I am both a former prosecutor and the mother of a 15 year old son. When my son was little, like most moms, I told him to beware of strangers; that even in a nice neighborhood, like ours, a pedophile might drive through looking for a child victim. I told him to watch out for strangers, even in nice neighborhoods, because once he was inside the trunk of a car, I might not be able to help him.
Trayvon Martin was seventeen years old and, based on the photos, not very big—like my son.
Based on media accounts and the reports of the 911 calls, he was walking through a nice, but unfamiliar neighborhood, talking on his cell phone when a strange adult male began to follow him in a SUV. At one point, he thought he had lost him, but the male reappeared following him again. This time the man, who was nearly twice his size (in body mass), got out of the vehicle, approached him, and had a gun.
Under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, Trayvon was allowed to stand his ground and use force to defend himself. If the gun was visible as George Zimmerman approached him, Trayvon would have been allowed to use deadly force against Zimmerman.
Previous cases in Florida have upheld subjective, though mistaken, beliefs about the danger presented to the person who feels threatened. Under the law, as the aggressor in this situation, Zimmerman had no right of self-defense.
Why was Zimmerman the aggressor?
1) The police dispatcher had advised him not to follow or approach Trayvon Martin.
2) On the 911 call, Zimmerman initially said that he was concerned about break-ins in the area. Deadly force is not legally authorized to protect property.
3) Zimmerman said that he thought the “suspect” might be high or using drugs. Both are offenses that do not warrant the use of deadly force in apprehension efforts.
4) Zimmerman also said, “Those assholes always get away. . .,” which clearly indicates that he had decided that Trayvon was guilty of something—he was no longer merely a “suspect.” So his approach, whether with his gun in hand or concealed, was with the intent to confront a “criminal.” Such an approach would be aggressive rather than passive.
To Trayvon, Zimmerman was a stranger. The media has made much of the fact that there are no other witnesses to what happened except George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. That would mean that this child was being approached on an isolated street by a strange adult, with a gun, driving a big vehicle.
Zimmerman is a threat, and Trayvon is in the fight of his young life—perhaps in the belief that he is fighting for his life.
Ironically, I have not yet seen this version of the Trayvon Martin case portrayed in the media. Standard media analysis of this incident begins with Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense and the applicability of the “stand your ground” law to Zimmerman. Did Trayvon have no right to be afraid of this strange, large man, with a gun, who had been following him for some time, in a vehicle large enough to abduct him?
A Department of Justice report from 2002 notes that in one year nearly 800,000 children under age 18 are reported missing, nearly 60,000 of them are reported as abducted by a stranger. Was this high school football player required to stand idly by to wait to see what this aggressive stranger planned to do to him?
Or, did the statute allow him to defend himself, as the Sanford Police Department was satisfied that Zimmerman had a right to do?
A Republican sponsor of the “stand your ground” law has indicated in media accounts that, based on the information currently available about the incident, he does not believe that the “stand your ground” law applies to Zimmerman. It seems that no one has yet asked whether the law would have applied for the protection of Trayvon Martin.
That was a colorblind analysis of the incident for those who choose to believe that race had nothing to do with this encounter.
Now for some ugly race facts.
For nearly two and a half centuries the right of self-defense did not apply to African Americans against attackers under the laws of many states (See Browne-Marshall, 2007) and, after emancipation a noted writer named Hinton Rowan Helper referred to African Americans as “Negroes. . .with their crime-stained Blackness” (Muhammad, 2010 at p. 16), when discussing why Blacks should not be allowed to vote and why racial segregation was paramount in social relations.
EDITORS NOTE: sources for above references can be found at the end of this essay.
In 2004, Stanford University Professor Jennifer Eberhardt and her colleagues wrote an article titled: “Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing,” in which she presents the results of several recent psychological studies that found race effects exist in all of our daily thinking and especially with regard to the association between Blackness, crime and perceptions of danger.
So in the end, this encounter isn’t really about the hoodie; any racial proxy will do.
This historical and scientific background begs the question: If the racial roles were reversed in the Trayvon Martin killing, would the criminal justice system response be the same?
One might look to the 2006 Long Island, New York case involving John Harris White for a possible answer. In that case, an African American father shoots a White teenager who is in his driveway. The White teenager, Daniel Cicciaro, age 17, had come to John White’s home with a group of other White teenagers to attack John White’s 19-year-old son after an altercation that had taken place at a different location.
Although John White claimed that he had acted in self-defense when he pointed a gun at Cicciaro and, that the gun had accidentally discharged when Cicciaro tried to grab it, John White was arrested, tried and convicted of manslaughter and was sentenced to two to four years in prison. John White served five months in prison before his sentence was commuted by Governor Patterson.
In that incident, John White’s family was under attack at their own home. The “castle doctrine” on which the “stand your ground” law is based, provides the greatest protection for persons who are threatened at their homes, but John White was arrested, tried, convicted and sentenced to prison.
George Zimmerman is free, and a blanket of racially-tinged controversy hovers over private and media discussions of whether George Zimmerman deserves to be punished and, in some circles, whether Trayvon Martin deserved to die.
Browne-Marshall, G. (2007). Race, Law and American Society: 1607 to Present. Routledge Publishers.
Eberhardt, J., P. Goff, V. Purdie & P. Davies (2004). “Seeing Black: Race, Crime and Visual Processing.”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 87(6), p. 876-893
Muhammad, K.G. (2010). The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime and the Making of Modern Urban America. Harvard University Press.
Sedlak, A., D. Finkelhor, H. Hammer and D. Schultz (2002). National Estimates of Missing Children: An Overview. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Table 7, p. 10.
Delores Jones-Brown is a professor in the Department of Law, Police Science and Criminal Justice Administration at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and former director of the John Jay Center on Race, Crime and Justice. The above essay is based on remarks delivered to a March 27, 2012 “Teach-in” at John Jay. She welcomes comments from readers.