Trayvon: a stroll through the facts

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.

1. Trayvon was murdered in his own neighbourhood

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”.

2. George Zimmerman was not arrested, has not been charged

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.

3. Florida gun laws make every element of Trayvon’s murder completely legal

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.

4. George Zimmerman lied in his story

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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  1. says

    I don’t think #3 is correct. Florida does have ridiculously broad self-defense laws. You can use deadly force if you feel that your life or someone else’s is in danger or to prevent the commission of a felony. There is no duty to only use deadly force if you have no other options. The burden of proof is on the prosecutor to show that you didn’t feel threatened or whatever.

    However, this does not mean that it’s legal to start a fight, then shoot the other guy when they fight back. You also cannot claim self defense if you kill someone while committing a crime and it looks like Zimmerman was committing assault and battery and possibly false imprisonment.

    I think the issue here is 2 & 4. The police saw a guy they knew had shot an unidentified young black man. By the story Zimmerman told, the shooting would have been legal, so they just took his account at face value and didn’t bother with even a cursory investigation. They didn’t check his gun. They didn’t check to see if he was drunk. They only took statements from the witnesses who were standing right there and massaged those to fit Zimmerman’s.

    So there are three problems here: Florida’s self-defense statutes, their concealed-carry statutes and the behavior of the police. Under any reasonable law, Zimmerman would not have been justified in shooting Martin, even if his original account were completely true. Since convictions are so hard to get, there’s often no use in pressing charges. However, it isn’t the police’s job to decide this: It’s the DA’s. It’s especially not the police’s job to decide it based on just a story and probably some racial prejudice without even investigating. It should be pretty obvious what happens if anyone with a bloody nose can shoot an unarmed guy, no questions asked. Also, the background we have on this makes it clear Zimmerman was a racist and a wannabe cop and everyone knew this. Thanks to Florida’s gun laws, which are almost as bad as their self defense laws, he was allowed to carry a gun around scouting for “suspicious characters” anyway. If we didn’t let just any asshole carry a gun around, Trayvon may have still gotten harassed and maybe beaten up, but he wouldn’t be dead.

  2. says

    Florida gun laws make every element of Trayvon’s murder completely legal.

    No, they didn’t. The FL law, AIUI, makes it legal to stand your ground, not to pursue someone who is not threatening you. This asshole (and apparently certain apologists within the police department) grossly misinterpreted the law, and lied his ass off, to suit his own bigotry and fear-driven delusions.

  3. says

    Assuming that the justice department can’t demonstrate that Zimmerman didn’t feel threatened, which will be a bitch to sort out. I’m not all that confident that Zimmerman won’t get sprung from trial, as justified by the Stand Your Ground law. I hope I’m wrong.

  4. Otto says

    I disagree, though I sure ain’t a lawyer. If Zimmerman had followed Martin all the way home and nothing else had happened, he wouldn’t have been doing anything illegal. Just weird and stupid. Florida law could seriously make everyone’s actions perfectly fine:

    Zimmerman follows Martin, because he is sort of a lunatic and thinks the kid is suspicious. Legal. Stops to get out of his car for whatever lunatic reason. Still legal.

    Martin (arguably acting in self-defense, because I’d sure feel threatened if a guy was following me), confronts his pursuer. Now both Martin and Zimmerman are acting in self-defense, because there’s no clear demarcation between who started this confrontation, and when.

    Words are exchanged, physical altercation occurs. Neither man is required to back down. We’ll probably never know who touched who first, for sure (Zimmerman reportedly had blood on his face when the cops showed up). But Zimmerman is carrying a gun, and he’s legally allowed to use it, because he’s covered by Stand Your Ground.

  5. says

    If the law actually says you can kill someone just beacuse you “feel threatened,” then it is indeed a sick law, and could probably be struck down on “vagueness” grounds, not to mention denial-of-equal-protection grounds. Besides, this is a state law, so the Feds would most likely be prosecuting the asshole under a Federal law.

  6. says

    I am English (though I prefer to think of myself as a Northerner, lest someone mistake me for a Londoner), and the doctrine that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” does not mean what you think it means.

    It means that property rights are with the occupier, not with any absentee party such as the landlord (if the property is rented) or the lender (if mortgaged), and are granted by virtue of the fact of occupation.

    It does not mean that you have the right to go around attacking people just because they have invaded your space.

