Community Protector or Vigilante?

ImageWe all know the basic story of the shooting of Trayvon Martin.  (If you don’t know anything about the case already, you’ve been living under a rock and I can’t rehash everything.  Wikipedia has an amazingly detailed post with cited references.)  Here’s my best efforts at an unbiased nutshell:

George Zimmerman, the neighborhood watch coordinator for a gated community, fatally shot Trayvon Martin on the streets of that community.  Zimmerman cited self-defense; it was later confirmed that Martin was unarmed.  Zimmerman was tried on second degree murder charges, but found not guilty under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” defense.

It’s never quite that simple.

Trayvon Martin was a young, black man walking alone in a multi-ethnic gated community.  George Zimmerman, having noticed Martin during a drive in the neighborhood, thought that he looked “suspicious”.  He called the police.  On that phone call, he told police that the young man looked like he was “up to no good” and “on drugs or something” and seemed concerned that Martin was looking at the houses in the community.  Martin started to run away during the course of Zimmerman’s call to the police (per the transcripts) and the dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow him.  Police were on their way.

If the story ends there, it is unlikely that it ends in tragedy.  Zimmerman did his job as a community watch coordinator.  The story, of course, does not end there.

Zimmerman got out of his car and followed Martin.

From this point, we only have Zimmerman’s statements to police to go on when it comes to what happened next.  It does seem clear that there was an altercation – which Zimmerman claims was provoked by Martin.  (Read his statement to police.)  During that altercation, Zimmerman fatally shot Martin in the chest.

Community Protector or Vigilante?

In the months and weeks leading up to the shooting, the community had experienced a number of break-ins, with suspects identified as young, black men.  From the descriptions that I have read, the entire area sounds like a powder keg ready to go off – and George Zimmerman had taken the role of leading the community protection.  Neighbors overwhelmingly describe him in a positive light – as someone who offered security.  For a man who was finishing up a degree in criminal justice with hopes of one day becoming a judge, that must have been a pretty powerful feeling.

After months of home invasions and vandalism, it isn’t hard to understand why Zimmerman took to the streets.

Where did it all go wrong?

You could argue that it went wrong when George Zimmerman decided that Trayvon Martin was suspicious based on the color of his skin.  You could argue that it went wrong when a community chose to create an armed community watch program.  I personally would argue that it went wrong when George Zimmerman got out of his car with a gun to follow a “suspicious” young man after police had already been dispatched.

Was it criminal?

At the end of the day, that’s the question.  I want to say that there’s a simple answer, but course there never is.  If George Zimmerman felt remorse for his actions, I would feel some degree of sympathy.  He made a tragic mistake and an unarmed teenager died.  Being a “mistake”, though, doesn’t mean that it isn’t still a crime.

Yes, I believe it was criminal.  Manslaughter, at the very least.  Unfortunately, in Florida, the laws are extremely forgiving when it comes to self-defense, due to the now-infamous “Stand Your Ground” law.  The law allows for an individual to use deadly force without the necessity of attempting a safe retreat if he/she feels their safety threatened.  “Stand Your Ground” laws exist in many states; in Florida it does not only apply to crimes committed in your home (as many states limit), but extends to any other location.

This post feels far too balanced.

After writing this post, I feel like my viewpoint sounds far too balanced.  The reasonable side of my brain recognizes that this case is complicated.  The truth is that I’m horrified that as a nation, we continue to kill innocent people because we make a decision based on the color of their skin.  The details are complicated, but that truth is simple.

And here’s another simple truth – we’ve set a precedent.  We’ve said that it is okay to take the law into your own hands.  We’ve okayed racial profiling (although in fairness, we okayed that centuries ago).  We’ve okayed the use of deadly force if you feel threatened.

The worst part?  Zimmerman will continue to have a permit to carry a concealed weapon, despite a history of poor decisions leading to a fatal shooting.

Side note about media bias:  It is absolutely clear that the profiles of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin were subject to extreme media bias.  In media outlets sympathetic to Martin, the photo most often used of Zimmerman showed him wearing the standard orange jumpsuit worn by those held in detention centers; while Martin was show as a fresh faced teen.  For those sympathetic to Zimmerman, photos of Martin with facial hair using obscene gestures (and sometimes photos of OTHER young black men, because apparently accuracy doesn’t matter) and Zimmerman in a suit and tie dominated the visuals.  The saddest part of that, though, is that it matters – that by changing what photo we share, our perception of who Trayvon or George are changed.

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