In the 45 days between Trayvon Martin’s death and the arrest of his killer, George Zimmerman, nearly every decently telegenic human being in the country was hauled before a camera to comment. The bottom of the barrel was so thoroughly scraped that Americans watching The Piers Morgan Show last week heard the tragedy mulled over by “Motor City Madman” Ted Nugent. (The Nuge — who has attained moderate celebrity by playing middling guitar, hunting, screwing thousands of women, teetotaling, and threatening to sodomize Hilary Clinton with a machine gun — is of the opinion that Trayvon’s death was awful, but neighborhood watchmen should carry guns anyway.) Producers take note: There are yet two individuals who have not spoken publicly about Trayvon Martin’s killing, and they may be worth talking to before this fruitful bout of outrage is past. They are northern Florida’s own Pam and Robert G. Champion, the parents of Robert Champion, Jr.
Please recall: The younger Champion was a 26-year-old drum major who’d just joined his musical heroes in Florida A&M‘s famed “Marching 100″ when his bandmates murdered him in a hazing ritual last November. He collapsed aboard a bus in Orlando, at a FAMU away-game, and died within the hour. Champion, like Trayvon, was a young Floridian black man killed by individuals whose identities were well known to the police. But Champion’s killers, unlike Trayvon’s killer, still walk free. Robert Champion’s death has earned only a tiny fraction of the press coverage of Trayvon’s despite the troubling similarities between the cases — and despite the fact that, from a legal standpoint, Champion’s case is far less ambiguous. After all, fair-minded people must acknowledge that there is a small but not insignificant chance that Trayvon Martin really did attack George Zimmerman, and that Zimmerman, crazy though he may be, really did fire his gun in self-defense. No such disclaimers are necessary when discussing Champion’s murder. His friends in the Marching 100 beat him to death for their own good pleasure.
That Champion’s murder has received less attention than Trayvon’s shooting is attributable to any number of factors, most of which are innocuous enough. Chief among them, and in no particular order:
- Champion was a black student killed by other black students of a historically black college; Trayvon’s murder was “interracial.”
- The Marching 100 had hazed before, and perhaps didn’t expect their beatings to cause any permanent damage; George Zimmerman pursued Trayvon Martin with a weapon he knew to be lethal.
- Police have promised to investigate Champion’s killing and make all appropriate arrests, once the immense task of debriefing a busload of frightened musicians and cross-referencing their stories is dispensed with; police declared the Zimmerman case closed before public pressure forced a reassessment.
- Robert Champion was a full-grown man; Trayvon Martin was a child.
- The tale of Robert Champion’s death is a testament to the savagery of human nature, which is well-documented; the tale of Trayvon’s is a testament to the absurdity of a particular Floridian law.
But another, less innocuous reason can be guessed at, and it’s this: Robert Champion, Jr., was a band-geek homosexual, and Trayvon Martin was a straight NBA fan on the phone with his girlfriend.
The court of public opinion has not yet ruled that Robert Champion was murdered for his sexual orientation, and to claim that he was flirts with an ugly kind of identity politics with which police departments oughtn’t concern themselves. I don’t know if Robert Champion was killed for being gay. Yet the evidence that he was is no less circumstantial than the evidence that George Zimmerman targeted Trayvon Martin for his race, or that the Sanford police department believed Zimmerman’s self-defense claim because he’d shot a black boy in a hoodie rather than a white kid in a suit.
If we are to suppose that Trayvon would still be alive if the cells of his skin contained less melanin — and does anybody really doubt it? — it seems no less reasonable to suppose that Robert Champion would be alive if he liked girls. And if the Trayvon Martin case has focused the nation’s attention on the institutional prejudices of gun-wielding, justice-dispensing authority figures — as it should have — it may be worth lamenting that the Champion case has thus far failed to focus similar attention on the institutional homophobia of historically black colleges, and on the selectively brutal practice of hazing. There are as many gay and lesbian kids in black communities as there are elsewhere, yet there are far fewer organizations for LGBT students in black colleges, such as FAMU, than in other institutions; and the incidents of anti-gay harassment there are more numerous. “Racial” considerations aside, hazing has caused more deaths than the “stand-your-ground” law. Sheer statistical pressure ought to edge the Champion tragedy into the nightly news, with pride of place alongside — at least alongside — the killing of Trayvon Martin.
But it hasn’t. Which is why it would be so illuminating to see Pam and Robert, Sr., discussing Trayvon Martin on-air. Their son is dead, the same as Sybrina Fulton’s and Tracy Martin’s. Their son died senselessly, just like Trayvon — for venal, stupid reasons that reflect something wrong and rotten in the way human animals conduct their affairs. But one death has become emblematic of a national sickness, and the other has been treated as a localized tragedy — very sad, plainly, but not worth thinking about too deeply. Rather than hearing Ted Nugent rhapsodizing about his guns, wouldn’t it be more interesting to hear the Champions asked: What’s it like to have a son whose murder mattered less?