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.