    Life is always worth more than property, unconditionally and without qualification. The lowliest human life is worth more than the most expensive piece of property. That means your property is worth less than the life of a thief — but the alternative is that there must be a piece of property out there that is worth more than your life.

  7. says

    There’s a distinction between his actions being legal and a high burden of proof combined with the police not investigating making it hard to prove his actions weren’t legal. The law is a big part of the problem, but I don’t think even it excuses what Zimmerman apparently did.

  8. says

    …the doctrine that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” does not mean what you think it means.

    No, these days it means what the Republican Hate Machine says it means.

  9. jamessweet says

    FWIW, the Wikipedia article seems to agree with Crommie’s interpretation:

    In any case, that’s somewhat besides the point: Stand Your Ground laws are a dramatic expansion of the Castle doctrine, whether you take your more narrow interpretation, or the one endorsed by Wikipedia.

  10. says

    What’s really wrong here — at least according to the article you cite — is not the law itself, so much as the apparent refusal of local cops to even investigate any claims made by people who invoke the law. A guy kills someone, then says he was “standing his ground,” so the cops just accept the claim and don’t even bring him in for questioning. Is this really a bad law, or just a lot of police misconduct supported by a mood of hate and intolerance among the people? I’m sure it’s a bit of both, but the law itself is certainly not the only problem here, and possibly not even the biggest one.

    I’m sure a strong case could be made to strike down all such laws on equal-protection grounds: if a guy can just flat-out kill someone, without even having to answer for it or prove any good cause, then the victim has been executed without a trial.

  11. says

    There is no duty to only use deadly force if you have no other options.

    There should be. The law was already broken even before these kinds of authoritarian, pro-violence laws were passed. Escalation of force, arbitrarily justified by claims of self-defense that are assumed valid by default, should not be legal.

    Allowing people to make their own decision to escalate violence in an encounter is wrong. If someone punches you in the face, that doesn’t justify pulling out a knife and stabbing them. Likewise, if someone pulls a knife on you, that doesn’t justify shooting them with your gun (concealed or not). Escalation doctrines lead to the encouragement of violence.

    The worst part of this is that it’s actually a complete double standard. People in positions of authority and power get away with escalation and forward violence on a regular basis. Cases of police brutality and police killing are too numerous to count at this point. Feeling provoked is not reason enough to initiate an act of violence, and people who strike first in response to a mere threat should be charged — not held blameless on the vacuous excuse of self-defense. It is never self-defense to strike first.

    Abuse of authority aside, this case is pretty clear. Zimmerman was essentially hunting down Martin like an animal. The 911 call and witness testimony show nothing to even indicate he was afraid (though Martin clearly was). He had a car and every opportunity to retreat even if that had been the case. Martin was smaller and unarmed, as well. There’s no basis even for the claim of a threat, let alone to think that Martin posed a real risk of danger.

    Supposing that the local police account is accurate — and that’s an unfair assumption, considering that they appear inclined to allow a murder suspect to run about — then Zimmerman might have been hit once or twice after chasing Martin down. This minor assault couldn’t possibly then justify drawing his gun, let alone firing it. Between the two, Martin is the only one with any grounds for a self-defense case, and he’s dead.

    It’s not even obvious from the evidence presented that Martin did attack Zimmerman at all, let alone struck first. In any event, if Zimmerman is as paranoid as he seems to be, he probably drew his gun ahead of time. In that case, punching someone and trying to disarm them is no longer an escalation of anything. It’s simply fighting for survival.

    There are actually vigilantes out there trying to justify Zimmerman’s behavior as totally legitimate on its face. One of them posted on Ophelia’s blog. Really, really crazy, but honestly no more so than the Florida legislature and the local police dismissal here.

    The last thing I’d like to note is that it’s not surprising that laws get abused in a racist, sexist, classist, et cetera manner. Before you pass a law, you should understand that whatever powers and responsibilities it describes will be interpreted through those biases and often abused against the powerless. Anyone who can’t meet this test doesn’t belong in a position of power, let alone as high as state legislator. Yet these laws pass with super majorities.

  12. A. Levy says

    Trayvon was not killed in his own neighborhood. He was visiting from the Miami area for the week.

  13. F says

    What absolutely blows me away is that Zimmerman was not even really questioned, and certainly not down at the station, which is pretty much SOP for any serious event, whether or not one is suspected of doing wrong. As far as I know, they didn’t even check his weapon or take it for evidence.

    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.

    Yeah, well, make that argument when it is just a fist fight and see how it goes. I have a guess that gun violence is granted a privileged status (like religion has) here.

