Micheline Tusenius
Micheline Tusenius

Trayvon Martin: It’s about race and a lousy law

Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African-American teenager, was shot dead in Florida a month ago because of how he looked. Before being killed by a Hispanic self-appointed crime watch volunteer, Martin was described as “suspicious”. George Zimmerman was suspicious due to Martin’s skin colour, his wearing of a hoodie with the hood up (it was raining), and his mere presence in the gated community where there were recent incidents of crime.

The tender comment from US President Barack Obama last week – “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon” – acknowledges the role of race in the case. Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich scoffed, “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white kid who had been shot, that would be OK because he wouldn’t look like him? That’s just nonsense. Dividing this country up – it is a tragedy this man was shot.”

The reality is that George Zimmerman’s racial stereotyping of Trayvon Martin had everything to do with how events unfolded.

As known now, the details of the case appear as follows: Martin was returning to his father’s fiancée’s home in the gated community after buying refreshments. This is when he was observed by Zimmerman, the neighbourhood watch volunteer with a documented history of frequently reporting perceived fishy activity. Zimmerman called 911, America’s emergency hotline, from his car to report, “There’s a real suspicious guy.” The dispatcher expressly told Zimmerman not to pursue the person – “We don’t need you to do that” – and added that an officer was on the way.

But Zimmerman continued to follow Martin. Being followed unsettled the teenager, so he started walking faster. While being tagged by Zimmerman, Martin was talking to his girlfriend on his cellphone. She overheard the subsequent conversation between the two: Martin asked Zimmerman, “Why are you following me?” Zimmerman then questioned Martin, “What are you doing around here?” A fight apparently broke out. Screams and a single gunshot were heard before the phone became silent. Police arrived on the scene to find Martin dead from a shot to the chest, and Zimmerman bleeding from the back of his head and nose.

Local police reacted slowly to the teenager’s killing. Zimmerman was not arrested, and, a month later, he is yet to be charged with any crime. Last week, the local police chief temporarily stepped down, and an interim chief was appointed. The US justice department, the FBI, and the Florida department of law enforcement are now investigating the case.

Zimmerman claims he shot Martin in “self-defence”. Florida’s highly controversial “Stand Your Ground” law permits guns or deadly force to be used in self-defence. Although it is not clear what transpired when the two confronted each other, Zimmerman asserts in a written statement that he was returning to his vehicle when Martin knocked him down with a punch to the nose, repeatedly hit his head against the ground, and tried to take his gun – notwithstanding that Zimmerman was the one who pursued Martin after the dispatcher patently told him not to do so.

That Zimmerman was carrying a weapon clearly contributed to the tragedy. If he was not in possession of a gun, the escalation between the two would less likely have led to someone’s death.

Martin’s family confirmed that Martin was suspended from school for 10 days in mid-February for possession of marijuana and that he was suspended two other times before that. Whether these details have any relevance to the case is not known at present.

Racial stereotyping unquestionably played a role in how Zimmerman perceived Martin and then reacted to him. Martin felt threatened being pursued by a stranger. With both feeling threatened by the other and the incendiary presence of a gun, the innuendo and tension between the two appears to have escalated, most tragically, out of control.

The existence of the “Stand Your Ground” law, and Zimmerman’s claim of self-defence in terms of it, is why he has not been arrested or charged. At the time of its passage in 2005, police opposed the “Stand Your Ground” law, saying it would incentivise escalation of conflict and give citizens unlimited power with no accountability. Others supporting the law suggested it would deter home invasions. Arguments against the law have, unfortunately, proven too true in the Martin-Zimmerman case. It seems likely that Zimmerman will literally get away with murder. There is the possibility, though, of Zimmerman facing a hate crime charge as he reportedly murmured a racial slur when talking to the 911 dispatcher.

Yes, there is a profound racial angle to this incident. But the real problem lies with the law. The best way to obtain justice for Martin would be the repeal of the murder-facilitating “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida and the other states that have subscribed to it.

Micheline Tusenius is a South African, presently but temporarily living in Washington, DC with her American husband and their two children. They last lived in Johannesburg in 2010, but visit South Africa often. Visit Micheline’s blog, Watching in Washington, here.

