Op-Eds Speaking Truth to the Powers-That-Be
UPDATED – If a woman is being stalked, the stalker can be penalized just for doing that. A young black man walking in a predominantly white Florida neighborhood is not so lucky. When the law is on the side of the stalker, it perverts the very meaning of the word “justice” in our legal system.
February 26, 2012: 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was returning home from a convenience store in the rain in small town of Sanford, Florida, 30 minutes Northeast of Orlando.
Martin was talking on the phone to his girlfriend and carrying his purchases from the convenience store: A package of Skittles and a can of Iced Tea.
Wearing a hooded sweatshirt, appropriate for the day’s rainy weather, Martin stood under a nearby awning to get out of the rain.
What he didn’t know what that he was being watched with great interest by George Zimmerman, an overzealous Neighborhood Watch captain, from a nearby SUV. Zimmerman contacted 911 and reported Trayvon as ‘suspicious.’
Here is the tape of the initial phone call that Zimmerman made to the 911 operator:
At this point Martin apparently noticed Zimmerman staring at him. He moved out from the awning, and, from Zimmerman’s narration, it would seem that he at least wanted to see who was staring at him and why.
At 1:42 in the recording, Zimmerman says: “These assholes. They always get away.”
Get away from what? No crime had been committed. Martin’s only crime, thus far, was being black and in the vicinity of a paranoid racist zealot.
As Zimmerman gives the operator directions to get to the “clubhouse” where Martin is walking past, at 2:11 in the tape he suddenly says: “Shit. He’s running.”
The 911 operator asks which direction. Zimmerman tells him towards the back entrance to the neighborhood.
At 2:26 in the recording, Zimmerman can clearly be heard getting out of the car. The wind picks up. He mutters under his breath, but audibly: “That fuckin’ coon.”
The operator asks Zimmerman if he is following Trayvon. Zimmerman says yes. The operator then says:
“Okay, we don’t need you to do that.”
Zimmerman acknowledges the instruction with: “Ok.”
What is clear is that Martin was afraid of this guy. Zimmerman continued to follow him, in contravention of the 911 operator’s instructions. While the operator tries to get Zimmerman’s info, Zimmerman says “He ran” indicating that Martin was trying to get away.
Perhaps the one fatal mistake made by the 911 operator when he agreed to have the cops call Zimmerman back on his cell when they got there so he could tell them where he was, rather than have him meet the police at a designated spot that would have kept him from pursuing Martin.
The next few minutes are in dispute. Zimmerman said that Trayvon approached him from behind and that there were words exchanged. Zimmerman claimed that Trayvon punched him in the nose and then began to beat him, knocking him to the ground and pounding the back of his head on the ground.
A male 911 caller calls police about a struggle. “They’re wrestling in the back of my porch.” He heard what he thought to be a gunshot.
A 13 year old witness claims to have seen Zimmerman on the ground with Trayvon straddling him. Another witness claims to have heard Zimmerman scream for help.
Another eyewitness looking out of their window had a different tale. It was Zimmerman who straddled Trayvon while he lay on his back.
The Sanford police say that his story is corroborated by his bloodied nose, lacerations to the back of his head and grass stains on the back of his shirt.  Unfortunately, their video doesn’t back up the tale. ABC News released exclusively the footage of Zimmerman being brought into the Sanford
When the police arrived a few minutes later, Trayvon had been fatally shot and Zimmerman claimed self-defense.
The Sanford police say that his story is corroborated by his bloodied nose, lacerations to the back of his head and grass stains on the back of his shirt.  Unfortunately, their video doesn’t back up the tale. ABC News released exclusively the footage of Zimmerman being brought into the Sanford police station in handcuffs. In it there is no evidence of him being beaten and bloodied at all. He is also leaner and meaner than the lone picture of him from 2005 that has been shared in the news media. 
Zimmerman was questioned, but he was released because he invoked his right to self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground Law,” an expansion on the common law right to self defense. To date, Zimmerman has not been arrested.
At common law, the right of self defense is innate:
“1 : The use of force to defend oneself;
2 : An affirmative defense (as to a murder charge) alleging that the defendant used force necessarily to protect himself or herself because of a reasonable belief that the other party intended to inflict great bodily harm or death.” 
