A 17-year-old resident of Sanford, Florida left his fathers’ house to grab a snack for his brother on February 26, 2012. He was subsequently allegedly gunned down and shot in the chest by George Zimmerman, the man on duty for the local neighborhood watch. The murder of Trayvon Martin has since made national and international headlines, sparking mass protests, public calls for Zimmerman’s persecution and a petition on Change.org that has acquired almost two million signatures.
The facts of the case are murky; Zimmerman claims Trayvon Martin decked the Neighborhood Watch volunteer while others are sure Zimmerman approached Martin against the orders of the 911 dispatcher, confronted him and subsequently shot Martin to death. Oh – and Martin was an African American and Zimmerman is white (or Hispanic, depending on who you ask), prompting race or anti-race arguments.
Zimmerman has avoided arrest by hiding behind Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, a controversial statute designed to defend those who are genuinely trying to protect themselves in life threatening situations. Opponents of the law maintain that it has been exploited in cases such as this where the concept of self-defense is somewhat murky. The case of Trayvon Martin has opened up this debate once again; is someone acting in self-defense if they chase down the person attacking them?
Many other states have enacted similar legislation, but in the wake of Trayvon Martin, Florida is reconsidering it. The Florida Senate has called for a review of the law. Former Governor Jeb Bush, who signed the bill into law, has even publically stated that it does not apply in this case. “Stand your ground means stand your ground. It doesn’t mean chase after somebody who’s turned their back,” Bush recently stated in an interview about the case.
Another case in Miami-Dade County has highlighted the consequences of this law, where a man chased a suspected burglar for more than a block, stabbed him to death, and his case was dismissed under the “Stand Your Ground” statute. Under this law, the burden rests on an individual judge to decide whether or not to bring charges, not a jury.
Zimmerman claims that Martin attacked him from behind when he was trying to get in the car, but witnesses say otherwise. A friend he was on the phone with overheard most of the confrontation and she states that Zimmerman approached Martin before he was shot. The 911 call records Zimmerman using racist slurs before the killing. The lawyer for George Zimmerman has started a public relations campaign and has publicly stated that Martin broke Zimmerman’s nose. Despite the controversy, a formal investigation has been slow to form.
However, a flurry of outcry from the public, celebrities and news sources has been a catalyst for action. Social media has acted as the foundation for condemnation of the Florida police department. President Obama somberly and personally addressed the emotions involved with the case, while neglecting to get involved in a matter of state affairs (and Newt Gingrich chimed in, agreeing with the President but still condemning the way he said it). The Black Panthers have apparently put out a $10,000 bounty for information on Zimmerman’s whereabouts.
The case has made products famous as representation of cultural bias. Fox news contributor Geraldo Rivera claims that Trayvon’s choice of wardrobe is as responsible for his death as the man who pulled the trigger, equating being black and wearing a hoodie to chasing down a kid and shooting him at point blank. The Miami Heat released a photo of the team standing somberly with their hoods drawn over their head—a fact in the case that has become a center of debate. Rivera’s son is reportedly ashamed of what his father has had to say on the matter, while Fox News has mysteriously removed their own hoodie from the online merchandise store.
The FBI and DOJ have recently launched an investigation in to the case, but it is unclear weather or not charges will be brought against Zimmerman, reportedly as a hate crime. The Martin Family is looking into filing a civil case.
This tragedy has shed light on the loopholes that the “Stand your Ground” laws provide, possibly for racially motivated killings—more than it already has. Perhaps the attention gained by Trayvon’s death will help prevent others from dying under the same circumstances.