THE news that the Justice Department will investigate the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin is a welcome development in a horrible story. Last month Martin, a high-school student from Florida, was walking to his father’s girlfriend’s house and talking on the phone to his own girlfriend when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man who had appointed himself as a neighbourhood monitor, and who had made dozens of 911 calls over the past year or so. He made another one that night, saying that he had spotted a “suspicious” black man. The dispatcher told Mr Zimmerman to stay in his car, but Mr Zimmerman had already set out after Mr Martin. “These assholes, they always get away,” he said in one of the 911 calls, which are posted at Mother Jones. Martin was, in fact, trying to get away; his girlfriend, whose identity is being protected because she’s 16, had advised him to run after he told her he was being followed. Mr Zimmerman caught him, and some kind of fight ensued, ending when Mr Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed teenager. When police arrived, they questioned Mr Zimmerman, but released him, and have since explained they have no cause to bring charges.
The reason, they explained, is that Mr Zimmerman said he was acting in self-defence, and Florida has a “stand your ground” law which holds that a person can justifiably kill another person if they “reasonably believe” that they’re in danger. Many states have similar laws and they’re not entirely unreasonable. When Texas passed its own “castle doctrine” law, some five years ago, I was surprised that it wasn’t already on the books. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that a person wouldn’t have the right to shoot an unauthorised intruder in their own home. (Before the law was passed, there was a “duty to retreat”, meaning that you could only justifiably kill someone if a reasonable person wouldn’t have tried to get away.) But in the case of a home intrusion, a person could almost always assert a reasonable belief that they were in danger; they have, at least, the data point that the suspicious person in question has already broken into their home. Florida’s 2005 law is more aggressive: it lets you “stand your ground” even if you’re in public. Emily Bazelon, at Slate, has a fascinating explanation of its history.
Even if you don’t think the Florida law goes too far, it’s hard to see how it applies in this case. Mr Zimmerman was apparently chasing Martin, which is the opposite of standing your ground. If Mr Zimmerman’s claim to self-defence is credible, it’s hard to imagine what wouldn’t count as self-defence in Florida. The willingness on the part of the police department to accept this argument at face value is baffling—or would be baffling if not for the fact that Martin was a young black man. I don’t see any other interpretation. So this story has as much to do with race as it does with gun laws. Here’s a heartbreaking detail:
Before his son’s death, Tracy Martin warned son Trayvon that being a black man in America could be dangerous.
“I’ve always let him know we as African Americans get stereotyped,” Tracy Martin told USA TODAY. “I told him that society is cruel.”
Those warning messages have echoed in Tracy Martin’s head since his son died.
In the world as it is rather than the world as we would like it to be, certain groups face differential risks of injustice, violence, instability, or abuse. That’s why black parents feel a need to give this warning to their children, poor parents often feel a need to give a similar warning, all parents feel a need to give special warnings to their daughters, and so on. The only non-awful part of this story is the public outrage over Martin’s death, which reflects the fact that Americans, as a group, retain some baseline belief that justice is real and everyone has a right to it. Let’s hope that belief proves to be as prophetic as his father’s warning.
(Photo credit: Reuters) – source / Economist