Street Corner Soapbox: Trayvon Martin Shooting

Category:  Street Corner Soapbox
Thursday, March 29th, 2012 at 7:00 AM
Street Corner Soapbox: Trayvon Martin Shooting by Jay Stevens
aconaway

On February 26 in Sanford, Fla., 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was shot to death as he was walking home from a convenience store by 28-year-old neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman.  The incident has spurred national interest, largely because Zimmerman was never arrested for the shooting the young black man by a police department with a history of racially-charged incidents.

As information comes out slowly, a picture of what happened that day is coming slowly into focus. Zimmerman, according to the 911 transcript of his call to local police, was following Martin in his SUV because he was a "real suspicious guy" who "looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs." Martin, apparently, saw Zimmerman follow him and stared back, then approached him. "They always get away," mutters Zimmerman to the dispatcher.

About two minutes into the call, Martin runs away from Zimmerman. Zimmerman gives chase. "We don't need you to do that," says the 911 dispatcher. A few minutes later, the call ends.

According to Martin's girlfriend -- an unnamed 16-year-old -- Martin told her "some man was watching him," then heard him ask, "what are you following me for?" Then she heard a man reply, "what are you doing around here?" The phone call ended.

According to what Zimmerman told the police, Martin then punched him in the face. When Zimmerman fell, Martin jumped atop of him and started slamming his head onto the ground. Zimmerman claimed he yelled for help, and at least one eyewitness saw Martin atop Zimmerman. Zimmerman also claimed that Martin "tried to take his gun." That was when Zimmerman shot Martin in the chest.

If this is an accurate portrayal of events, it's clear that Zimmerman was egregiously and fatally in the wrong. For starters, Martin wasn't engaged in illegal or actual suspicious activity when Zimmerman saw him -- other than being black, male, and wearing a hoodie. For another, Zimmerman was flouting Neighborhood Watch rules by carrying a gun and chasing Martin, instead of letting the authorities investigate. Zimmerman instigated the incident and escalated it.

This isn't surprising. Zimmerman has a history of overzealous policing of his neighborhood, having called 911 over 40 times since January 2011 and was apparently obsessed with "lurking" young black men. He also has a history of violence, having been once arrested for "resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer." All-in-all, this is the profile of an aggressive and irrational man out to protect his neighborhood from imagined black hoodlums. And he was armed.

Trayvon Martin, on the other hand, has no history of criminal activity.

So why isn't Zimmerman in jail? Because of Florida's "stand your ground" self-defense law. According to state code, if you are "not engaged in illegal activity," and you are "attacked in any other place you have a right to be," you have "no duty to retreat and [have] the right to stand [your] ground and meet force with force, including deadly force," if you believe "it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm...."

Zimmerman's attorney has already suggested that, if prosecuted, Zimmerman will defend himself under this law. Prosecutors admit that Florida's "stand your ground" law "makes the case in general more difficult than a normal criminal case." In fact, if it's true he was hit by Martin, he probably has a strong chance under the law to avoid any responsibility for his actions on February 26.

The thing is, it was Martin who probably who had a reasonable fear of "imminent peril" that day. "Trayvon saw someone following him, felt threatened, retreated, and was still followed," observed law student, Jeff Chase, in an email to Slate's Emily Bazelton, "and then was approached by an armed man who had 100 lbs on him.…Because Zimmerman was acting as an aggressor, Trayvon had the right to defend himself by punching, kicking, tackling, etc."

In short, if Martin had gotten Zimmerman's gun and shot the 28-year-old vigilante, it may be Martin who was protected under the "stand your ground" law.

"The logic here militates towards getting a gun, even for people who don't like guns," wrote Ta-Neheshi Coates for the Atlantic, after noting two other similar cases decided by Florida's self-defense law. "The logic incentivizes an armed citizenry where the beneficiary of justice is simply the last man standing. Your side of the story is irrelevant if you are dead."

And that is not the story of a lawful society. That is a story violence and chaos. Is that what we want?

Erie Reader: Vol. 5, No. 13
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