ORLANDO - By now, it is my hope that all of you know the story of Trayvon Martin, a Florida teenager whose life was violently taken away from him because he was black and "looked suspicious."
On February 28th, 17-year old Trayvon was visiting his father in Sanford, Florida. The two were watching the NBA All-Star game at a home in the gated community of Retreat at Twin Lakes. During half-time, Trayvon walked to the local 7-Eleven to purchase a bag of Skittles and bottle of Arizona Ice Tea. On his way back, he was confronted by the self-appointed Neighborhood Watchman, George Zimmerman, a 28-year old Hispanic male.
Apparently, Mr. Zimmerman had been watching Trayvon for quite some time. Moments earlier, he called 911 to report a "real suspicious guy" in the neighborhood. After weeks of community pressure, the City of Sanford finally released the audio tapes. Take a listen below:
Despite being advised by 911 NOT to follow or confront Trayvon, Mr. Zimmerman took it upon himself to do so anyway. Some sort of scuffle ensued resulting in Trayvon crying out for help only to be silenced by a single bullet from Mr. Zimmerman's gun (Yes, he had a gun!) seconds later.
When police arrived on the scene, Trayvon was dead with Mr. Zimmerman claiming self-defense. One listen to the 911 recordings and witness accounts given on the scene make it patently clear that Mr. Zimmerman was the aggressor in this situation. However, he was NEVER arrested or charged in the death of Trayvon.
It appears that both Mr. Zimmerman and local authorities are relying on Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law for safe haven on this issue. In a nutshell, this doctrine grants a person the right to use deadly force if he/she feels threatened and does NOT impose a duty to retreat from such perceived threat if it is possible to do so safely. The NRA and other gun advocates lobbied for the law and it was ushered in by Republican lawmakers in 2005.
Sadly, this law loosened the pre-existing "Castle Doctrine" that most of us are familiar with. The Castle Doctrine permits a person to use deadly force if they are attacked IN THEIR HOME. Florida, through their "Stand Your Ground" law, extended this doctrine to include areas outside the home (read = in public). So, in essence, all a person has to do is "feel" threatened and he is permitted to take the life of the person he's scared of, however unreasonable that fear may be.
The normal standard, found nationwide, is that a person may use deadly force only when threatened with serious bodily harm or deadly force. Notice the difference? The standard is much higher than Florida's law, as it should be since it involves the taking of a human life. Because "feeling" threatened is a whole lot different than "actually" being threatened.
As a person of color, I have a huge problem with Florida's law as it currently stands. Namely because some people feel threatened by me simply because of the color of my skin and the proximity of that brown skin to them. So, the closer I am to them (like, say, walking beside them on a local street) the MORE they feel threatened. Such a person should NOT be given license to take my my life based on their irrational fear and possible prejudice. And that's exactly what Florida has permitted to happen with their "Stand Your Ground" law.
As of the date of this post, Florida authorities have NOT arrested or charged Mr. Zimmerman. Three weeks later! As you can imagine, national outrage has grown. Trayvon's parents demanded answers and action on the part of Florida lawmakers and law enforcement. Still nothing. So, Trayvon's parents and much of the national public began calling on federal authorities to intervene, asking them to investigate since nothing was being done on the local and state level.
Check out brief news clip on growing outrage.
Finally, on March 19th, the Justice Department agreed to do just that, issuing the following statement:
“The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, and the FBI opened an investigation into the facts and circumstances of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all of the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation. The department also is providing assistance to and cooperating with the state officials in their investigation into the incident. With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids – the highest level of intent in criminal law. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws. The Community Relations Service will be in Sanford, Fla., this week to meet with civil rights leaders, community leaders, and local law enforcement to address tension in the community.”