Trayvon’s Killing Exposes Festering Wounds of Racism

By Billy Corriher

When the lives of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin collided on February 26, neither one could have understood what was happening. Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer, and he mistakenly thought this skinny teenager, walking down the street with candy, was some sort of threat.  Martin, on the other hand, had no idea why this stranger was staring at him and following him.  Visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, Martin had grown up in Miami, a diverse city where young black males are not accustomed to suspicion and harassment.  In a few moments, Martin would be lying face down on the ground with a hole in his chest.

Zimmerman found Martin suspicious because he was walking too slowly in the rain, and so he called 911. The 911 operator advised him not to follow the person, but Zimmerman did.  Martin’s girlfriend, who was speaking with him on the phone, said she heard Martin ask a person if he was following him.  What happened next is unclear.  Neighbors said they heard an altercation, then cries for help, and finally, a gunshot.

Since Martin’s death, the world has been focused on the small town of Sanford.  Civil rights leaders have ledrallies calling for Zimmerman’s arrest.  Zimmerman has faced criticism for carrying a gun and for following someone who did nothing wrong.  It is clear that Zimmerman was very bad at watching his neighborhood, and his incompetence may have caused this grave tragedy.

Residents of Sanford’s historically black community, Goldsboro, expressed frustration at police inaction.  David, a barber at 13th Street Barber Shop in Goldsboro, said the Police Chief’s resignation will not ease the tension.  He described the shooting as “murder,” but his customers said they doubt Zimmerman will be arrested.  David said Sanford police have long had a strained relationship with black residents, citing allegations of police brutality.  Edward Young said that, until he moved to Sanford from Detroit a year ago, he had never encountered explicit racism. “I’ve never heard of anything like this,” he said. “I was called ‘nigger’ for the first time in my life.”

Police said they declined to arrest Zimmerman because prosecutors advised that his conduct was justified under Florida’s “stand your ground” law.  The statute expanded the traditional right of self-defense.  At common law, citizens could use deadly force to defend their homes, even if they could retreat to avoid danger, but a citizen in a public place had to first attempt to retreat.  Under the Florida law, citizens facing danger in public do not have to retreat before killing the aggressor.

Sanford authorities should have at least required Zimmerman to tell a court his side of the story.  Some Republican supporters of the “stand your ground” law say it shouldn’t protect Zimmerman.  The authorities in Sanford, Florida, allowed a man to kill an unarmed teenager with impunity.  Police should have been more concerned about Martin’s death than protecting the vigilante who killed him.  Studies have noteddisparities in punishment for persons suspected of killing members of a certain race.

Because Martin was from Miami, he may not have grown up around racism.  A young black male from Sanford may not have been so confused about why this person was following him.  Though much smaller, Martin may have even been the aggressor.  Perhaps Zimmerman tried to retreat but couldn’t.  These questions ought to be confronted and settled in court.  Trayvon Martin deserves that much.  Justice would go a long way towards healing this divided community


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