipped a stranger who got in his way, fracturing his skull in the process. The media lied about the case from day one.
"The last thing he did on this earth was to try to get home," said John Guy of Martin at the Zimmerman trial. That too was a media-endorsed lie, one of many Guy told in his closing arguments. As Guy and his colleagues knew, Martin had no home. His mother had kicked him out. His father was in no position to take him in. Still, he could have easily gotten to the townhouse of his father's girlfriend if he wanted to, but he chose otherwise. The "last thing" Martin did was brutally attack a man he did not know for reasons that will remain forever uncertain.
Curiously, Martin's death may have had more to do with homophobia than Shepard's. According to the prosecution's "star witness," phone friend Rachel Jeantel, Martin thought Zimmerman "looked like a creepy ass cracker," maybe even "a rapist." The Urban Dictionary defines "ass cracker" as "one who engages in anal sex." It seems likely that Jeantel meant the homophobic "creepy ass-cracker" and not the racist "creepy-ass cracker." After the trial, Jeantel told Piers Morgan that since Martin was himself not gay, Zimmerman's actions worried him. "For every boy or every man who's not that kind of way," she said, "seeing a grown man following them, would they be creeped out?"
McKinney tried to use a "gay panic" defense to save himself from the death penalty. The media chose to take him at his word, even if it conflicted with the evidence. With Martin, the media refused to entertain the idea that "gay panic" may have inspired his otherwise inexplicable attack on Zimmerman despite Jeantel's ingenuous effort to suggest that very thing.
Absurd as it was in either case for activists to sanctify the victim, it was altogether illiberal of them to demonize the accused, especially given that the prosecutors yielded to the pressure they generated. McKinney no doubt deserved his fate. He will never get out of prison. Nor should he. Henderson is another story. He tried to stop the beating and got beaten for his troubles. Having pled guilty to avoid the death penalty, he too will never get out of prison. Asks Jimenez, "Did the enormous political, media, and financial pressures that overtook the Shepard case usurp Russell's right to a fair trial?" Jiminez knows the answer.
Thanks in part to the growth of an alternative media in the intervening fourteen years, Zimmerman did get a fair trial. Still, he should never have been arrested. Conceding the role mob pressure played in Zimmerman's arrest, said Al Sharpton, "We had to march to even get a trial." This political persecution shattered Zimmerman's life, destroyed his marriage, and turned him and his family into fugitives in their own country. Three months after his acquittal, the media celebrate his every misfortune, and Attorney General Holder promises that a federal investigation is "ongoing" despite the government shutdown.
Stephen Jiminez had no alternative media to help with this extraordinary book. A gay activist of long standing, he spent fifteen years researching the story -- fifteen thankless years. "This is absolutely disgusting," wrote one reviewer on Amazon. "The right's sick attempt to declare the Matthew Shepard murder was not a hate crime is not just pushing a bigoted political agenda, it is a slap in the face to his memory and his family." Jimenez plowed on despite the threats, the rejection, and the criticism. He argues correctly that it does a "disservice to Matthew's memory to freeze him in time as a symbol, having stripped away his complexities and frailties as a human being."
Like most of those who have exploited Shepard's memory, Martin supporters have chosen to freeze "Trayvon" as a symbol, President Obama most egregiously. In his post-verdict eulogy, Obama had the opportunity to set the record straight. Had he called attention to the fractures in Martin's domestic life, his suppressed criminal record, his all but unseen descent into drugs and violence, and especially his reckless attack on Zimmerman, he might have lent real meaning to Martin's death and helped ease racial tension. But he did not. Instead, Obama took the occasion to direct the anger and anxiety of his audience on to racial scapegoat George Zimmerman.
On matters legal, our progressive friends have long identified with Atticus Finch, the attorney in To Kill a Mockingbird. Finch famously ignores public opinion, stares down the mob, and protects his innocent client as best he can. In their rejection of truth and indifference to justice, progressives have come to resemble the mob a whole lot more than they do Atticus Finch. One wonders if they will ever catch on.