It turns out that in Florida there is no law against being an overzealous vigilante whose reckless conduct provokes a violent incident leading to the death of an innocent citizen.
Over the weekend a jury of six women acquitted George Zimmerman of charges of second-degree murder and manslaughter. He is now a free man, though one with a heavy burden of moral culpability.
African-Americans are all too familiar with circumstances like those that led to the killing of Trayvon Martin. They know that young black men can get in trouble for walking down the wrong road, looking at someone the wrong way, encountering the wrong cop. This is not something imagined. It grows out of a history when black men were snatched off the streets, arrested on bogus charges and sent to work in factories, on plantations, in chain gangs. It grows out of a history when black men were lynched for no reason. Racial profiling remains a fact of life throughout the nation.
Martin was a teenager walking toward his father’s house through a gated community in the evening. That young black men immediately arouse suspicion is part of the nation’s racist legacy. Zimmerman acted on his suspicions, and Martin ended up dead.
Zimmerman was not charged with a crime until six weeks after the shooting when public outrage forced Florida authorities to look again at the case. Part of the problem was Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which allows great latitude in self-defense claims. Someone who believes he is in danger does not have to retreat before killing someone who he believes threatens him.
The stand-your-ground law, much criticized after the killing of Martin, did not play a large role in the trial itself. That’s because Zimmerman claimed that Martin was on top of him bashing his head to the concrete when Zimmerman shot him. He was arguing a claim of self-defense in which retreat, according to his testimony, was not an option.
Looked at another way, however, it was Trayvon Martin who was standing his ground. A stranger began to follow him and then to question him, a circumstance that young black men have been accustomed to view with alarm and fear. Details of the confrontation between Martin and Zimmerman were in dispute, and if Martin was beating Zimmerman, he had taken it too far. Zimmerman took it farther, but because he believed he was in danger, the law found him to be justified.
All indications are that the jurors took their duties seriously. In their eyes there was too much doubt about the case to find that Zimmerman had not acted in self-defense. The prosecution had a hard case in proving otherwise.
But the outcome of the confrontation that night in Florida is an indictment of certain realities of our culture. The proliferation of gated communities reflects a sense on the part of many that they must wall themselves off against danger, against undesirable elements. In fact, 20 percent of the people living in the gated community where Martin was killed are black, which means that even within their own community, young men have reason to fear their own neighbors and self-appointed guardians like Zimmerman.
The proliferation of firearms makes situations provoked by suspicion and racial fear all the more dangerous. Zimmerman didn’t need a firearm to watch out for bad guys. He could avoid people whom he thought threatened him. He could have backed away from a confrontation. But the stand-your-ground law protects people who believe that killing someone is justified to avoid a punch in the nose or in response to one’s own fear. Stand-your-ground may not have been a factor in the trial itself, but it is part of the legal landscape in Florida, protecting vigilantism and paranoia.
It has been argued that because of the way the law works, the criminal courts were never going to be the arena best suited for obtaining justice in the Trayvon Martin case. The larger question is whether society will be able to confront the more profound injustices out of which cases like this one grow. On that question the jury is still out.
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