Thursday, March 29, 2012

What I Learned From Spike Lee's Twitter Flub

Spike Lee's Retweet
I am white. I am middle class. I have never been unfairly harassed or pre-judged by the police, and no one I know has ever been murdered. Some would argue that these personal characteristics leave me grotesquely under-qualified to fully understand the controversy surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin. They may be right, and consequently, I have written nothing on the topic - until now.

Yesterday I read that filmaker Spike Lee retweeted a message to his Twitter followers that he believed contained the address of George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch volunteer who tussled with and killed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL. As I contemplated what good could possibly come fom Spike Lee's tweet, I finally began to get a handle on my own feelings about this entire heartbreaking event.

Lee's retweet of the post, which originated with a Twitter user named named Marcus Higgins, made headlines not because it contained the address of Trayvon Martin's killer, but because it didn't. As it happens, the original tweet contained incorrect information, and the address that Spike Lee provided to his 250,000 plus Twitter followers actually belonged to an elderly Florida couple who are in no way related to George Zimmerman or to anyone involved in the Trayvon Martin case.

The inadvertently involved couple, David and Elaine McClain, began receiving threatening letters and phone calls shortly after Lee's retweet went out last Friday, and they ultimately fled their home and sought refuge in a hotel. Mr. Lee has subsequently apologized to the couple via Twitter,  and he implored his mass audience of Twitter followers to "Leave The McClain's In Peace." At the end of his message, he added "Justice In Court," presumably in an attempt to avoid inciting any further actions against the McClains, or against George Zimmerman himself. Lee has also settled with the McClains, compensating them for losses incurred and for the disruption of their lives.

I genuinely commend Mr. Lee for acting quickly to rectify the mistaken address situation with the McClains, but I also believe there are more important implications to be considered when you allow yourself to wonder what could have transpired if Spike Lee had transmitted the correct address for George Zimmerman on Twitter.

What if, in an attempt to provide the justice they fear might otherwise be denied, someone lit the Zimmerman home on fire, or worse, directly harmed or murdered George Zimmerman or a member of his family? Would an attack on Zimmerman improve the situation for Trayvon's grieving family? What impact would a revenge murder have on the already oft-strained relationship between races in America? I don't like to think about how this could have turned out.

Spike Lee
Photo: AP / Victoria Will
It's not my intent to become righteously indignant on behalf of Zimmerman, the McClains, or anyone else (sorry, if it's too late to avoid that outcome), nor is it my desire to bash Spike Lee, whose public persona and body of work I greatly respect and appreciate.

It's just that this unfortunate Twitter mistake has helped to crystallize my own thoughts about Trayvon Martin's death.

While I am not black, I am a minority. I live as an openly gay man, in a country, where the rules have always been fashioned by straight white men for straight white men. I understand what it's like to be denied, to live by separate, and sometimes not equal laws, and to feel outrage at injustice. I have expressed my frustration and anger publicly, and on occasion, to my own detriment.

When I read the news about the seemingly half-assed investigation into Trayvon's death, I got angry too. When I found out about George Zimmerman's overzealous activity as a neighborhood watch volunteer and discovered how he failed to follow the simple instructions of a 911 operator, I judged him harshly and wished an evil fate on him. When I thought about the evidence needed to successfully prosecute a potential criminal case, I was utterly and enormously perplexed by how little of it seems to have been gathered. The more I learned, the more I was shocked and galled.

But thanks to Spike Lee's awful Twitter error, I have begun to see how critical it is that we strive to manage our passion thoughtfully and make the public dialogue about Trayvon's case truly productive. Not only to ensure justice for George Zimmerman, but to guarantee that we honor the memory of Trayvon in the most respectful way possible.

We've already witnessed some powerful examples of the kind of steps we can take to make meaningful progress in this search for justice. The outpouring of anger and concern expressed through the social networks has been cathartic, and it has been effective in raising awareness about the case. The work of civil rights activists like the Reverend Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson has helped structure and channel the general frustration about the investigation, and the subsequent protests and rallies have served as important outlets for rage and useful vehicles to drive authorities to step up their efforts. While it is not a wholly satisfactory resolution, the State of Florida has now intervened in the investigation, and a special state prosecutor has been appointed to lead a thorough and conclusive inquiry.

I don't pretend to know what happened on that rainy day in Sanford, and I have no idea if George Zimmerman will be criminally charged in the killing of Trayvon Martin. I also don't know that we can always trust the system to make the right judgments and decisions, without a great deal of public pressure and action.

What I do know is that there are ways to express your extreme frustration and justified outrage that may end up hurting innocent people, and there are other ways to behave that will inspire reasonable people to do the right thing.

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