Trayvon was seventeen years old. He was a cheerful A and B student whose favorite subject was math. He also tended to be tardy a bit too often, and was serving a suspension from school for chronic tardiness (a punishment which truly makes no sense). He was cheerful, caring, and loved. He was someone's son, nephew, brother, and he was shot by a man who claimed he shot him in self-defense.
Trayvon's "weapons" were a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles; the other guy had a gun. Yet, George Zimmerman, neighborhood watch captain, thought he looked suspicious and "up to no good." At one point he told 911 operators "these a-holes always get away." Here are the 911 recordings in their entirety from that day (note: some NSFW language):
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In one of the 911 recordings, you'll hear Trayvon screaming for help for several seconds before the gunshots. Then nothing.
This is George Zimmerman:
Licensed to carry a firearm and a student of criminal justice, Zimmerman went door-to-door asking residents to be on the lookout, specifically referring to young black men who appeared to be outsiders, and warned that some were caught lurking, neighbors said. The self-appointed captain of the neighborhood watch program is credited with cracking some crimes, and thwarting others.
But the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin left the boy’s family and attorneys convinced that the volunteer developed a twisted sense of entitlement, one that gave him a false sense of authority to enforce the rule of law in his tiny gated community. Trayvon’s family’s attorneys believe that led to racial profiling and murder.
“He would circle the block and circle it; it was weird,” said Teontae Amie, 17. “If he had spotted me, he’d probably ask me if I lived here. He was known for being really strict.”
Zimmerman called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents. Nine of those times, he saw someone or something suspicious.
Zimmerman had been the subject of earlier complaints by residents of the gated community in which he and Martin's family lived. At an emergency homeowner's association meeting earlier this month, "one man was escorted out because he openly expressed his frustration because he had previously contacted the Sanford Police Department about Zimmerman approaching him and even coming to his home," a resident wrote in an email to HuffPost. "It was also made known that there had been several complaints about George Zimmerman and his tactics" in his neighborhood watch captain role.
An emergency homeowner's association meeting earlier that month to discuss a neighborhood watch captain? Really.
I want you to imagine, readers, that these 911 recordings were about the reverse situation: A black neighborhood watch captain shooting a white or Latino kid wandering around in the neighborhood. Do you suppose that black guy would be in jail waiting for his first degree murder trial?
In fact, George Zimmerman has not been arrested. He claims he was shooting in self-defense, yet your own ears will not lie to you. A child was screaming for help, there was a gunshot, and then silence. No more screams. Yet Zimmerman claims Trayvon was a threat to him, despite the clear cries for help heard on the 911 recordings. As Melissa Harris-Perry explains in this video, Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law lends an excuse for modern-day vigilantism.
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Zimmerman could lawfully shoot Martin if he, "knew or had reason to believe that an unlawful and forcible entry or unlawful and forcible act was occurring or had occurred." [No] unlawful act had occurred or was occurring. If Zimmerman had "reason to believe" such an act was in progress, the police have declined to cite it. My hope is that the vague charge of looking "suspicious" would not meet that threshold.
Charles M. Blow expresses the fears he and other black parents have for their children:
This case has reignited a furor about vigilante justice, racial-profiling and equitable treatment under the law, and it has stirred the pot of racial strife.
As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them “suspicious.” That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss.
That is the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line.
There is a petition circulating at change.org by Trayvon's family, asking that George Zimmerman be arrested, charged and tried for their son's killing. They haven't lost faith in the rule of law to bring justice for their son, despite the fact that Zimmerman made a judgment about Trayvon Williams, convicted him and sentenced him to death in the span of a few minutes.
If I were the jury and had as evidence nothing more than witness statements and 911 recordings, I can honestly say there would be reason to arrest and charge him. Arresting and charging is not finding someone guilty. It is simply saying there should be a full fact-finding effort before a jury of Zimmerman's peers.
Florida should do this. The FBI should investigate it, and whether these broad self-defense laws work against people of color. We have a justice system for a reason. Let's use it.