Tragedy in Duncan

There’s No ‘Reverse Trayvon’ in Christopher Lane Killing

The Australian’s death in Oklahoma was horrible, too. At least his killers face justice. By Jamelle Bouie.

Stephens County Sheriffs Department/AP

“We were bored and didn’t have anything to do, so we decided to kill somebody.”

That’s what three teenagers allegedly told police as they explained their decision to kill Christopher Lane, a 22-year-old who had come from Australia to play baseball for East Central University, near Duncan, Okla. Prosecutors have charged two of the teens—one 15, the other 16—with first-degree murder. Under Oklahoma law, they will be tried as adults. If convicted, they face life in prison without parole. The third, who is 17, was charged as an accessory to first-degree murder after the fact. He will be tried as a youthful offender, and faces anywhere from two years to life in prison if convicted.

By any measure, this is a tragedy: for Lane’s family, friends, and classmates; for the town of Duncan; for the families of the suspects, who have their own burdens to bear. In Australia, coverage has focused on the easy availability of guns. “I am deeply angry about this because of the callous attitude of the three teenagers,” said Tim Fischer, a former deputy prime minister, in an interview with Melbourne’s Herald Sun newspaper, “[But] it’s a sign of the proliferation of guns on the ground in the U.S.A. There is a gun for almost every American.”

Here in the U.S., however, Lane’s death has become fodder for conservative media, and in particular, its narrative of white victimization. See, the two suspects charged with murder aren’t just teenagers, they’re young black men. And for these right-wing provocateurs, the identity of the assailants is a direct rebuke to the “Justice for Trayvon” movement and evidence of racial hypocrisy from civil-rights leaders and anyone else who spoke out about the George Zimmerman trial.

“It’s worse than a double standard. This is a purposeful, willful ignoring of the exact racial components, but in reverse, that happened in the Trayvon Martin shooting,” said Rush Limbaugh, speaking on his radio show. “From Obama on down, didn’t care about Trayvon Martin. All that mattered was that incident offered them an opportunity to advance a political agenda.” He also dinged the media for not focusing on the “racial component of any of the people involved in this.”

On the Wednesday edition of his radio show, Glenn Beck and his co-anchors took a similar line. “Has the president made a statement on this?” asked “Pat” after Beck explained the story. “Did he come out and say that if I had an illegitimate child with a white woman, he might have looked like Chris Lane?” Beck added, “Where is Al Sharpton? Where is anybody else? Where is anyone? Where is the outrage on this?”

Likewise, Fox & Friends took their usual approach, and attacked Sharpton and Jesse Jackson for not commenting on the shooting. “Right now, we’re going to go to a live shot of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton,” said Brian Kilmeade, who then stage-froze for a transition that never happened. Guest host Ann Kooiman then punctuated the gag with a few accusatory questions, “Oh, wait, we don’t have it,” she said, “Why don’t we have it? Because they haven’t come forward and said anything. Are they going to? Will they? And should they?” Not to be outdone, Steve Doocy offered his take: “I wonder when celebrities are going to put on ‘I Am Chris Lane’ T-shirts?”

(As an aside, you have to wonder what these folks would do if Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson didn’t exist. Who would they target for their ostentatious displays of white grievance?)

These complaints—which, at this point, are ubiquitous on the right—stem from a common assumption: that race, a white man killing a black boy, was the only thing that mattered for supporters of Trayvon Martin. And if that were true, Beck and Limbaugh would have a point. But it isn’t, and they don’t.

Last year, just a few months after Martin was killed, John Spooner, a 76-year-old white man in Milwaukee, shot and killed his neighbor, Darius Simmons, a 13-year-old black boy. Neither Al Sharpton nor Jesse Jackson made an appearance in Wisconsin, and the case drew little attention from national media. Why? Because law enforcement did their jobs. There was no time wasted in Milwaukee: Spooner was arrested, detained, and charged with first-degree murder.

In Sanford, Fla., there was no action from police. Weeks passed before the city began an investigation into Martin’s death and filed charges against Zimmerman. Indeed, without the activism of Al Sharpton—and others—there wouldn’t have been a trial. If Trayvon Martin became a household name, it’s because people perceived a miscarriage of justice, one that harkened back to Jim Crow.

There was no dereliction of duty in Duncan, Okla. In short order, police arrested the teens who killed Christopher Lane, and brought them to justice. Now, they’ll be tried for their crimes. Lane’s death is awful, but there’s no procedural misconduct to focus on. The system worked.

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Not that this will change the narrative in conservative media. If Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and Fox News sell anything, it’s white anger and racial resentment. And for them, Christopher Lane isn’t a person as much as he’s a product.