Daniella Gibbs Léger wonders how this killing could be defined as self-defense — and what it means for our "post-racial" society.
Over the past few days, I have struggled to put into words my feelings about the Trayvon Martin murder case. With each day, new information comes to light, and I find myself cycling through anger, grief, sadness and just plain befuddlement. Trayvon’s death was a stark reminder of what my parents were always worried about years ago, sometimes with me, but mostly with my brother. They would always say that the things our White friends could do and get away with did not apply to us and that we always needed to behave and keep ourselves out of trouble. Who knew that many years later, staying out of trouble would include not walking on a sidewalk with a hoodie?
By now, we all know the story: Young Trayvon Martin left his father’s fiancé’s house to get a bag of Skittles and some iced tea. While walking back to her house in this gated community of Sanford, Florida, Martin was gunned down by George Zimmerman.
Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch leader, followed Martin even though a police dispatcher explicitly told him, “We don’t need you to do that” (to which he replied, “Okay”). We know that soon after that, Zimmerman confronted Martin and shot him. And we know that the police let Zimmerman go, believing his claim of self-defense.
This case was the first time I’d heard of the so-called “stand your ground” laws. I always figured that if an intruder broke into your house, you had the right to defend yourself. But this law goes further than that. Under these laws, in Florida and the numerous other states where they have passed, if you even feel slightly threatened anywhere – on the street, in a parking lot, on a sidewalk – you can use deadly force to protect yourself. Even if there is an opportunity for you to retreat to safety, you have the right to “stand your ground” and protect yourself.
And five years after this law went into effect, “justifiable homicides” skyrocketed. Officials had plenty of warning that this would happen. Before the law passed, the Miami police chief said this: "Whether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house,''Chief John Timoney told the New York Times, "you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used.'' And as my Progress 2050 colleague Julie Ajinkya pointed out, there is an inherent racial bias in “self-defense” crimes. There is nothing positive about this case, but if there is one good thing that mighthappen, it will be the exposure of these outrageous laws that exist in 30 other states. There is a now serious momentum behind a movement in Florida to change this law.
I’m not understanding how someone can claim self-defense if THEY are the pursuers. Given the 911 tapes, Martin’s girlfriend’s retelling of their last phone call, and Zimmerman’s own 911 calls, it is obvious to almost anyone that Zimmerman was the aggressor – anyone except the Sanford County Police Department. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised at that fact, since Sanford has a checkered history at best when it comes to race relations and the police department.
What does it say that in 2012, young Black men are still seen as “suspicious” simply because they are young Black men? How do you wrap your mind around the fact that the police didn’t even bother to give George Zimmerman a drug test or do ballistics testing, yet they tested the dead body of Trayvon for drugs? And if Trayvon was White and his shooter Black, do we really think the shooter would still be out of jail?
Police Chief Bill Lee has been placed on administrative leave with pay. I don’t think that’s going to satisfy anyone, let alone Trayvon’s parents. Thank goodness the FBI is monitoring the case, the Department of Justice is investigating it and a grand jury will be convened, but there needs to be sustained attention and pressure put on those in power to make sure justice is done in this case.
So. Are we post-racial yet? Hardly. My heart breaks for Trayvon’s parents. As President Obama said, if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon. How do you console them? How do you talk to other parents about protecting their kids when something like this happens? Should our children just never leave the house? Never walk in neighborhoods where they “look different”? I have more questions than answers. I hope that we continue the honest conversation we’re having about race and stereotypes, and that it does not take another Trayvon happening before something changes.
Daniella Gibbs Léger, a former special assistant to President Obama, is the Vice President for American Values and New Communities at the Center of AmericanProgress. Follow her on Twitter @dgibber123