I shouted out “Who killed the Kennedys” When after all, it was you and me
- Rolling Stones, “Sympathy For The Devil”
The news cycle for the last two weeks has been consumed by the Trayvon Martin case, understandably. And the issue is full of vitriol, concern, media hype and real questions. Sorting through it all is important. Let’s look at some of what we know, and what is still up in the air.
On February 26th, Trayvon Martin and his brother were watching the NBA All Star game with their dad at the dad’s girlfriend’s home in Sanford, FL. The younger boy wanted some candy, and Trayvon walked to the 7-Eleven, buying some Skittles and a can of iced tea. On his way back home, he was spotted by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman is a self-appointed captain of an unofficial neighborhood watch program. While there are more than 200,000 registered neighborhood watch programs, Zimmerman is not one of them. Nonetheless, he has taken to patrolling the neighborhood he lives in with his parents.
On 2/26, he saw Trayvon Martin walking through the tract, returning from the 7-Eleven. Zimmerman deemed him suspicious, and called 911. He describes Martin as suspicious because he was “walking around looking about”. He opined that Martin may have been on drugs. He adds that he has his hands “in his waistband”. This would would make sense if it was cold or raining out, and his hands were in the pockets of his hoodie.
First, Zimmerman says Martin was staring at him, and approaching him, then says “These assholes. They always get away”. From the 911 tapes, it sounds at this point as if Zimmerman exited his vehicle. He says that Martin is running away. Zimmerman mutters something that has alternately been transcripted to “fucking coons” or “fucking goons”.
Police ask Zimmerman if he is following Martin, and he indicates that he is. 911 operator tells Zimmerman that he doesn’t need to do that. The dispatcher lets Zimmerman know that they are on the way. Zimmerman, when asked where he lives in the complex, declines to give the information, and tells the dispatcher to have police call him when they are in the area. Moments after the 911 call, Martin is shot and killed.
Zimmerman’s account of what happened next is that he was returning to his vehicle and he was approached from behind by Martin. He states that he was looking at a street sign to determine where he was. He says that Martin asked him if there was a problem, and Zimmerman said no. According to Zimmerman, when he said “no”, Martin allegedly replied “you do now!” and punched him in the face. Zimmerman says he fell down, hit his head on the concrete, and that Martin jumped atop him. It was then that he pulled his gun from its holster, and fired into Martin’s chest at close range. All sounds plausible.
But then the reports of neighbors started coming in. Many reported hearing a young man’s voice crying for help, right up until the gunshot. Most have said they heard Martin. Some say it was Zimmerman. Of note, at least one witness who said she heard Martin states that she was “corrected” by police who said “You mean you heard Zimmerman”. Others say they saw Zimmerman on top of Martin, while yet others say the situation was reversed.
Adding to the confusion, one Zimmerman supporter says Martin was shot because he was giving inappropriate answers to Zimmerman’s questions. Also muddying things is the fact that the initial police report did not indicate Zimmerman had any injuries, but an amended report later did. And a larger issue comes with concern about the “Stand Your Ground” law in FL, which some have derisively called the “Shoot First” law, and is also referred to as the Castle Doctrine.
Let’s look at the events, some plausible explanations and where this could have been avoided. Zimmerman’s initial 911 call doesn’t give any specifics as to why he thought Martin was “suspicious”, just that he was walking and looking around. In fact, if Zimmerman was parked on the street where Martin was walking, especially if parked ahead of him, Martin’s walking past could easily have been interpreted as “walking towards me” and “looking at me”. Since there is no surveillance video that has come to light, we can’t know. But it is clear from Zimmerman’s 911 call that Martin did not actually approach the vehicle, and instead walked away. Zimmerman has a history of calling 911 for “suspicious” activity, including calling about a suspicious “7-9 year-old”. In every situation, the “suspicious” individuals were black. No whites, no hispanics.
