Wednesday’s announcement that George Zimmerman will face charges is hardly the end of the national tragedy that began on the evening of Feb. 26. That is the day 17-year-old Trayvon Martin was walking to his father’s house when, after a brief altercation, he was shot and killed by 28-year-old Zimmerman. Martin was carrying an Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles; Zimmerman had a Kel-Tek 9mm semiautomatic handgun. When police arrived, Zimmerman was allowed to walk away; Trayvon Martin left in a body bag.
Since then, the public outcry demanding Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution has grown far beyond the small Central Florida city of Sanford. A “Million Hoodie March” was held in New York on March 21 and an online petition on change.org created by Martin’s parents asking for Zimmerman’s prosecution has more than 2.2 million supporters. The intense national spotlight has given some hope for justice in the case. But it has also brought to light some uncomfortable but sometimes illuminating details about Martin and Zimmerman’s lives.
Not long after his death, it was reported that Martin was at his father’s house serving a school suspension because traces of marijuana were found in his book bag. For his part, Zimmerman had been charged with attacking a police officer, although that charge was eventually dropped after a plea bargain. He also has an outstanding restraining order from his ex-fiancee alleging domestic violence.
It has even been suggested that Zimmerman was motivated by racism, evident by his seeming longstanding fixation on stopping what he perceived to be suspicious black men in his neighborhood. We may never know if racism played a part in Martin’s death, but claims by Zimmerman supporters that because he is Latino he is somehow incapable of racism are insultingly ignorant.
The more the public learned about Martin and Zimmerman, the more muddled the case seemed to become. After all, the court of public opinion is more concerned with the abstraction of good triumphing against evil than with legal justifications.
While public opinion might have been the sole reason the events of Feb. 26 were investigated, now that charges are being placed the only thing that matters is the law’s opinion of Zimmerman’s self-defense claims.
Zimmerman’s argument rests on one specific statute of Florida’s self-defense law. “Stand Your Ground” laws allow individuals in any place they have a right to be in to “meet force with force, including deadly force” if they fear their life is in danger. The perceived victims of a threat are not required to look for some peaceful resolution to a conflict or attempt to talk down their assailant before using deadly force. It allows an individual to kill rather than suffer the shame of walking away from a conflict.
Proponents of this twisted law, which holds as most valuable the life of whoever has a gun, have come to its defense. Instead of admitting the inherent misguidedness of the statute, they have attempted to distance Zimmerman from it. Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor who signed the Stand Your Ground law, has argued that while he doesn’t believe Zimmerman is guilty, he doesn’t believe Stand Your Ground applies in this case.
Unfortunately for both of them, this legal gray area where Zimmerman is innocent under anything but the most outrageous and far-reaching self-defense laws does not exist.
What do exist are traditional self-defense laws, by which individuals are able to defend themselves, if necessary with deadly force, after all other means of resolution have failed. That includes walking and even running away. One person’s pride is not worth another’s life.
In the coming days and weeks, more details will surface about the events of that tragic night. But on trial will be more than just the man who killed an unarmed teenager. It will be trigger-happy laws such as Stand Your Ground. Not only might this law allow Zimmerman to walk away from killing Martin, it encourages others to kill at the slightest perceived threat; confident they’ll be able to cower behind the law when the time for justice comes.