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The Trayvon Martin case

March 27, 2012 - Andrea Johnson
What do you make of the story about the 17-year-old kid in Florida being shot by a neighborhood watch volunteer last month?

Trayvon Martin was walking back to his father's fiancee's house in a gated community after a visit to the store. He was on his cell phone, chatting with his girlfriend, when he told her that someone was following him. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, spotted him, thought he looked suspicious and called 911. Zimmerman told the police dispatcher he was going to follow Martin; the dispatcher said "We don't need you to do that."

What happened after that is a bit hazy. There was some sort of altercation, ending with Martin lying dead on the ground. Zimmerman, who had a bloodied nose and other injuries, said he shot the boy in self defense. Police questioned him but have so far not arrested him. Zimmerman's lawyer claims that his client was acting within his rights. Florida has a "stand your ground" law that does not require someone to retreat if he suspects his life is in danger.

The real firestorm over this incident seems to surround race. Martin was black. Police initially reported that Zimmerman is white, though he is actually half white and half Hispanic, with a white American father and a mother from Peru. Martin's parents have said they believe Zimmerman never would have considered their son suspicious or followed him if he had not been a black teen wearing a hoodie. Zimmerman's family and friends said he is not racist.

Based on what I have read about this case, I think Zimmerman is guilty of something, though I don't know if he'll end up being charged. He had a history of calling 911 numerous times in the last year to report suspicious activity in the neighborhood, including children playing in the street. He has tried and failed to complete law enforcement officer training. It was not his job to follow anyone who was acting suspiciously; his duty as a neighborhood watch volunteer ended when he called to report it. Based on the statement of Martin's girlfriend, who overheard the beginning of the altercation, Martin was spooked by being followed, but told her he wasn't going to run away. It sounds to me as though Martin, frightened and angry, turned on the man following him and tackled him, possibly gaining the upper hand. Unfortunately for him, Zimmerman, now under physical attack by a teenager a decade younger, was carrying a gun and shot him.

Are Zimmerman's actions reckless endangerment? Would it qualify as involuntary manslaughter? Is lethal force an acceptable response to being attacked with someone's fists? Is he just guilty of being a wannabe cop playing cop with tragic consequences? Is it equally possible that Martin was in fear of his life and was standing his ground?

I don't know that this incident has all that much to do with race, but it sure looks like everyone demanding Zimmerman's arrest is going to do their best to turn it into a civil rights cause. Martin's mother has trademarked slogans associated with her son's name. Martin's parents are speaking at political rallies. Young people in different states are marching demanding that Zimmerman be arrested. Businesses, including one North Carolina bar, are cashing in on the controversy and holding an "In Memory of Trayvon" night. The poster for the Greensboro, N.C. bar notes that the event is one of its "We Like to Party Wednesdays" and people can get in for free with an empty bag of Skittles. I can't blame his grief-stricken parents for anything they might say or do, but I find some of the other activity unseemly.

Clear heads need to prevail here. The incident needs to be thoroughly investigated. Zimmerman should neither be railroaded because of a rising tide of public emotion or allowed to get away with murder, if that is what this was. Someone also ought to take a look at the wisdom and unforeseen consequences of Florida's over broad stand your ground law.


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