From the 911 call, we hear clearly that Zimmerman says “These assholes. They always get away”. So, Zimmerman has put Martin into a “they” category, into some predefined group of individuals. Does he mean black? Does he mean kid with hoodie? This statement is followed shortly thereafter by the disputed “fucking coons” statement. One Zimmerman supporter says that he actually was saying ”fucking goons” and referred to it as a term of endearment. Which of course, makes no sense in the context. A term of endearment for someone you’re following as suspicious?
Regardless of what was said, Zimmerman then chose to exit his vehicle and follow Martin. This is against neighborhood watch guidelines – as is carrying a weapon. In fact, Zimmerman is told by the 911 dispatcher that they don’t need him to do that. Zimmerman continues anyway.
This is the first real point where the shooting could have been avoided. Had Zimmerman not exited his vehicle, nothing happens. Martin gets home, and is watching the NBA game with his family.
Zimmerman states that Martin then began to run, and that he lost him. His further statement is that he stopped to look at a street sign to figure out where he was. This is an individual that had called 911 more than 40 times in a little more than a year, but doesn’t know what street he is on? This seems unlikely, at best. He then states that he was walking back to his car and was approached by Martin.
This is where the plausibility really starts to get iffy. The same kid that moments before was running away – per his 911 call – has now doubled back to challenge a man that outweighs him by 100 pounds? Wearing a gun in a holster on his hip? This really doesn’t pass the smell test. Defenders of Zimmerman point to his injuries – reported later – as evidence that he was in a scuffle, and use that to claim the Zimmerman was attacked. Again, doesn’t sound likely.
Here’s a more likely scenario: Zimmerman caught up with Martin, and tried to detain him (Remember – “These assholes. They always get away”). Reports vary as to what Zimmerman said, but there seems to be agreement that the two had some words between them. If you are a 17-year-old kid, and some guy off the street, no badge, no authority, tries to detain you, what would you do? In this scenario (and in my opinion a much more plausible one), Zimmerman is the aggressor. And in terms of the “self-defense” aspect, Martin is the one being “attacked”.
From this scenario, a scuffle is easily believable. And it is possible that at this point, Zimmerman does take a punch to the face, and falls backward. The kid, angry by this point, keeps fighting. But remember, it wasn’t a long scuffle. There is very little time, perhaps 90 seconds, between the end of Zimmerman’s 911 call and the calls from neighbors who heard cries for help.
In this scenario, it is possible it was Zimmerman crying out, and when he could, he unholstered his gun and fired into Trayvon Martin’s chest, killing him. But this would be far from self-defense. It would be like starting a bar fight, then claiming self-defense when you kill someone.
In my opinion, this is a far more plausible scenario than Zimmerman’s statement. And in this scenario, there were at least two distinct times when this could have been averted. Even if you take Zimmerman’s account as the truth, the fact that he followed Martin takes this out of the realm of self-defense. Zimmerman chose to put himself into a situation that could be considered dangerous, then used his gun to get out of it.
If you think that’s self-defense, let’s use another example. An abusive ex-husband is angry that his former wife has taken up with another man. He goes to the house, finding the other man there. He shoves the man, and the man hits back. The husband pulls a gun and kills him. By using the logic in Zimmerman’s claim, the ex-husband was simply defending himself.
Here’s the text of the relevant law in FL that is being used in Zimmerman’s defense:
(3) 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.
So with this law, the defense would have to be that Zimmerman was attacked by Martin, and felt he was in danger of death of great bodily harm. Let’s remember that Martin was outweighed by Zimmerman by 100 pounds. His nickname was “Slim” because of how think he was. There were no other weapons found, nor threat of weapons reported. Even if Zimmerman’s testimony is accurate, and that he was somehow sucker punched by Martin, there is no evidence that he was in danger of death or great bodily harm. At worst, he was in a fistfight with a kid half his size. Which he ended with a gunshot.
That’s not just parsing words. The definition of self-defense in terms of this statute are laid out very clearly at the top of the statute:
(1) A person is presumed to have held a reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another when using defensive force that is intended or likely to cause death or great bodily harm to another if:
(a) The person against whom the defensive force was used was in the process of unlawfully and forcefully entering, or had unlawfully and forcibly entered, a dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle, or if that person had removed or was attempting to remove another against that person’s will from the dwelling, residence, or occupied vehicle; and
(b) The person who uses defensive force knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred.