What’s interesting and important to note, is the “reasonable person” standard in the common law version of self defense. This basically asks the question: Would another person in your position have acted in the way you did?
Usually, there must be equal force applied. If someone punches you in the nose, generally speaking, the person on the receiving end of the blow isn’t allowed to shoot their assailant in the chest at close range.
How much force is appropriate is usually the central point of discussion by both the prosecution and the defense in violent crime trials.
Every state in the union has some variation of law that provides for the justification for killing another when there is self defense claimed. Usually the facts are put forth at a trial. Sometimes, it is so obvious that the perpetrator isn’t arrested or detained, but the facts strongly and unequivocally support the story of the perpetrator.
Then Florida Governor Jeb Bush signed one of the first “Stand Your Ground” laws. It took effect October 1, 2005. It was the first stab at re-writing self-defense codes using a National Rifle Association (NRA) boilerplate then pushed through twenty other states legislatures.
“This is a radical modern distortion of an old common-law doctrine,” notes Garrett Epps in the American Prospect. “The old ‘castle doctrine’ held that someone attacked in his or her own home had no “duty to retreat” before using deadly force to repel an attack. The idea behind it was that a person confronted at home literally has no place to go and need not try to run away if facing an immediate threat of violence
The NRA, backed by its usual cadre of weapons manufacturers, was able to get Florida legislators to amend the Castle Doctrine into a legalization of vigilantism. The law’s key passage in question reads:
“A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
If the law is applied to the facts as stated by Mr. Zimmerman, and from the 911 recording, he should have been arrested.
The story has been gaining momentum as the outrage over it by people of all races and creeds builds. More than 2.1M people have signed a Change.org petition by Martin’s parents to have , a record for web activism on that site.
Zimmerman was stalking Martin. He was told to cease and desist. Martin was unarmed. Zimmerman was involved in an altercation, as cuts and bruises suggest, but the force used in response, deadly force, was excessive. Prior to the confrontation, Martin was not proving himself to be harmful to others.
The law’s broad protection to assailants is not popular with many in the district and state attorneys’ offices. State attorney Willie Meggs, who fought the law when it was proposed, told the New York Times: ‘The consequences of the law have been devastating around the state. It’s almost insane what we are having to deal with.”
Even the original author of the law, Florida State Representative Dennis Baxley, doesn’t believe that this defense is applicable to Zimmerman’s actions. 
Even if it is decided to prosecute Zimmerman, many crucial steps for evidentiary gathering at the scene were not done. Police seem to have been satisfied with Zimmerman’s account of the events and left it at that. Martin was taken to the morgue as a John Doe. His body was tested for drugs, but Zimmerman was never given a forensic once-over.
The Federal Government has begun an inquiry to see if the shooting falls under the Federal Hate Crimes law. The Florida Attorney General’s office, and the local AG are also investigating in the wake of the shooting becoming a national story that has drawn condemnation from pundits and average citizens of all races.
Seething, festering hatred and racism continues in our country. It is maddeningly silent, yet deafening at the same time.
If people of color expose this hatred, we are labeled rabble rousers and trouble makers, or worse. A friend of mine once pointed out to me that there isn’t another race that has the relationship with America that black people do. I am inclined to believe that’s true.
The assumption by others is that blacks, who make up a 13.6% minority of a population of 308.7 million, are the majority of the problem. The belief is that we are lazy, criminal and inferior.
Black males, no matter what they do, will be considered threatening, criminal and inferior to the majority. White people can claim that racists are not representative of white people in America. Black people are just race-baiting if we claim that it is true.
In February 2011 Public Policy Polling broke the news that 51% of likely GOP Primary voters were birthers, people who believe that President Barack Obama is a foreigner. After much media attention, and the edges of public shaming of birther-stokers like Michelle Bachmann and Donald Trump, the lie was finally exposed, right? The same organization polled likely voters in the South before major primaries and found:
Mr. Obama brought the point home in a comment about the case. He said that if he had a son, he would “look like Trayvon,” showing empathy for the plight of black Americans who too often have to watch how they act, what they wear, and have to even moderate simple body motions. The Right immediately reacted.