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  • 32 Responses to “Trayvon Martin: It’s about race and a lousy law”

    1. george morgan #

      no it wasn’t. Martin was shot because he couldn’t keep his hands to himself…that simple. If you want to beat someone up expect a response…

      28 March 2012 at 2:21 pm
    2. Consolata #

      Its a real shame that Trayvon’s life had to be ended like this. I don’t know what to believe with this story, but I do think that Mr Zimmerman should have done as the 911 operator said and not pursued Trayvon any longer. He took the law into his own hands and all of this would have been avoided if he hadn’t, so I think that he has to pay for that.

      28 March 2012 at 2:31 pm
    3. Tirelo Mabetoa #

      @Georgemorgan
      Well since you were there when it went down you should be able to clear up all the discrepancies

      28 March 2012 at 2:58 pm
    4. Have over 3000 white farmers been murdered since 1994 because of how they look?

      Get it into your heads – the MAJORITY always suppresses the MINORITY – irrespective of race, culture, religion or skin colour.

      28 March 2012 at 8:44 pm
    5. Why is this about race? Because the victim was black, and the alleged aggressor half-white? How can anyone (sane, that is) find some sort of massive societal-ill from the actions of one strumash? Trayvon didn’t deserve to die, but if you’re skulking around a Section-8 project in heat-dipped Florida with your hoodie up in an area steeped with violence and criminal activity – so much so they need neighbourhood watches – then you cannot expect business-as-usual as compared to the neighbourhoods you and I live in.

      The truth is there was a fight. The half-Latino (who no doubt would have been described as Latino if he’d SAVED Trayvon from death) had the battle scars to prove it. There is absolutely no evidence to suggest he was racially provoked, or that this is somehow representative of a greater societal ill. On the contrary actually as Trayvon – before his untimely death – would have had a greater chance of being killed at the hands of blacks. And Zimmerman’s odds wouldn’t have been much better. This tragedy was an EXCEPTION to normal American rules.

      But none of this matters to the race-mongers out there. Obama included. Barrack, Spike Lee and the New Black Panthers have done nothing but stoke the fires of hatred. The Panthers have broken laws in fact. But still no word from our Teleprompter-in-Chief about all that. He’s just happy to make political and racial hay at the expense of we little people.

      A tragedy, but blaming white folk (under soupcon) isn’t on.

      28 March 2012 at 10:13 pm
    6. Tofolux #

      @Micheline, the worst part of all of this is when you read it, you know in your heart of hearts that it is all about racism. And when we as blacks ( i imagine that you will have many hypocrites on this forum arguing that the victim must have been doing something wrong) continue to suffer this type of blatant inhumanity, a little piece of you just dies.

      29 March 2012 at 7:13 am
    7. Siya #

      @ Tirelo don’t waste your time responding to people like George…they are beyond mental repair. Lets hope justice will be done

      29 March 2012 at 7:17 am
    8. Graham Johnson #

      According to the latest reports, he was a marijuana smoking hoodie trespassing on other people’s property (not a public place).

      Not so innocent.

      And the black youth who has just been sentenced to life for murduring two English tourists in cold blood. Was that racial too?

      29 March 2012 at 9:05 am
    9. Andrew #

      Shawn Tyson guilty of murdering two Britons in Florida
      http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-17540508

      And you wonder why there is racial stereotyping?

      29 March 2012 at 9:08 am
    10. Tofolux #

      @Ginnee-alcoholic & Graham, can I ask you if someone comes to you and tell you something, how do you go about locating the truth and move forward based on your assessment? What is your tools of analysis. What do you look for? In this particular piece, given the information, how did your reasoning bring you to your conclusion? I am really interested to know..

      29 March 2012 at 9:22 am
    11. Graham Johnson #

      @Tofolux

      It’s easy. DON’T TRUST YOUR GUT. Get the facts and then decide.

      Did you know that, on average, black people have larger hearts than white people. What’s your gut response to this fact?

      Now tell me your considered response.

      29 March 2012 at 9:30 am
    12. Ratel #

      IANAL, but to me Stand Your Ground is a defence, not a prerequisite. Just because there was a standing of ground by one or both parties doesn’t mean there is something wrong with the law.

      I’m not saying Zimmerman is entirely innocent and didn’t provoke the incident, but to automatically diss the castle doctrine is, with respect, disingenuous.

