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On March 8, 1971, my friends from grad school and I drove from Purdue in my yellow VW bug to watch a large-screen presentation of the first Ali-Frazier fight.
Given the imperatives of student poverty, we headed not south to Indianapolis, which was 40 miles closer, but north to Gary, which was $5 cheaper. The moment we walked into the theater, however, I understood what the others did not: 5 bucks or no, Gary was a mistake.
Other than the 50 or so hardhats sitting together in makeshift bleachers by the exit door, we were about the only white people in the joint.
Many times, before and since, I have found myself in venues with comparable ratios, but never one in which the racial tension was so raw and palpable. In Gary and beyond, no fight had so polarized America since Jack Johnson squared off against Jim Jeffries in Reno 60 years earlier.
This, I thought, is what Muhammad Ali and his liberal fans in the media had wrought. He had the crowd not so much pulling for him as against Joe Frazier, the 12th child of a one-armed, South Carolina moonshiner whom the media had somehow re-imagined as a white man.
“The only people rooting for Joe Frazier,” said Ali earlier to the self-righteous cheers of the anti-war young, “are white people in suits, Alabama sheriffs and members of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Still, the fight proved to be worth the risk. It was both brutal and brilliant as only great fights can be. Going into the 15th, it seemed to all of us too close to call.
“OK,” I said to my friends between rounds, “we’re out of here.” They thought me daft and resisted. Sharing some of my Newark experiences, I explained patiently that if Ali lost a fight that the crowd expected him to win, there would be hell to pay, and we’d likely do the paying.
“But we’re for Ali,” my friends protested. We’re for Ali? How had it come to this? I wondered. How could so many seemingly smart Americans be so thoroughly naïve, so utterly delusional?
Forty years later, I am still wondering. Today, my liberal friends tell me, “We’re for Trayvon.” They remain seated, however, in that metaphorical Gary auditorium.
They are the white people who live in the cities, who gentrify neighborhoods, who take public transportation, who attend jazz concerts and blues festivals, and who send their children to urban public schools. If the racial embers they now so casually fan burst into flames, they will be the ones who get burned.
George Zimmerman is their Joe Frazier. Although he is as Hispanic as Barack Obama is black – more actually, as he was raised by his ethnic parent and speaks her language fluently – he has been deemed, in the memorable words of the New York Times, a “white Hispanic.”
As in Frazier’s case, this has less to do with what Zimmerman looks like than the oppressor role he has been assigned in the media’s multicultural morality play.
The play’s basic message is this: Despite our black president, “nothing has changed.” Racist cops still conspire with thuggish vigilantes to kill young black men – Emmett Till all over again.
To assure the play’s proper outcome, the media have had to take some dramatic license with the facts, none more visually misleading than the casting of an elfin 12-year-old in the role of the 6-2, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.
In fact, Martin was about half a foot taller than Zimmerman at the time of his death and weighed only about 10 pounds less, not the “100 pounds” we were repeatedly told.
And no, Martin was not an A student. He had been suspended from school multiple times of late and was serving a 10-day suspension when he was killed.
No, Zimmerman was not a vigilante, but the captain of a neighborhood watch organization formed in the wake of numerous break-ins and home invasions in this multiracial, middle-class community.
No, Zimmerman did not say “f—ing coons” as was originally reported, no such thing. Listen for yourself.
No, Zimmerman did not say, “This guy looks like he’s up to no good. He looks black,” as NBC edited him to say. The second half of that phrase came in response to a question about his race and reveals, if anything, Zimmerman’s uncertainty.
No, Zimmerman did not ignore the dispatcher’s request that he stopped following Martin. The media inevitably edit out his “OK” response to that question. His heavy breathing stops about 10 seconds later.
No, Martin was not “hunted down like a rabid dog,” in the memorable words of Rep. Frederica Wilson. Zimmerman expressed regret that Martin was “running away” toward the back entrance. The New York Times provides useful diorama of the encounter.
No, Martin was not heard crying out for help on the 911 tape. That was Zimmerman. Evidence strongly suggests that Martin circled back, knocked Zimmerman down and started banging his head against the ground until Zimmerman shot him.
No, Jeb Bush did not pass a uniquely vigilante-friendly Florida law. The Florida rule that deadly force may be used to prevent “imminent death or great bodily harm” or “the imminent commission of a forcible felony” differs little from that of any other state.
No matter. As the facts emerge, our liberal friends sort through the evidence, dismissing any of it that does not fit the template, passing along gleefully those tidbits that, however briefly and deceptively, make Zimmerman appear a liar, a racist or a thug.
In the film “Twelve Angry Men,” jurors assess the case of a young Hispanic man accused of murder. Our liberal friends have long identified with the fair-minded Henry Fonda character, but somehow, somewhere along the way, they turned into the rabble-rousing bully Lee J. Cob.
Come crunch time, however, those fully roused will not be able to tell the difference between the two.