    The fact that not the slightest action has been taken since other evidence has come to light, despite the lack of official investigation, is deeply troubling.

    I had no idea that the Castle Doctrine/Stand Your Ground allowed for following people around, getting in their faces (against police orders), and then murdering them when you don’t like the outcome.

  14. says

    The fact that not the slightest action has been taken since other evidence has come to light

    Well the federal DoJ is involved, so that’s something.

  15. says


    That is probably the best summation of the story that I have read.

    At the most, Zimmerman is guilty of being overly paranoid and putting himself unnecessarily in a position where he needed to use self defense. It sounds like Martin spotted Zimmerman and obviously objected to being followed. Both felt threatened by the other and according to eye witness who called 911, Martin was on top of Zimmerman beating him up while Zimmerman called for help.

    One could understand Zimmerman’s paranoia since the apartments had been broken into several times recently. And he had actually helped police catch some of the thieves.

    All in all, it is a very tragic story but the blame game so many are playing is misplaced and could make situations worse.

  16. Christophe says

    FWIW, the author of Florida’s Stand-Your-Ground law has stated he does not believe it protects Zimmermann in this case. Of course, the courts may disagree.

  17. Kazim says


    Good article, thanks for the discussion.

    I don’t know if this will illuminate anything you didn’t already know, but when I was in grad school for a Master’s in software engineering, I did a project for a data mining class in which I analyzed the relationship between gun laws and crime rates in the 50 states. I discussed this project in relation to another gun murder here:

    Basically, the NRA has been running amok for many decades now to increase “freedom” with laws that get scarier and scarier all the time. I’m generally not very extreme about being for gun control, for a liberal. My point of view is that all else being equal, ownership should be fine as long as it’s got as much sensible regulation as, say, car ownership and a driving license. But to a large extent, “sensible regulation” is exactly what the NRA has been working to undermine, even outpacing a lot of its members in terms of how far they’re willing to go to prevent even common sense laws like “Don’t gun down people in the streets who haven’t committed any crime.”

  18. says

    As the neighborhood watch captain for my neighborhood, I’m even *more* disgusted by the whole thing. (As you say, I can’t lose it every time someone in the US gets killed senselessly or I’d never get anything done.)

    Let me tell you, if I heard a member of my neighborhood watch was carrying a gun, I’d be having a long conversation with them and probably one that involved me beating them over the head with a large stick. If I heard that a member of my neighborhood watch got out of the car to confront a suspicious person, the stick would definitely make an appearance. (That’s assuming I got to them before our police liaison, who would be just a *tad* peeved.)

    Of course, the reason I got involved in the watch to begin with was so that I could be sure it didn’t become a “let’s get the furriners” vigilante force!

    In our >60% Hispanic neighborhood, we’ve got at least one guy who calls INS when he “sees a bunch of Hispanic guys hanging around.” (Must. Restrain. Fist of Rage.)

    Every time a crime occurred, he used to go on our e-mail list and explain how it must have been one of the Hispanic guys who did it. After I lost my temper and berated him publicly about the racism of that, he stopped saying it, at least.

    ::sigh:: We do what we can.

    I’ve signed every petition I can find and now I can only hope that someone gets their head out of their ass and arrests Zimmerman posthaste.

  19. John Horstman says

    Gee, I ‘feel threatened’ by every Republican and most Democrat voters in Florida (I literally do – I think they’re a threat to me in terms of electing politicians who will do physical violence to me and my loved ones through broken public policy): can I go hunt them with impunity? I’m with Ace – even the absurdly high burden of proof doesn’t make Zimmerman’s actions legal, just more difficult to prosecute.

    This story was horrifying – I’ve seen any number of stories about racist police departments, but rarely are they so unbelievably blatant. I really hope the feds (metaphorically) roast both Zimmerman (who’s pretty clearly a dangerous self-styled vigilante) and the local PD for so utterly failing to do its job on the grounds of what certainly looks like racist bias. It’s also cranked up my personal anxiety about my couple of friends who are Black and live in predominantly-White neighborhoods with police departments with a history of racist profiling and other racial bias (one of the sports coaches at the high school was stopped by three squad cars and had six cops draw guns on him because a neighbor thought he was suspicious; our brand new concealed-carry legalization looks even worse now). Add another item to the list of previously-unexamined White privilege: I don’t have to worry about random bigots stalking and shooting me while I’m walking home from the convenience store.

