President Obama’s comment, just one among many such poignant statements, said it all: “If I had a son, he would have looked like Trayvon”. The news from Florida about a kid with a pack of Skittles in his hand being killed by a gun-toting vigilante was especially heartstopping for those of us who have children or grandchildren of African descent. I watched my granddaughter flick up the hood on her shocking pink rain slicker and flashed on all those dark-skinned boys pulling up their hoods against the rain as Trayvon did, and tempting fate in the form of fearful cowards with powerful weapons.
It’s impossible to deny that race played a part, conscious or subconscious, in George Zimmerman’s impulse to finally pull the trigger as the culmination to what seems to have been a series of 40 or more quasi-confrontations with people he perceived as invaders of the “gated community” where he lived behind fences which were supposed to exclude threats from the outside world. At the same time, it’s possible to believe that his father was telling the truth when he said that the family had friends of various races and ethnicities, including some of African descent.
Much has been made in some quarters of the Zimmerman family’s mixed ethnicity. But “Hispanic” is a linguistic label, not a specifically racial or ethnic one. There’s the full range of genetic origins—African, European, “native” American and Asian—in the Spanish-speaking world, including in Peru, the birthplace of George Zimmerman’s mother. Some reports idly speculated, with unclear motivation, on the possibility of the Zimmerman name connoting Jewish origins, but “Jewish” is primarily a religious category. This Zimmerman family is descended from people who came most recently from Germany, probably like most Jewish Zimmermans, but these Zimmermans were Catholics, if religion makes any difference.
News reports this week have been loaded with conflicting accounts of what might have happened in the encounter. References are made in the media to “witnesses” supporting one scenario or another, but names are rarely attached to these stories. Bits and pieces of police records have seeped out, but without reliable attribution or physical evidence included.
From the Zimmerman camp, we’ve heard tales of a scuffle, even of a broken nose. Yet yesterday a police surveillance video showing George Zimmerman in custody at the Sanford police station with no apparent injury of any kind surfaced on ABC News
Unless and until charges are filed against the gunman, we might never know the truth about what happened that night. Trayvon Martin’s parents are to be commended for sticking to one and only one demand: that Zimmerman be arrested for shooting their son, so that the full power and authority of the judicial system can be brought to bear to seek the truth.
But—what is truth?
That happens to be the title of an old Johnny Cash song about a seventeen-year-old boy like Trayvon. A couple of verses:
A young man of seventeen in Sunday school
Being taught the Golden Rule
And by the time another year has gone round
It may be his turn to lay his life down
Can you blame the voice of youth
"What is truth?"
And although the young man solemnly swore
No one seems to hear any more
And it didn't really matter if the truth was there
It was the cut of his clothes and the length of his hair
And the lonely voice of youth cries
"What is truth?"
In the end, most Americans will agree that fear comes in all colors, but “black” is the one that most often terrifies those of European descent who are predisposed to see the world as a hostile place. Whether George Zimmerman admits or even realizes it, it’s obvious that his pathological fear of strangers like Trayvon Martin was amplified that night by the color of the boy’s skin and even the cut of his clothing, his hooded sweatshirt. And also, race and clothing played a role in the apparent indifference of the Florida authorities to determining what really happened.
Regardless of who struck the first blow, or whether Trayvon was a model boy in all respects or George Zimmerman had previous brushes with the police, what’s rotten at the core of this story is the Florida law which has been interpreted as allowing anyone who feels threatened, for whatever cockamamie reason, to become, in a split second, judge, jury and executioner.
These two statutes, sections 776.032 and 776.013 of the Florida Statutes, are nothing less than naked attempts to overturn centuries of Anglo-American jurisprudence. Common law has always said that the person who feels threatened for whatever reason has a duty to retreat if possible rather than to attack, though historically there have been a number of specific exceptions in statutory and case law. But the Florida formulation uses extreme language cooked up by the hard-right American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization backed by a number of corporations and advocacy groups which supplies state legislatures with standard statutory language to enact ultraconservative laws. Often the legislators who carry these bills don’t even understand them.
Killers like Zimmerman have always been able assert self-defense at trial if they’re charged with some form of homicide, whether manslaughter or murder. But Florida’s ALEC-based “Stand Your Ground” law has given law enforcement personnel the idea that such claims must even prevent arrest, which is why Zimmerman has not been arrested. The controversy at the moment is whether this decision, which has variously been attributed to the Sanford police and the prosecuting attorney, was correct given the circumstances in this case.
A statistical study done by CBS shows that “according to state crime stats, Florida averaged 12 “justifiable homicide” deaths a year from 2000-2004. After “Stand your Ground” was passed in 2005, the number of “justifiable” deaths has almost tripled to an average of 35 a year, an increase of 283% from 2005-2010.” The study doesn’t indicate how many of these instant executions were of Black men, but if the killer’s subjective opinion that he’s in danger is the end of the discussion, it seems that it will inevitably result in more African-American deaths, especially in Old South states like Florida.
A court of law is the best place to determine which of the conflicting assertions about what happened when the killing took place is correct. When such judgments are left to the killer on the scene, or even to the police, miscarriage of justice is inevitable. All of the states which have been suckered into passing ALEC laws without due consideration should take a second look, in the interest of justice. In Trayvon Martin’s case, federal prosecutors should immediately determine whether there has also been a violation of his civil rights under U.S. law and the U.S. constitution.
But there’s another factor at play which is even more outrageous: Florida law, like the law in many states, makes it very easy for fools like George Zimmerman to carry hidden lethal weapons. This country’s loose gun laws make any random know-nothing vigilante into a quick killer.
Misjudging the seriousness of a perceived threat easily becomes an execution. That’s why the truth about what Trayvon Martin was really doing in one sense doesn’t even matter. Nothing that he’s ever been accused of, even punching Zimmerman in the nose, which he probably didn’t do anyhow, comes anywhere near being a capital crime. If Zimmerman hadn’t been packing a pistol with the blessing of the state of Florida, he might have gone into his house, locked the door and called the police like a sensible person. It’s possible Florida will take another look at the “Stand Your Ground” statutes, but unless someone figures out how to take the weapons away from the wackos, not just in Florida but throughout the U.S, we will have more unjustifiable homicides like this one.