Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Justice For Trayvon Martin

Were it not for a growing sense of outcry, it seems unlikely that the US Justice Department would have even launched the investigation, announced today, into the death of 17 year old Trayvon Martin. It is, after all, nearly a month since the unarmed teenager was shot dead in Sanford, Florida, after buying sweets in a local shop. He was alone, carrying nothing more threatening than a mobile phone, bottle of drink and a packet of Skittles. His killer, 28 year old George Zimmerman, was a member of a neighbourhood watch group, and licensed to carry a concealed 9mm automatic pistol.

That the teenager was black, has fuelled public outrage at the authorities’ unwillingness to arrest Zimmerman, raising further questions about racial discrimination within law enforcement communities in America. With support on Twitter from the film director Spike Lee, amongst many others, campaigners have now received assurances of a thorough investigation from the FBI and US Justice Department, after which a spokesman promised that “appropriate action” would be taken.

Issues of race and prejudice will rightly be brought into sharp focus by the killing, which, not being actively challenged by local police, has the feeling of being  sanctioned therefore, by implication. And yet, it would be a wider tragedy still, if the spotlight did not also fall onto an unsettling amendment to Florida’s gun laws, introduced in 2005. Until that time the overriding doctrine was that “a man’s home is his castle”, and he has the right to defend himself within it, but not beyond. But Governor Jeb Bush, brother of guess who, then put his signature to the “Stand Your Ground” law, effectively permitting citizens to defend themselves, with lethal force if necessary, in public places. In addition, the “duty to retreat” principle was abandoned, meaning your friendly neighbourhood vigilante was no longer obliged to back down, in the face of a potential confrontation.

So it was that on the night of February 26th, George Zimmerman called 911 to report a “real suspicious guy”, saying; “looks like he’s up to no good”. Disregarding the advice of the telephone operator, Zimmerman confronted Martin in a gated development, several residents of which also made calls to the emergency services, alarmed by what they heard. The recently released recordings of those calls clearly feature an unidentified voice screaming in the background, before being silenced by a gunshot. In their refusal to arrest Zimmerman, local police seem to have concluded that the screams did not come from the unarmed young man bringing home some sweets, but from the larger man, with the gun.

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