  20. says

    Zimmerman’s tall tale of “self-defense” is preposterous on its face, or am I missing something? Skinny little teenager jumps on a much bigger dude, and it takes a bullet to get the big dude out alive? Really?

  21. says

    There’s a copy of the 911 tape floating around where Zimmerman mutters “fuckin coons” as he’s following the kid. Right before he’s told not to pursue him. He also says at one point “these assholes always get away”. Can’t tell if it’s a doctored tape, sound enhanced, or what, because I haven’t noticed anyone else in the media say anything about it. If true, it certainly shows a race motivated crime.

    Anyone else hear this?

  22. says

    Well, he was wacking him on the side of the head with that billy club can of tea, and trying to force those poisonous cavity-inducing Skittles down his throat, so Zimmerman may have a good self defense argument.

  23. Tex says

    Id argue that if someone pulls a knife on me, and I have every reason to believe that theyer intending to use it on me, I should have the right to pull a gun. Of course in this case thats not relevant at all.

    The Florida government website from the department that managed its concealed carry program puts a quick summary of the law on when a concealed gun can be drawn. I thought the first three were particularly appropriate here:

    1. Never display a handgun to gain “leverage” in an argument, even if it isn’t loaded or you never intend to use it.

    2. The amount of force that you use to defend yourself must not be excessive under the circumstances.

    Never use deadly force in self-defense unless you are afraid that if you don’t, you will be killed or seriously injured;
    Verbal threats never justify your use of deadly force;
    If you think someone has a weapon and will use it unless you kill him, be sure you are right and are not overreacting to the situation.
    3. The law permits you to carry a concealed weapon for self-defense. Carrying a concealed weapon does not make you a free-lance policeman or a “good samaritan.”

  24. Tex says

    Since he was unarmed, and especially considering the size difference, unless it comes out that Treyvon is some martial arts expert, its nothing at all for the DA to say that Zimmerman was not being threatened enough to warrant shooting him. The only part of the law maybe maybe Zimmerman could argue as justification is preventing a felony, but hed be pretty hard pressed to prove that one.

    The concealed carry law states:

    However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:
    (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony

    Title XLVI 776.012(1)

  25. says

    Zimmerman said he thought Martin was reaching for a gun. This is basically the classic bullshit self-defense claim, especially when the other party has no gun. There’s no way they should have accepted this without looking into it.

  26. says

    Escalation of force is theoretically not allowed, but this leads to hair-splitting, especially since escalation is not always clear-cut. I think it’s pretty clear based on Martin’s girlfriend’s account that Zimmerman was escalating this, but he could argue that he escalated that he wasn’t escalating at the point of the shooting. At that point, Martin was attacking him and, as far as he knew, Martin had a gun, so he was afraid for his life. I doubt a jury would buy it in this case, but it would excuse plenty of more marginal cases.

  27. Matthew Gill says

    Honestly his Trayvon’s death is a tragedy, but I feel like you can’t stop every crazy asshole who wants to kill someone. Zimmerman is definitely in the wrong here. I don’t want to diminish the loss of Travyon or make it seem like Zimmerman is any less awful, but I feel that the biggest problem here is the system that lets Zimmerman not only do this legally but also lets a police force ignore this sort of event.

    It seems to be getting the attention that it deserves. I feel Travyon will get justice, but I sure hope that the problem above that, the systemic racism, also gets a hard looking at.

  28. Trebuchet says

    Otto, you’ve summarized what I’ve been thinking for several days. Under the “stand your ground” law, Trayvon Martin had every right to defend himself from the aggressor, Zimmerman. Zimmerman had no reason to feel threatened if he had not initiated the confrontation.

    Crommunist: You’ve actually gone to easy on Zimmerman. Instead of saying Martin was killed for the crime of “walking home at night”, you should have said “walking while black.” No way Zimmerman would have paid any attention to a white kid.

    I can’t see that ANYTHING Zimmerman did was legal. And I’m as white as they come.

  29. Who Knows? says

    john@skeptivus, I cannot understand Zimmerman’s paranoia at all. Or how you could possibly think that the most Zimmerman is guilty of is putting himself in a position where he needed to use self defense.

    It seems Zimmerman made a hobby out of going out and looking for trouble. In this case he found someone he thought he could handle so he went after him, in any case he had a 9mm to back himself up with and used it.

    Zimmerman was the aggressor, probably found himself in over his head, and killed an innocent young man in order to get out of it.


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