By the definition in the statute, right at the top, Zimmerman has no claim of self-defense from this law. Martin did not unlawfully or forcibly enter any property or vehicle, nor had any unlawful and forcible act occur. The altercation occurred because of Zimmerman’s decision to follow Martin, regardless of the outcome. Martin had not committed any crime. Except, perhaps, of looking “suspicious”.
And that is where the real problem lies. That in this day and age, a kid wearing a hoodie, jeans, and sneakers is “suspicious”. This isn’t about why the trigger was pulled, or whether Zimmerman was justified. There is a much bigger issue here. Kids wear hoodies all the time. But an individual with, at best, a predetermined idea that black kids in his neighborhood were bad, decided that this 17-year-old boy was a threat. Enough to follow him despite being instrcuted not to, despite neighborhood watch guidelines against carrying a weapon. He decided Trayvon Martin was suspicious. And because of that, Trayvon Martin is dead.
So why did I start this post with a Rolling Stones quote? Because we all bear some responsibility in this. No, this isn’t “White people’s guilt” or any other pop psychology pablum. It’s real.
If you have ever sat and listened to someone tell a joke with racial undertones, or a flat out racist joke, and uncomfortably laughed just to be polite, you have been part of the problem. And yes, I have. I’m not racist. But this isn’t just about being a racist. This is about standing by while others perpetuate the racism. Most don’t intend it, but it’s there.
There’s a difference between cultural bias and racism. I have black friends who have described one attitude or another as ”a black thing”. In general, they are referring to something that tends to be based in the cultural make-up of blacks, and that doesn’t relate to race. And then, there is racism.
It’s insidious. It creeps in. But in the last few years, it has moved into the mainstream again, not far from the attitudes in the 50′s and 60′s that kept minorities at the back of the bus, out of classrooms, and away from businesses. It’s couched in careful wording, but it’s there. When Rick Santorum says he doesn’t want to give blacks other people’s money, referring to welfare, he didn’t say minorities. He didn’t say all folks on welfare. He said “blacks”. That’s not just couching it in pretty wording, it’s blatantly racist. And yet, there was little furor over the statement. And the fact that he’s challenging for the GOP nomination is proof that this kind of speech isn’t just acceptable to many people, but welcomed.
And we let it go by.
There is just as much of a problem with race in this country as there ever has been. A friend commented to me this morning that the human race will never change, that we are not far different from the gorillas that beat up orangutans, that we cannot overcome our genetic predisposition to attack those that are different. I don’t agree.
When you see these young men, what do you see? ©2012 Leo Soderman, Creative Commons Non-Commercial
We can change. First, by changing ourselves. When you see a trio of dark-skinned young men coming toward you, do you give them a wider berth? Do you look away so as not to meet their eyes?
Or do you smile and nod? Say hello.
Do you think a neighborhood is especially “bad” if it is predominantly black or hispanic?
If so, you are helping perpetuate the myth, the lie, the racism. You don’t intend to, but you are. Yes, many neighborhoods that have a predominantly minority population are trouble-ridden. But perhaps the problem isn’t the minority, but the standard of living. The lower wages, the fight to survive that attracts elements of society that will work to take advantage of the poverty and the desire to have a little more. Think there aren’t drug dealers in expensive neighborhoods? Of course there are. There’s just more money and more discretion as to how the deals are done. Think there isn’t prostitution in more affluent environs? Wrong again – ask John Edwards or David Vitter.
No, their situation isn’t about the color of their skin. But when you hear someone refer to a neighborhood as “pretty dark”, they’re usually not referring to a lack of street lights.
So when we allow that kind of speech, that kind of attitude, even by a nod of recognition, we continue the problem. Many have come to accept that it’s ok to be nervous around black kids wearing hoodies, that they must be trouble makers. And “suspicious”.
And that’s why Trayvon Martin is dead. After all, it was you and me.