On 26 February a 17-year-old black man armed with a packet of Skittles candy was confronted by 28-year-old George Zimmerman , who drove further down the street in his Florida suburban neighborhood, got out of the car armed with a loaded revolver. Bystanders close enough to hear the altercation and not see it heard screams (not Zimmerman’s) and then a gunshot and silence. Trayvon Martin was dead.
Zimmerman was participating in the Sanford Police Department’s neighborhood watch program. He did his job marvelously. He saw Martin, walking down the sidewalk toward his home wearing a hoodie, and holding something (the skittles and a soda) and looking around. He called in this suspicious behavior to police via 911. The dispatcher ordered Zimmerman not to do anything—that squad cars were on the way.
What should have happened was that police would have confronted a 17-year-old kid who had gone to a neighborhood store to get soda and candy and was returning home. They might have told Martin to take down his hood as it was scaring the neighbors perhaps but it was raining and he was simply on his way home. The habit Martin had of looking to either side of the sidewalk may have been simple human curiosity and nothing more. If soda and skittles are illegal in Sanford, Florida then George Zimmerman had exposed a ring of skittles candy and soda eaters among neighborhood high school students.
Zimmerman himself admits driving his car up to Martin and jumping out of the car with his gun fully visible. Even if we accept Zimmerman’s assertion that he thought initially that Martin had either a gun or knife you have to take into account that Martin was found not to be so armed and that he may have reacted to a strange man in a car jumping out of it and brandishing a gun. Zimmerman was wounded. Scratches and wounds about his head indicated Martin may have defended himself along with his screams. They were not screams of exultation in a fight but fear of death, as captured by the 911 tape as Zimmerman also had the time to talk to dispatchers while he was confronting Martin. It would seem that Martin was pleading for his life when a gunshot is heard on the tape, and by the bystanders, and then silence. At no time did Zimmerman lose control of his gun.
Police officers that resort to deadly force in virtually any department around the nation must go on leave or on desk duty until a review board determines the use of force was justified. The Sanford Police Department has conducted no such review. And George Zimmerman was ordered not to intervene. At no time did Martin approach anyone’s home or go on anyone’s property. There was absolutely no justification for his getting in his car and driving up to Martin. And, if the Sanford Police Department permits its neighborhood watch volunteers to use deadly force they may wish to seriously re-think the policy.
Any rational observer must conclude that Zimmerman badly overreacted, confronted Martin who immediately became frightened of this man with a gun who he did not know suddenly showing up, and defended himself with his hands correctly thinking he was being kidnaped or killed. The incident has the stench of murder. Zimmerman’s family points out that they are all Hispanic and so racial bigotry could not have been involved. But very strong racial stereotypes were in play here. And the refusal of the Sanford Police Department to fully investigate this case, and to do the obvious thing and take Zimmerman into custody for using deadly force when not authorized to and with being the aggressor and driving up and confronting Martin with deadly force raises real questions about how racial attitudes may still be influencing how the so called “justice system” operates around the nation.
Police interpreted a 13-year-old boy who was trying to walk the family dog as saying that it was Zimmerman screaming. Yet when Martin’s family listened to the 911 tape it does not sound like Zimmerman at all but like their son. Sheryl Brown, the mother of the boy who had to listen to the entire incident says her son now and even at the time believed that it was Martin and not Zimmerman who was crying out.
Martin did not approach Zimmerman. It was the other way around. Zimmerman was told to stay in his home and not to do anything. He violated those instructions. Zimmerman used a vehicle to bring him to Martin and not the other way around. Wouldn’t you scream and perhaps throw up your hands and arms in self-defense if a man suddenly got out of a car weilding a gun and asked what you were doing there and when you told him walking home not taking that for an answer? Zimmerman should be under arrest for conduct regardless of life or manslaughter if not murder.
Self-defense may have at some point entered into what Zimmerman did when he shot Martin. But his having a gun and Martin’s inability to produce any weapon in the entire altercation and the fact that Martin at no time did anything against the law or sought out anyone in the neighborhood on their property makes Zimmerman’s action criminal, and raises serious questions about how he views black men who simply want to walk through the neighborhood on their way home with the hood on the sweatshirt up in the gentle rain of a February night, no later than 7 P.M., a time when people could be still expected to be out and way before curfew.
Martin’s family, an attorney they have retained, and a growing body of supporters all over the nation are protesting this obvious act of brutality against an innocent young man. Notably, the Sanford Police have not produced anything that indicates Martin did anything that was illegal or threatening, at least until confronted by a gun-wielding Zimmerman with an attitude and who had obviously convicted Martin of being a criminal as if he was judge and jury and executioner all rolled into one. This is vigilante justice at its absolute worst.
285.000 signatures on petitions have been collected thus far supporting the Martin’s. Why is it that even young black men, still teenagers with candy and a soda and putting the hood on their sweatshirt hood up in the rain at seven in the evening, just after supper, require that the boy be shot and killed? What justifies it? What explains it? The stench of racism is strongest with the failure of the Sanford Police Department to acknowledge that a neighborhood watch volunteer took justice into his own hands and killed an innocent high school kid. We can imagine, the boy’s body on the ground dead. Shot right through the chest at close range, and his skittles rolling over the sidewalk, and the soda spilled into the grass on the parkway.
George Zimmerman is a man that has reached his majority ten years earlier. He is fully legally culpaple for the judgments he makes and actions he takes. He presumably owns that gun. He still has it. He still lives in that neighborhood.
At the very least, Zimmerman has fallen victim to the racial stereotype of the threatening black male who simply does so by being present in a place and dressing according to that racial stereotype. Being black and walking down the street are not crimes. George Zimmerman could not see that. What does that say about our society and its attitudes? Does this feed into the disproportionate number of black people who occupy our prisons? Does it affect how police respond to reported suspicious behavior? Strugggles for Justice and any thinkig human being knows it does. Racial stereotypes deeply affect our attitudes and behavior. Add a deadly weapon to the mix and you have a witches brew of injustice and tragedy.
Trayvon Martin was by law still a minor, a kid. He is dead. A family grieves. They would grieve even if Trayvon had had a knife or gun and had just robbed the store he got the candy from. But he hadn’t. There are other black teenagers who move down that very street as they live there. How must their parents feel about their safety with George Zimmerman still there, still armed, and with the ability to initiate police action on his own initiative.
The failure here is going to reside most with the Sanford Police Department and its failure to adequately inform or train its neighborhood watch volunteers and to make them accountable as anyone would be. If some guy drives up on my street tonight with a gun and questions why I am there and then won’t take my answer as the truth and moves to arrest or to take me in I am going to assume the very same thing Trayvon Martin did: this man means to do me harm. I am not going to die or be kidnapped without resisting him. Screams heard of a boy pleading for his life: recognized on the 911 tape by his mother, father, and siblings. Then a gunshot followed by an eerie silence: then tragedy.