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Trayvon Martin’s shooting case draws partisan battle lines

By Marc Caputo, McClatchy Newspapers –

MIAMI — From suspect to victim to cultural symbol, Trayvon Martin has metamorphosed into a political point of departure over race.

When President Barack Obama spoke about how his son could have looked like the 17-year-old, his white Republican rivals quickly accused him of being racially divisive.

When Florida Gov. Rick Scott established a task force to investigate the Stand Your Ground gun law connected to Trayvon’s shooting, a state Democratic leader rebuked him for wanting to wait until the case is adjudicated.

Liberal and left-leaning media have taken up Trayvon’s case, with calls to arrest his shooter, George Zimmerman. Conservative and right-leaning media have called for a get-the-facts first approach, while some have published images of Trayvon portraying him as a thug.

Groups from the NAACP to the National Council of La Raza, to white and black supremacist groups, have entered — or been drawn into — the political fray as well.

“It’s campaign time, and, unfortunately, it has come to that. But that’s what we get these days, unfortunately,” said Lt. Gov. Jennifer Carroll, the only elected black Republican in Florida’s capitol.

Carroll, who’s chairing Scott’s task force on Stand Your Ground, said the group needs to take its time and not interfere with the investigation. She also wants to avoid partisan and racial politics.

But Carroll noted that race infuses the case and our justice system, especially with the high incarceration rates of African Americans. But she still wanted to focus on whether or not the state’s Stand Your Ground law, authorizing the use of deadly force, needs to be tweaked. The NRA is sure to fight that, while gun-control advocates are trying to get the law stripped from the books.

The Florida Senate’s incoming Democratic leader, Chris Smith, criticized the Scott and Carroll decision to hold off on investigating the law. But Carroll said the task force needs time to gather facts for the “emotional” and increasingly partisan case.

The politics won’t go away.

“Once the story went national, we first dealt with the tragedy but very quickly you saw political questions starting to be asked,” said James B. Peterson, a professor of Africana studies and associate professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. “Race is a powerful political tool.”

“Immediately, you have the right and left at the table. It’s unfortunate that this case has become such a hotbed. Both sides can easily go back to their stock characters,” he said. “On the left, its marching and protesting and talk about institutional racism. On the right, its talk about rushing to judgment and accusations of race-baiting. The irony is both sides are demanding justice.”

And both sides have 24-hour cable channels, websites and Twitter armies that push their narrative about what happened.

State Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, has changed his Twitter avatar to depict him wearing the type of “hoodie” sweatshirt the unarmed Trayvon wore on his last night. Chicago Democratic Congressman Bobby Rush wore a hoodie on the U.S. House floor, prompting Florida’s highest-profile black Republican, U.S. Rep. Allen West, to criticize the action as “gimmickry.”

Meantime, the Internet’s atwitter over the decision of The Daily Caller, a conservative website, to obtain and publish Trayvon’s apparent tweets from the teen’s now-closed Twitter account. The messages depict fairly typical rap-fueled, sex-obsessed misogynistic lingo common to urban and suburban youth in Miami Gardens.

A New York Times blogger criticized the Daily Caller and others for “cherry picking” images about Trayvon to make him seem more threatening. It failed to mention that the paper’s liberal columnist, Charles Blow, has said little of Trayvon’s school suspensions and his dalliance with pot in favor of discussing his “cherubic” countenance.

Conservative commentator Michelle Malkin disseminated a now-debunked photo of Trayvon that made him look like a middle finger-flashing hoodlum.

On the other end of the spectrum, filmmaker Spike Lee, in his zeal to pressure Zimmerman, re-tweeted what he thought was Zimmerman’s address. It wasn’t. It belonged to an old unrelated couple who were forced to move to a hotel out of fear of violence.

A black supremacist group calling itself the New Black Panther Party has surfaced and disseminated “wanted” posters of Zimmerman. Critics have tried to link the NAACP to the new group — a claim the NAACP denies. A white supremacist group that maintains a website called Stormfront has also entered the media picture.

Even the Latino-advocacy group, National Council of La Raza, was roped into the controversy when the most influential voice of conservatism, Rush Limbaugh, took it to task for not speaking about the fact that Zimmerman is Hispanic. La Raza’s spokeswoman Lisa Navarrete said Limbaugh was “breathtakingly cynical,” considering his “long, reprehensible history when it comes to minorities and women.”

Meantime, MSNBC host Al Sharpton — criticized by conservatives for decades for his role in the race-baiting Tawana Brawley and Duke lacrosse white sex-assault hoaxes — has been a big force in supporting Trayvon’s parents and their attorney.

When the nation’s first black president said “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon,” the political floodgates over race broke open again in the presidential election.

“Is the president suggesting if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it wouldn’t look like him?” Fox News Channel personality Sean Hannity wondered. “That’s just nonsense. I mean, dividing this country up, it is a tragedy this young man was shot.”

Republican presidential candidates Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich echoed the sentiments.

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