“What the president said, in a sense, is disgraceful,” Gingrich said on Sean Hannity’s radio show. “It’s not a question of who that young man looked like. Any young American of any ethnic background should be safe, period. We should all be horrified no matter what the ethnic background.“Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who had been shot, that would be OK because it didn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense dividing this country up. It is a tragedy this young man was shot. It would have been a tragedy if he had been Puerto Rican or Cuban, or if he had been white, or if he had been Asian-American, or if he’d been a Native American. At some point, we ought to talk about being Americans. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong. I really find it appalling.” 
Gingrich, Santorum, and others tried to flip President Obama’s words of compassion, and of genuine self-identification with the real issue of how race and racism affect the day-to-day lives of real black Americans, into some kind of reverse racism. Which suggests that Gingrich is like a lot of white people who don’t “get” what the day-to-day for most black people, and particularly young black men, is like.
Perhaps he should have listened to guest Charles M. Blow, columnist for the New York Times, on “Real Time with Bill Maher” last Friday:
Maher: Remember, only a couple of months ago, remember when Jan Brewer, the Governor of Arizona, stuck her finger in the president’s face and said she felt “threatened.” And I thought: What must a young black kid feel?… If the President of the United States can [be threatening] on the tarmac of a public airport, what do I have to do to not be threatening?
Blow: This is a very interesting point, and a part of the column that I wrote last week, which is about the burden that young black men feel in this country. And it is a very heavy weight on their shoulders, all the time, because you cannot behave like all of the rest of your friends. You have to watch… I mean it’s almost exhausting, you have to….
Maher: You can’t wear a hoodie!
Blow: Not only can you not wear a hoodie, you literally consciously are paying attention to the way you move your body. It is a physically exhausting exercise to know I can’t run, or make a sudden movement because now I see some cop and he’s standing on the corner and he’s looking this way. Or I can’t put my hands in my waistband, as George Zimmerman says Trayvon Martin had has hands in his waistband, because that may signal that I have some sort of weapon. The kind of constant having to think about how you position your body so that no one takes advantage of that and views you as suspicious and maybe takes your life, or takes you to jail, is exhausting.
America doesn’t trust us and it seems as though they never will, particularly if the impulse to shoot first is backed up by a gun-industry-armed majority white population with multi-generational fear of blacks and other people of color who pass laws to make it easier for vigilantes like Zimmerman to claim self defense later after acting violently and often fatally on their fears.
The Hunger Games was a huge hit over this past weekend, raking in millions of dollars. I have not read the book, nor seen the movie. I did however see an article about how social media “blew-up” with hateful remarks about the race of the characters in the movie, despite the fact their physical appearance was described in the book. One poignant “Tweet” stated: “Ewww, Rue is black? I’m not watching.” 
Apparently, we have moved beyond race in this country, but only if we don’t say anything about it. The NRA and Grover Norquist’s American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) write up pro gun laws to put into the hands of Republican lawmakers on the payroll. The mere mention of bigotry, either in a law’s underlying meaning, or simply in its execution, are met with denial, resistance, and in some cases, outright hatred.
I don’t believe Zimmerman is guilty simply because of his color. He needs to be tried before making that determination. When the police arrive on a scene, and there is an unarmed teenager lying dead on the ground and a shooter with a bloody nose, there should at least be an arrest and a valid investigation.
If the tables were turned, you know that the police would arrest, investigate, and release if the facts warranted it. This is where justice seems to be peeking at the skin color of the assailant from under her blindfold.
People have their right to private bigotry. If that’s what you want out of life, then go for it. The legal system and the political system do not.
Judicial and legislative branches of government do not have the luxury using cultural or ethnic biases to get by. There are standards and rules that need to be followed that are designed to protect us all, including those of us whose skin color is a shade or three darker than white.
From all of the evidence that continues to come out, it still seems that if anyone had the right to stand his ground in this scenario, it was Trayvon Martin, not George Zimmerman.
If the local authorities will not do the right thing, and the GOP-dominated Florida government balks, then the Federal government should invoke its power to bring to trail the killer of Trayvon Martin. Justice should be blind, not racially tone deaf.