A Death in Florida

By Jennie

The February 26 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, FL has received little media coverage, at least relative to the sensational details of the case. Martin, a high school junior with dreams of someday becoming an aviation mechanic, was visiting his father in a gated community in Sanford, near Orlando, when he gunned down by a neighborhood watch volunteer who was “patrolling” the area. The youth had gone to a nearby grocery store to pick up an iced tea and some Skittles for his 13-year-old brother. On the way home, he caught the attention of George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old criminal justice student. Zimmerman apparently found Martin suspicious and called 911 to request that the police come out. While on the phone with the police dispatcher, Zimmerman observed Martin running and decided to pursue him, against the advice of the dispatcher. Some sort of scuffle ensued, and Zimmerman shot Martin dead.

It’s not clear what behavior of Martin’s Zimmerman deemed suspicious; on the released police dispatch tapes, Zimmerman tells the dispatcher that Martin is a “real suspicious guy” who “looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.”

What has disturbed many observers is that as of today, almost three weeks after the shooting, Zimmerman has yet to be charged with any crime, and it’s not clear if he ever will be. If he is, it’s certainly not clear that it’s not due solely to public pressure, as the police attitude towards the violent death of a child at first appeared remarkably cavalier. Martin’s father was told by police that Zimmerman was not initially charged while the case was being investigated because he had “a squeaky clean record” and was a criminal justice student. The former turned out not to be true; Zimmerman was charged in 2005 with battery on a law enforcement officer and resisting arrest.

What is clear is that Zimmerman took his neighborhood watch duties seriously, apparently patrolling nightly with his dog and a loaded gun (which he was licensed to carry). Between January 1st and the evening Martin was killed 57 days later, Zimmerman had apparently called the police 46 times to report disturbances, people he deemed suspicious and windows left open. The picture that emerges of Zimmerman unavoidably has vigilante overtones.

Also clear – and troubling – are the racial overtones in the case. Zimmerman reportedly singled out young black men for harassment during his patrols, and told neighbors, both in person and via email, to be wary of young black men seen in the neighborhood. Zimmerman is himself Latino, and his father has publicly claimed that he has friends of all ethnic groups, but if the reports are true, Zimmerman was undoubtedly racially profiling neighborhood visitors, and that profiling may have lead to the death of an innocent young man.

The Sanford area is not free of racial tensions, particularly between police and the local African-American community; in one case two years ago, it took police almost two months to arrest the son
of a police lieutenant who was caught on tape sucker-punching a homeless black man. The slowness of the police response in this case has reopened old wounds and resentments.

Police practices obviously vary from case to case and from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in circumstances such as this, where an unarmed, blameless teen is targeted, pursued (against explicit police instructions) and killed by an adult, the ultra-cautious attitude rankles, and it’s easy to suspect that race plays a role.

Florida has what is known as a “stand your ground” law; it’s legal to shoot to kill in response to a “perceived threat” rather than being expected to attempt retreat before using deadly force, which is the standard in most parts of the country. The problem becomes – what is considered a reasonable “perceived threat?” (One assumes that the perceived threat is expected to be held to some sort of reasonable person standard. One may be being overly optimistic.) Is the fact that the perceived threatener is an African American male enough to make the threat valid in the eyes of some?

What is clear is that a young man is dead, through no fault of his own. Trayvon Martin went to the corner store. There is no evidence beyond George Zimmerman’s perception that Martin did anything untoward on his way home. By Zimmerman’s own account, he stalked and then chased Martin, resulting in a physical altercation. At that point, if anyone had the “right” to shoot anyone, it was Martin who had the right to use deadly force on Zimmerman, at least according to Florida law. Martin was the one pursued by a stranger. Zimmerman was the one who initiated a confrontation, based on very questionable reasoning. How long will it take for George Zimmerman to be charged in this case? And why has it received so little media attention?

About the Author:
Jennie has contributed to Imperfect Women since its inception in 2009. She writes about politics, celebrity news, and anything else that catches her interest. She can be reached at jennie@imperfectwomen.com.