      29 March 2012 at 9:47 am
    13. Lazer #

      Balance Balance: http://www.anncoulter.com/columns/2012-03-28.html#read_more

      29 March 2012 at 9:56 am
    14. Tofolux #

      @Graham, one of my pet hates is dishonesty. It just hampers good discussion, It hampers a learning process and it is has the most debillitating effect on any aspect of human engagement. Let me leave you with something. Trusting your gut talks about one’s senses. It talks about common sense. It talks about fear. Its talks about flight. I mean how can anyone dismiss one’s senses. If I feel a sense of danger, my gut tells me to run, then what you are saying, whenever this comes over you, dont trust it(?)
      Also, I now note that you have become a coronary expert. I am not even going to engage on this with you. Your premise is based on your beliefs of racialism.

      29 March 2012 at 10:36 am
    15. Ms Ann Thrope #

      Some of these comments are sickening. Please read:
      http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/03/18/446768/what-everyone-should-know-about-about-trayvon-martin-1995-2012/

      @george morgan A 240lb man shoots an unarmed 140lb kid. And this was self-defense?

      @lyndall “irrelevant” beddy: Are you suggesting that black/indian/coloured farmers/workers don’t get murdered because they’re black? And btw what has that got to do with the topic?

      @Guinnessholic: One of Zimmerman’s previous (46 in 10 years) calls to 911 included a description of a “suspicious black male, skinny build, 7-9 years old”… Martin was shot because he was racially profiled by a trigger happy nut with a history of violence. End of story.

      @Graham Johnson: Since when does ganja-smoking carry a death penalty? Without judge or jury nogal?

      @Graham Johnson and Andrew: You’re both comparing an actual crime (attempted robbery and murder) with a case where the biggest crime of the guy who was shot was to be walking while black. Oh with a hoodie on. You know how dangerous those can be… Go find out what a strawman argument is.

      This comment has been edited.

      29 March 2012 at 12:55 pm
    16. Ms Ann Thrope #

      @ Lazer

      You quote Ann Coulter for balance? The woman herself says she doesn’t “pretend to be impartial or balanced”. Ann Coulter.. who believes all muslims are terrorists and radiation can be a cancer vaccine…. Thats not even counting the creationism and anti-gay rubbish she spouts.

      29 March 2012 at 1:06 pm
    17. babaBrad #

      @ george morgan

      look at you defend a man you don’t know who killed an unarmed man he had followed against the advice of the police.

      @ Guinnessholic
      A sick man kills a kid and you somehow figure this is being blamed on white folk ? Who said that ? What was said is that the killer is a racist. Why do you sympathize with this guy ?

      29 March 2012 at 2:16 pm
    18. Rich Brauer #

      @Guinessholic: “Trayvon didn’t deserve to die, but if you’re skulking around a Section-8 project…”

      It was a gated community, not a project. It was the “nice” part of town.

      “in heat-dipped Florida with your hoodie up…”

      It was raining.

      “in an area steeped with violence and criminal activity – so much so they need neighborhood watches…”

      Neighborhood watches exist *everywhere* in America. In every community. Moreso, in fact, in stable, middle-income communities than anywhere else.

      “The half-Latino… had the battle scars to prove it.”

      Actually, the police video taken at the scene shows Zimmerman’s head being examined by the police. He was not taken to hospital. In fact, there’s no record of him receiving *any* medical treatment at all.

      @Graham Johnson: “he was a marijuana smoking hoodie trespassing on other people’s property (not a public place).”

      He was there by invitation of his father’s fiancée, who lives in the gated community. By definition, he wasn’t trespassing.

      And what, exactly, is a “hoodie”? Because my definition is a piece of clothing, not a person. Something worn by, among others, multimillionaires on a regular basis.

      But it’s good to see so much interest in events people seem to know so little about.

      29 March 2012 at 2:30 pm
    19. MLH #

      Is it not sad that every incident between different races is always called a race crime?

      According to the link Ms Ann Thrope gave, this sounds just like a race crime.

      I’m beginning to wonder whether we weren’t all safer in separated communities.

      And that’s the saddest thought of all!

      29 March 2012 at 4:56 pm
    20. Micheline Tusenius
      Micheline Tusenius #

      Racial stereotyping, violence, and guns are, sadly, issues about which South Africans have many opinions and too much experience.

      Ann Thrope and Rich Brauer’s responses were most helpful, I think. Thank you too, Ann, for the introduction to that website. Very useful indeed. Our knowledge and understanding of what happened that evening keeps changing as more information becomes available, so reviewing to the accepted facts is the best way to try to make sense of it all.

