President Obama’s remarks on Friday about the shooting of Trayvon Martin were highly personal and sympathetic, with an emotionally-charged message to Martin’s parents: “If I had a son he’d look like Trayvon.” He emphasized the imperative for a thorough investigation and said that “all of us have to do some soul searching” to understand exactly how the tragedy happened. But now is a moment for more than “soul searching.” Martin’s murder calls for a critical evaluation of the laws and institutions that perpetuate racism and the derision of civil rights in the guise of self defense.
The Sanford Police Department’s decision to invoke Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law has enabled George Zimmerman to walk free after he killed Martin on February 26 on the grounds of self defense. Zimmerman’s position lies in a key section of the law, which states that a person “has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force” to prevent bodily harm to himself or herself. Interpreting this law to justify Zimmerman’s action, the police accepted his claim to self-defense and did not arrest him.
Never mind that when Zimmerman told a police dispatcher he found Martin’s behavior “suspicious,” he was explicitly told not to pursue Martin. Never mind that Zimmerman had a nine millimeter handgun and Martin, unarmed, carried only a box of Skittles and iced tea. In this case, “Stand Your Ground” has been interpreted to privilege Zimmerman’s right to use force to protect himself over Martin’s right to walk home wearing a hoodie.
Along with questioning the legitimacy of the police decision not to arrest Zimmerman, we must ask another question: What authority does George Zimmerman have to be patrolling Sanford’s streets in the first place? Zimmerman volunteers for the “Neighborhood Watch Program” of the National Sheriff’s Association, dedicated to crime prevention at the neighborhood level. With a mission of “promoting citizen involvement in crime prevention and encouraging citizens to work with their local law enforcement agency,” the program aims to give citizens greater control over their own safety.
It also creates a lack of accountability and replaces official police protocols for law enforcement with arbitrary ones. In theory, Neighborhood Watch volunteers are only supposed to report their suspicions, not shoot on them. But Zimmerman deliberately disregarded police orders to stop following Martin, demonstrating that citizen involvement in law enforcement is susceptible to abuse. In this case, it led to racial profiling and murder.
The U.S. Department of Justice will open a federal civil-rights probe into the case, and Governor Rick Scott has announced a task force and state attorney to investigate at the state-level. Emotions are running high as protesters take to the streets, from the “Million Hoodie March” in New York to neighborhood parents across towns in Florida. The murder of a seventeen-year-old boy and subsequent failure of the police to arrest the murderer are highly-charged issues, but we must not get swept up in emotions. Trayvon Martin’s case is an opportunity to rigorously question how laws and institutions created in the name of security and self defense are being manipulated to perpetuate racism. The investigation should be conducted not only in the spirit of justice for Martin’s parents, but also to set a precedent and prevent future George Zimmerman’s from getting away with murder.