The Trayvon Martin case has been keenly followed in Jamaica with people vociferously expressing outrage over the not guilty verdict that allowed Zimmerman to walk free. How could there be no legal penalty for unnecessarily taking a human life? How could the law protect Zimmerman’s right to stand his ground but not Trayvon’s? This was madness. Many Jamaicans keenly identified with Trayvon and his family, imagining that this was something that could easily happen to them or their loved ones in racist North America.
All over the Caribbean those with a human rights perspective were eager to point out that similar outrage was rarely forthcoming in numerous local instances of flagrant injustice, often involving victims of police and vigilante killings where the perpetrators are almost never held responsible for their crimes. Why were such folk, unmoved by the wanton killing of fellow citizens in their own backyard, so willing to take such an interest in a case so distant from their immediate lives and localities?
Clearly we must attribute some or most of that interest to the intense coverage of the case by mainstream media in the United States. Channels such as CNN, MSNBC, ABC and others are available via cable and voraciously consumed in Jamaica and many other parts of the world. It’s not difficult to get sucked in by the wall-to-wall coverage of a murder trial for weeks on end, particularly when its racial component resonates locally. This was the case with the murder of Trayvon Martin.
Let’s also give credit where credit is due. American media excel at focusing attention on the human interest in a story; at laying open the lives and personalities of those concerned, at making the viewer identify with the principals of a high profile news item. This is why the world cares more about 500 victims of a natural disaster in the US as opposed to 150,000 deaths caused by a Bangladeshi cyclone or an earthquake in Turkey. American media puts faces on the victims, details their losses, personalizes them. The 150,000 victims of a distant cyclone remain just that—faceless, lifeless, abstract ciphers.
Not many countries have the sheer heft of media muscle that the USA can lay claim to. Our media in small places like Jamaica lack the infrastructure, the traction and the reach of American media. We also have far more deaths, murders and killings per capita than the media can possibly keep up with even if they had the will and the ability to do so.
Even in the United States there were complaints that cases just as heinous as Trayvon Martin’s or worse had received little or no visibility and thus generated little or no outrage. What makes a particular story a media sensation depends on the number of people who feel affected by it. Can they can identify with it? But this is also a function of how much airtime and column inches the story receives.
In Jamaica the media almost never gives you enough information or gives it to you after the fact as in the case of the Brissett Brothers accused of the vicious rape of 4 women and an 8-year old girl. Now that DNA evidence has proven that they couldn’t have been the perpetrators the media has interviewed them at length, along with their family members who had given them a cast iron alibi, and basically got the story out. Had there been no DNA evidence the brothers would have been wrongfully convicted raising uncomfortable questions about how many such innocent people there are in prison.
The ongoing saga of Vybz Kartel raises similar questions. One murder charge has completely crumbled and the other may do the same, yet Kartel has been held without bail for more than a year now.
Alexis Goffe, a spokesperson for the human rights group Jamaicans for Justice, recently observed that another reason there is little or no outrage about the legion of local Trayvons is that in these situations most educated Jamaicans identify with Zimmerman rather than Trayvon. Jamaicans are not Trayvon Martin, Jamaicans are George Zimmerman said Goffe. After all Trayvon’s profile fits that of the ‘idle youth’ most gated and residential communities in Jamaica remain wary of and police zealously. They want the Jamaican equivalents of Trayvon Martin to be kept in their place, on pain of severe punishment and even death. Since the start of the year Jamaican Police have killed 114 citizens, yet it’s business as usual in this tourist paradise.
For most Jamaicans such deaths when they happen are non-stories–like the slaying of young Dwayne Jones aka Gully Queen a few days ago near Montego Bay. 17-year old Jones was at a party on the night of July 22 dressed as a female and dancing when he was outed by a woman who knew he was cross-dressing. Details are sketchy but early reports said that Jones was killed by a mob that stabbed and shot him to death, flinging his body into nearby bushes.
In most countries a lynching such as this would be front-page news but not in Jamaica, known far and wide for its hostility towards homosexuals. The police have said that they can’t prove that there is a link between Dwayne’s cross-dressing and his murder and the media has barely taken note of the gruesome slaying. Judging by comments made on social media most Jamaicans think Dwayne Jones brought his death on himself for wearing a dress and dancing in a society that has made it abundantly clear that homosexuals are neither to be seen nor heard.
Attempts to portray the mob killing as a hate crime have also been futile. “Dwayne Jones chose to tempt fate” seems to be the popular feeling, “and he got what was coming to him.” Which is like saying Trayvon Martin tempted fate by lingering in the wrong neighbourhood; he got what was coming to him. Dwayne Jones decided to wear a dress and dance and for that he was put to death by a motley crowd. Most Jamaicans seem to think there is nothing at all wrong with this judging by the lack of outrage, scant media attention and silence from the political directorate.