      29 March 2012 at 5:23 pm
    21. Robard #

      Ironically, Martin was probably a victim of his own racial profiling of Zimmerman. Seeing a Hispanic guy following him probably triggered the stereotype of “gangster” instead of “vigilant neighbour”, which ultimately led to his decision to initiate a violent confrontation.

      29 March 2012 at 5:36 pm
    22. Lucky Ntuli
      Lucky Ntuli #

      @MLH:
      My dear sister Mo, no we were not all better off is separated communities.

      The danger with such situations is that human emotions always seems to take first place, which result in facts not being heard or ignored. This is eventually compounded by racist pimps like Al Sharpton and the rest.

      In due time, I would hope that the truth shall be known and the law either way shall take its course.

      29 March 2012 at 8:10 pm
    23. Benzo #

      @Micheline Tusenius: Throw a handgranate in an ammunition depot and you are secured of an explosion to follow.

      Your article is as relevant to SA society today as the 9/11 event some years ago.

      Enjoy your stay in the US.

      29 March 2012 at 11:14 pm
    24. nguni #

      Hmmm.
      Zimmerman allegedly kept muttering ‘f*cking coon’ during his calls to 911, so calling this a racist incident is probably justified..
      We all know (since the Malema era) that all races are capable of being racist, including half-Latinos.

      30 March 2012 at 7:06 am
    25. Tofolux #

      @MLH, its not sad, its the REALITY. The saddest thing is that those who are guilty of it NEVER admits it. The fact that you find them on these forums, regurgitating their racism, now thats sad..

      30 March 2012 at 7:11 am
    26. Graham #

      @ Rich
      Well said, cannot understand how some people search for reasons why this kid deserved to die.
      Racist or non-racist, Zimmerman is a murder and derserves to rot in jail.

      30 March 2012 at 7:42 am
    27. it’s only about race. 2 white British men murdered in Florida by a black man and not a word from Sharpton, Jackson,or Obama. And where are these same people when the many blacks are acquitted of the most horrendous crimes against whites? (Just read the US papers if you want to find details of them)

      30 March 2012 at 8:32 am
    28. Gavin Foster

      @ Graham Seeing that you bring average heart sizes into the debate, I assume that you believe that differences between the races are not purely related to skin colour as is usually claimed? Care to draw up a list?

      Judging by the victim’s past, at least Rambo had a sharp eye for a villain.

      Whatever really happened will be hidden in a cloud of obfuscation by both sides. I don’t know why the biggest issue should be race.

      30 March 2012 at 9:02 am
    29. Gavin Foster

      As a matter of interest, Florida passed a “shall grant” law in 1987, ordering that the authorities HAD to issue permits for law abiding citizens to carry concealed firearms unless there was a very good reason not to – mental instability, criminal record, history of violence etc. This was because residents were unhappy with the high crime rate in their state and their inability to fight back. Tourists – and there are lots in Florida – were also being robbed with impunity. The immediate effect of the new law was a large drop in violent crime and robbery levels.

      30 March 2012 at 9:14 am
    30. I read that Zimmerman’s father was a Supreme court magistrate and his mother a court clerk.

      30 March 2012 at 9:33 am
    31. Brent #

      Ms Ann Thrope, i read on an American site that Trayvon was bigger than Zimmerman and also that recordings by the police have Zimmerman shouting in distress before the shot is fired. So what to say, easy NOTHING, we all do not have the full facts/truth which hopefully should come out in a court case. The Obamas and Spike Lees are fanning the fires of biased opinion and should shut up and allow the law to follow in its search for truth. Having the US president take sides assures no fair trial will result, shame on him.

      Brent

      30 March 2012 at 10:33 am
    32. Graham Johnson #

      @Gavin Foster

      You said, “Seeing that you bring average heart sizes into the debate, I assume that you believe that differences between the races are not purely related to skin colour as is usually claimed? Care to draw up a list?”

      I gleaned that interesting piece of information from American medical specialists who examine athletes for heart fitness. For many years they had treated black athletes for what they thought were enlarged hearts, but after much research they discovered that larger hearts are normal in black people; it’s quite safe because they have a larger heart cavity as well. The information was related to the UK Bolton black soccer player who collapsed last week.

      And as regards what else is different under the skin, this says it all, “Humans are much more genetically diverse than dogs; the observed heterozygosity for humans is 0.7, but it is only 0.4 for dogs. (John Goodwin)”. Draw your own conclusions.

      30 March 2012 at 10:51 am