Robyn Benson, PSAC

Reflections on Trayvon Martin


Out of the corner of my eye, I had been aware of the Trayvon Martin case in Florida ever since the young man was shot on February 26, 2012. The acquittal of his killer this past Saturday, however, got my full attention.

Having bought candy and iced tea, Martin was returning from the store to his home in a gated community when he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a volunteer neighbourhood watchman, described as a “wannabe cop,” and a man with a history of violence. Zimmerman called the police, convinced that a Black teenager wearing a hoodie (it was raining that night) must be up to no good.

The police told Zimmerman to stay in his car, but he set off after Martin anyway, gun in hand. Being closely followed at night by an armed stranger unsurprisingly led to a confrontation. Martin reported to his girlfriend by cellphone that he was being followed by a creepy individual, and he began to run. But Zimmerman caught up to him. There was a fight, ending when Zimmerman shot Martin once through the heart.

On the night of the shooting, police recorded Zimmerman’s weight as 200 lbs. and his height as 5’8”. Martin, a gangly 17-year-old, was 5’11” and weighed 158 lbs. But Zimmerman stated that he had been attacked by Martin, who went for his gun, and that his killing of Martin was a matter of self-defence.

Zimmerman, known for calling 911 at the drop of a hat, claimed that he was following Martin to find out where he lived, an odd assertion on the face of it, since he had supposedly suspected Martin of being a burglar or drug dealer, not a resident of the tiny 260-unit gated community known as The Retreat.

It took a good deal of public pressure for the local police to arrest Zimmerman and charge him with second-degree murder, six weeks after the shooting. The trial began this past June, and Zimmerman was acquitted, despite his inconsistent testimony and at least one outright lie (he falsely claimed that he had never studied Stand Your Ground law, when he had actually done so.)

Stand Your Ground (SYG) is a legal defence in Florida and several other states: in effect, anyone who is frightened by someone else has the right to use deadly force without taking steps to remove himself from the scene. In fact, Zimmerman did not avail himself of this option, which could possibly have precluded a trial. Instead he chose to argue self-defence. But, as we now know, the SYG law was very much on the minds of his jury of six women, all but one of whom were white.

We will never know all of the facts about that fatal confrontation. There were no eyewitnesses at the time of Martin’s death, and earwitnesses were vague. We do know that screaming during the altercation stopped instantly when the gunshot was heard, strongly suggesting that it was the frightened teenager’s, not Zimmerman’s, as Zimmerman later claimed.

What we can state with more certainty, however, is that the system failed Trayvon Martin. Whether it was lax gun laws, prevailing racist stereotypes of young Black males, and the SYG climate that intensifies that racial bias, or Florida’s legal system, no one can seriously claim that justice was done. As numerous commentators observed, Martin ended up being convicted of his own murder.

For those who would argue that the jury verdict was inevitable, objective, unbiased in every way—that justice, in other words, is truly blind—perhaps we should look at another Florida case, that of Marissa Alexander.

Alexander was regularly beaten up by an abusive spouse. Finally she had enough, obtained a legal firearm, and fired a warning shot when he came after her. Stand Your Ground? Alexander is doing twenty years as I write this. She is Black. Apparently SYG is more of a whites-only defence in Florida.

The judge in the case claimed the sentence was out of his hands, because Florida has mandatory minimum sentencing. Sound familiar?

Two cases, Martin and Alexander. One is dead, the other is serving 20 years for firing a warning shot. Justice is hardly colour-blind in Florida.

But let’s not feel too smug here at home. First Nations people are disproportionately jailed in Canada—they comprise only 4% of the population, but 23% of the prison population. Hundreds of Aboriginal women disappeared on the so-called Highway of Tears and on the farm of a serial predator and killer, while police did nothing at all. And a volunteer organization who painstakingly compiled hundreds of cases of missing Aboriginal women had its funding pulled by the Harper government.

Both here and in the US, we need to look at how our institutions—political, economic, social and legal—work overall, and never stop asking why it is that certain populations keep falling into the cracks. Rather than blaming the victims or, on the other hand, always assuming malice on the part of individuals, we should be critical of whole systems that inevitably produce poor outcomes for those of a certain colour or ethnicity or gender.

If we can work together to understand and to change them, and we are prepared to hold our own attitudes up to the light as part of the solution, only then will we have fully learned the lesson that Trayvon Martin’s death can teach. Until then, all we can do is to mourn the passing of one more casualty. RIP.

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This page contains a single entry by Robyn Benson, PSAC published on July 17, 2013 8:30 AM.

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