A couple weeks back a story crossed my eyes that made me feel sick to my stomach for reasons I couldn’t quite place. It was the story of Trayvon Martin, a 17 year-old kid who was shot and killed in Orlando by neighbourhood watch captain George Zimmerman. Obviously the story upset me for the normal reasons – a fellow human being killed is not something that can simply be shrugged off. That being said, this is hardly the first story I’ve heard about someone getting killed in the fucked up, gun-happy, cowboy fetishizing United States. For a country with more than 12,000 gun murders a year (compared to 170 per year in Canada), there’s simply no way that a person could be this sickened every time someone gets murdered – I’d never get anything else done.
But there are some details about this case that make this case particularly gruesome.
Martin was shot after returning home from a local convenience store, where he bought snacks including Skittles candy requested by his 13-year-old brother, Chad.
The man in question is Neighborhood Watch Captain George Zimmerman, who was present at the time of the shooting. According to Crump, while Martin returned to the townhome, police received a 911 call reporting a suspicious person; Zimmerman was the man that made the call.
Without waiting for police to arrive, Crump said, Zimmerman confronted Martin, who was on the sidewalk near his home. By the time police got there, Martin was dead of a single gunshot to the chest and the only thing they found on him was a can of Arizona ice tea in his jacket pocket and Skittles in his front pocket for his brother Chad.
The man who killed Trayvon Martin (and this fact is not under dispute – Mr. Zimmerman openly admits to being the one to kill Trayvon) did so for the arch crime of walking home at night. In his own neighbourhood [Edit: It has been pointed out that he was visiting family, and this was therefore not ‘his neighbourhood’. As far as I’m concerned this is a distinction without a meaningful difference]. This was not a kid caught in the wrong place at the wrong time by the wrong lunatic – this was a kid murdered by a lunatic who hunted him through the streets because he looked “suspicious”.
Calls to 911 alerted police to a scuffle and someone crying for help. In one, the chilling howl stopped after the clear, crisp blast of a bullet. Trayvon was lying face down on the ground near a pathway that runs through the townhouse community. One 911 caller sobbed to the dispatcher over not having helped the young man who wailed.
Zimmerman told police that was him crying for help and that Trayvon started the fight. He claimed self-defense and was not charged, flaring deep-seated racial tensions between blacks and police, who have a long history of distrust.
George Zimmerman, an armed 28 year-old man was following Trayvon in his SUV. At some point, Mr. Zimmerman stopped his car and got out of it. Some interaction occurred between Zimmerman and the unarmed 17 year-old, and Mr. Zimmerman fired a bullet into Trayvon’s chest, killing him. To hear Mr. Zimmerman describe it, he left his vehicle to see what street he was on (which, I’ve got to say, makes him either the single most incompetent neighbourhood watch captain in existence, or a fucking liar) when Trayvon jumped him from behind. The shot was fired in self-defence. Police did not arrest Mr. Zimmerman for murdering a minor. They did not check to see if Mr. Zimmerman had been drinking or taking drugs. They let him go.
It should not go uncommented that this police department has a history of looking the other way when it comes to crimes committed against black men.
A new Florida law swept aside the limits of a centuries-old legal principle that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” that defined when a citizen could kill another rather than retreat from a confrontation. The so-called ‘castle doctrine,’ long part of English common law and fundamental to key elements of the U.S. Constitution includes not only a ‘right to defend’ but also corresponding ‘duty to retreat.’
Backed by the powerful National Rifle Association and passed overwhelmingly by Florida’s legislature, the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law made it legal for citizens to use lethal force in self-defence in almost all public spaces. They no longer had to back off from confrontations. There was no ‘obligation to retreat’ from confrontation.
If you want a comprehensive discussion about gun laws, I suggest you visit Greg Laden’s blog instead. To me, gun laws are fairly irrelevant – I live in a city with 455 gun crimes a year and a population of over 2 million people. Considering that few Canadians are ever issued concealed weapons licenses (which Mr. Zimmerman had – again, everything he did was legal), I don’t exactly live in fear that my neighbours are packing heat. I will say this however – if Mr. Zimmerman had not been allowed to carry a gun, and he was legitimately afraid for his life, he would have stayed in the car and waited for the police (who he had called moments before) to arrive. Now, knowing the story of young black men and white cops in the United States, it’s certainly possible that the story would have worked out the same way for Trayvon, but maybe not.
State prosecutor Norm Wolfinger made the announcement as the victim’s family lawyer said 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was on his cellphone with a girlfriend, giving her a chilling, minute-by-minute account of what was happening in the moments before he died.
He said the girl heard the initial confrontation between Martin and Zimmerman. “Trayvon said, ‘Why you following me, man?’” and Zimmerman said, ‘What are you doing here?’” Crump said. He said the girl could tell by Martin’s voice that he was then pushed. She thinks Martin’s cellphone headset came off and then the call was disconnected, Crump said.
George Zimmerman told police that he was jumped from behind while he looked for a street sign to ascertain his location. Testimony from a friend who was on the phone with Trayvon during the altercation demonstrates that Mr. Zimmerman’s version of the events is a lie. He confronted Trayvon, possibly assaulting him in the process. Judging by the presence of wounds on Mr. Zimmerman’s head, there was likely a physical altercation (I should point out, by the way, that Mr. Zimmerman has a good 10 years and about 100 lbs on Trayvon – not exactly a life-threatening situation), and Zimmerman shot and killed the teen.
5. Race explicitly plays a role in Mr. Zimmerman’s threat evaluation
Despite assurances from his father that George Zimmerman is not ‘a racist’, Mr. Zimmerman explicitly warned people in the neighbourhood about the presence of black criminals. Without knowing anything about Trayvon’s mental state or activities that evening, Mr. Zimmerman pronounced to the 911 operator that Trayvon was probably ‘on drugs’, and that he was ‘up to no good’. This does not square with the behaviour one would expect from someone who doesn’t view black people as inherently criminal, or at least more criminal than non-black people.
I’m starting to write well outside the boundaries of the facts, so I’m going to stop here and encourage you to read this summary from Mother Jones. I will pick up my discussion of this story this afternoon.
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