The death of Trayvon Martin, and even more so, the aftermath and public reaction, push many questions towards the spotlight, and currently, it doesn’t seem as though anyone has any answers.
Here are the facts: Trayvon, 17 years old, black, and wearing a hooded sweatshirt, was walking back to the house of his father’s girlfriend from a convenience store, where he had purchased a bottle of iced tea and a bag of skittles. It was dark. George Zimmerman, 28, Hispanic, and driving his neighborhood watch circuit, spotted Trayvon walking around the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community. He called the Sanford police department to report a “suspicious person”. From the 9-1-1 call, it’s apparent that Zimmerman thought Trayvon might be related to a number of recent burglaries that had been reported in the neighborhood. Zimmerman follows Trayvon, against the advice of the dispatcher, and the call ends. Other 9-1-1 calls from neighborhood residents describe a physical altercation, and the sounds of someone screaming for help. When the police arrived, Trayvon Martin had been fatally shot by George Zimmerman.
Here’s where the facts become muddled: Zimmerman claims that he was acting in self-defense, but by his own admission, and as is evident from the 9-1-1 call and testimony from Martin’s girlfriend (who was on the phone with him at the time), the older man chased Martin down before a scuffle ensued. The exact details of Zimmerman’s story, and how he claims an unarmed, 17-year-old boy made him fear for his life have not been made public (judging from photographs, it would appear that Zimmerman outweighs Martin by nearly 100 pounds). Residents who witnessed the physical altercation almost uniformly stated that it was too dark to tell who was who, but in one recorded 9-1-1 call, the screaming that is heard in the background sounds like a younger male. According to police reports, the first officer arriving at the scene found Martin facedown on the ground, and observed that Zimmerman was bleeding from the head, and covered in grass.
Complicating the case is a multi-faceted racial component. First, we need to acknowledge that race absolutely matters in this incident. How many Caucasian teenagers have ever been shot to death because they looked “suspicious”? In this case, the observed suspicious activity included walking down the sidewalk while holding candy. Less cut and dried is the response by the Sanford, FLA police department, who did not test Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol at the scene, and who released him on the grounds that they had “no evidence to contradict his story”. Outraged citizens across the nation have raised a very fair question: had Trayvon been white, and Zimmerman black (or Asian, or remained Hispanic), would the case have folded so quickly and neatly?
The answer: absolutely not. However, this case is further clouded by yet another issue, the already controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, which affords any Florida resident the right to use lethal force if they feel their life is being threatened. The language of this law, and several like it in other states, is vague at best. Following the Martin killing, critics of the law have newfound ammunition, and have argued that the it serves as a de facto endorsement of vigilantism.
Speaking of unhinged individuals, Zimmerman’s character seems…questionable, at best. Little is known about him at the time of this writing, but a few key facts paint a portrait of someone who, perhaps, shouldn’t have the authority to carry a concealed handgun and use it if he feels “provoked”. He was arrested in 2005 on a charge of assaulting a law enforcement officer (it was later revealed that this was a bit overblown) and was remanded to a pretrial diversion program. That same year, a woman filed an injunction against him for domestic violence. This didn’t stop Zimmerman from pursuing a career in law enforcement: he took criminal justice classes at a local community college and even enrolled in the Sheriff’s Department academy program (there is no word on how successful he was in either of these endeavors). In isolation, this might point to somebody with aspirations to be a police officer, or at least to be involved in public safety, but Zimmerman’s aspirations seemed more intense than a normal citizen concerned with protecting their community.
Exactly how Zimmerman wound up as the supposed captain of his neighborhood watch is still under debate. USAonWatch, the national neighborhood watch group, says Zimmerman was never registered with the group, although newsletters distributed around the Retreat at Twin Lakes suggest that members of the homeowner’s association were comfortable with Zimmerman’s role as “captain”. Since 2004, he had placed nearly 50 calls to police over mundane things like open garage doors and cars driving around the neighborhood. Most chillingly, he once reported—you guessed it—two black males who were behaving in a “suspicious” manner. If not overt paranoia, this behavior can be at least considered “overzealous”, as one neighbor put it. When you take all this information as a whole, we’re forced to ask ourselves: should a man with seemingly unrealized aspirations of becoming a police officer, with a tendency to overreact, and most of all, with a criminal record, be allowed to maintain a position of authority within a neighborhood watch program? More pressing: should this person be allowed to use his own discretion when it comes to extinguishing the life of an unarmed teenager?
Whether or not race played a role in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin may never be known for certain, but the fact remains that an innocent boy is dead, and the man who killed him has not been arrested. Law enforcement has been curiously tight-lipped about Zimmerman’s interview with officers, only saying that he was released because there was no evidence to contradict his account of events. Conveniently, the only other witness had been shot dead a few hours prior. The careful, political moves by the Sanford Police department are somewhat understandable, if not downright sad, given the sensitive nature of the case, but can we all admit that something is dreadfully wrong when cops (who, it should be noted, widely opposed the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida) shrug their shoulders and say they can do nothing to rectify a situation that left a 17-year-old deceased?