The Trayvon Martin homicide: a series of unfortunate and preventable events

What can I possibly say about the Trayvon Martin homicide that hasn’t already been said? Likely very little, but that won’t keep me from trying. In case you were living on another planet these last couple of weeks, Trayvon Martin was a 17 year old black teenager from Sanford, Florida who was visiting relatives a month ago. He went to get some junk food and was accosted by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, while returning to his relative’s house. Martin had the audacity of being black in a predominantly white neighborhood, and was armed only with iced tea and Skittles. Zimmerman, who is half white and half Peruvian, carried a loaded gun on his neighborhood watch rounds. Some sort of altercation ensued after Zimmerman accosted him. Somewhat before Zimmerman shot and killed Martin he phoned local police, who advised him not to harass the teenager. The altercation allegedly left Zimmerman with a broken, or at least a bloody nose. It also definitely left Martin dead. Police refused to file charges against Zimmerman because Florida is one of a few states with a stand your ground law that gives people the right to shoot other people without first retreating if they reasonably perceive their life is in danger.

The incident went unnoticed by the press for a couple of weeks until it suddenly emerged and consumed the whole country. Nobody seems to occupy a middle ground. Most people (including me) are aghast but not wholly surprised by the homicide. Others think Zimmerman was within his rights based on what appears to be an assault by Martin as evidenced by the injury to Zimmerman’s nose. Of course, had Zimmerman not challenged Martin in the first place, no altercation would have occurred.  Martin would be alive and eating more Skittles, and the press would be covering more mundane stories like the tacit end of Newt Gingrich’s presidential campaign.

I think it is more than likely that Zimmerman is not an overt racist but like many Republicans is overly concerned with the notion of the sanctity of property and the preeminence of community values. A black guy wearing a hoodie in a predominantly white neighborhood looked like potential trouble to this resident of The Retreat at Twin Lakes. I also believe it is quite likely that a white teenager from outside the neighborhood wearing a hoodie and sporting iced tea and Skittles would probably not have drawn much attention from Zimmerman.

A small part of me empathizes with Zimmerman. I live in a predominantly white neighborhood that is about ten percent Asian. Some weeks back I saw a trio of black teenagers hanging out on the local street corner in my neighborhood around the time I got home. I don’t recall if they had hoodies on or not, but their attire was definitely not what most of the teens in the neighborhood were wearing. If I recall correctly they were in gray sweats and wore sweatbands. And I felt a wee bit concerned simply because their presence was odd. I haven’t seen them since and I never went for my gun (I don’t own one) or bothered to call the police. But simply because their presence was unusual, I filed away the incident in my brain under some vague and potentially suspicious behavior category. Frankly, the only time you see three or more people in our neighborhood hanging around a street corner is when they are waiting for a school bus. Usually a handful of mothers are nearby. That was not the case here.

I also doubt that Zimmerman was hoping to shoot Martin. If I had to infer what happened during the encounter from the obviously sketchy known facts, it would go something like this. Zimmerman flagged Martin because he was from outside the neighborhood and was also black. He accosted Zimmerman, asked him his business and Martin probably told him to insert his erect male sex organ into his anal canal. Zimmerman probably then phoned the police, who did not tell him what he wanted to hear, and so he went back to accost the boy again. This time his words likely got harsher and his voice reached a higher octave. He came inside Martin’s personal space. Martin probably felt threatened and either lunged at Zimmerman or threw his bottle of iced tea at him. It is unlikely that Zimmerman gave himself a broken nose, although it is possible he slipped on some spilled iced tea. As is often the case when you have a loaded gun and your emotions overtake your sense of reason, he felt threatened and used what he had readily available: his gun. Reports that he felt remorse over the incident are not surprising, because most human beings would feel remorse once their momentary hot temper recedes and reason resurfaces. For all but a handful of psychopaths, killing anyone is an abhorrent act.

It’s clear to me that the State of Florida aided and abetted this homicide. Its stand your ground law was enacted primarily to make the NRA happy, and since the NRA helped put many of them in office it was an easy law to pass. Nonetheless, rational legislators are supposed to think through implications of bills before voting them into law. They could have asked any local cop on the beat how the typical homicide happens. Rarely is it premeditated. Almost all of them are spur of the moment decisions, decisions made when overpowering emotions momentarily overrule rational thought. There appears to be no requirement in Florida for neighborhood watch volunteers to get any sort of training. However, police officers get plenty of training to think before shooting and make sure that shooting someone is justified by the nature of the incident and the law. A combination of events including probably Zimmerman’s temperament made him a short fuse.

We all want to protect what is ours and live in safe neighborhoods, preferably surrounded by neighbors who share our values. Home is a place where we should be able to relax and let our guards down. Some, like apparently Zimmerman, are more territorial and paranoid than others. Zimmerman may also have found some satisfaction as a neighborhood watch volunteer, because it let him place his values into direct action. This seems to be the case; given that the Sanford police department has a log with dozens of calls from Zimmerman about suspicious incidents in his neighborhood. Zimmerman’s values apparently are shared by Florida’s legislature and governor. It is likely that as a gun owner Zimmerman knew about the stand your ground law, and this marginally affected his behavior in this incident. It may have fed a feeling of justification that he was doing right by the law and his community.

It is likely that even the Florida legislature did not envision this law applying to neighborhood watch volunteers, and will likely amend or repeal the law under the pressure from so many diverse interest groups. Still, the right to use deadly force to ensure your imminent safety is already recognized, providing you first retreat if safe to do so. Given that Martin was armed only with iced tea and Skittles, he likely was not much of an imminent threat. Something must have been envisioned by the Florida legislature that precipitated the passage of this law, although it is hard for me to understand what circumstances could possibly justify murdering someone that was not already covered by law. My inability to figure out these scenarios simply amplifies the meme among most people that these laws are really a statement of some sort, probably that some citizens are or should be more equal than others, particularly property owners. “They” would be the George Zimmermans of the world and not the Trayvon Martins. It is also curious that six of the ten states with these laws have had long histories of institutional lynching.

These laws strike me as legislation designed to assuage perceived fears rather than real ones and that rather than breeding more communal safety they simply fan the flames of intolerance and bigotry instead, flames that we seem unable to wholly put out. Tragically, Trayvon Martin is its latest and most prominent victim.

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