Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Oscar Grant. Each of these black men became symbols of racial injustice after they were slain by police despite being unarmed. The string of police killings of black men over the years has not only created tensions between African Americans and law enforcement but also resulted in communities of color concluding that police devalue black life. Arguably no case in the 21st century sent the message that black lives don’t matter more than the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Suspicious Black Male
On Feb. 26, 2012, Trayvon, 17, walked through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., when he caught the attention of self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, 28. For reasons African-American groups such as ColorofChange.org say reflect racial bias, Zimmerman phoned police to report Trayvon as a suspicious person. He explained in his 911 call that there had been a series of break-ins in his neighborhood. “This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something,” Zimmerman said. “It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.” Other than reporting that Trayvon was staring at houses and at him, Zimmerman offered no other details as to why he thought the teen looked suspicious. During the call, Zimmerman also pointed out that Trayvon had something in his hands and was wearing “a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes.” There’s also speculation that Zimmerman uttered a racial slur during the call, but the audio is too unclear to confirm it. Moreover, Zimmerman admitted to following Trayvon but the 911 dispatcher told him that tracking the teen was unnecessary. The call ended with the dispatcher arranging for police to meet Zimmerman at a specific location in the gated community.
Deadly EncounterMoments after Zimmerman phoned police, Travyon Martin was dead. He was unarmed and had a bag of Skittles candy, an iced tea and a few dollars in cash on him when police arrived. The facts surrounding his death remain unclear. George Zimmerman says he fatally shot the youth in self-defense. Born to a Peruvian mother and a white father, Zimmerman says he’s Hispanic and denies that racism motivated him to call the police on Trayvon. According to Zimmerman’s version of the story, Trayvon asked him if he had a problem and then proceeded to deck him. Zimmerman also says that he suffered a gash to his head and a broken nose during the altercation. However, Zimmerman wasn’t hospitalized after the shooting and a representative of the funeral home that received Travon’s remains says that the teen’s body showed no signs of a struggle, such as marks on his hands from punching Zimmerman. A video of Zimmerman following the killing also shows no obvious signs of injury or blood on his clothing. The video seems to contradict Zimmerman’s story that he killed Trayvon because the teen viciously attacked him, leaving no option but to use deadly force.
Witnesses offer conflicting versions of what happened as well. Some say they saw Zimmerman on top of Martin; others saw the opposite. Another claims to have seen Zimmerman walk away from the shooting unharmed. No witness who came forward in the weeks following Trayvon’s killing saw the fight when it began or when Zimmerman fired his gun, making it difficult to pinpoint who the aggressor was. However, audio experts told the Orlando Sentinel and MSNBC that the voice heard screaming for help when neighbors called 911 did not belong to Zimmerman. Because Zimmerman cited Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law, police did not file charges against him. Weeks after Trayvon’s death, Zimmerman remained a free man.
Stand Your Ground
News that someone could kill a black man (presumably without cause) and not be arrested for it sent shockwaves through black America and beyond. Thousands protested in Florida, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere to demand justice. They wore hoodies and carried Skittles and iced tea in honor of Trayvon. Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee temporarily resigned due to the controversy over Trayvon’s death and the police department’s failure to arrest Zimmerman because of Florida’s Stand Your Ground Law. The law garnered much criticism after Travyon’s killing, including from Florida Congressman Perry E. Thurston Jr. He explained the law as follows:
“‘Stand your ground’ laws stem from a long-standing common law right to self-defense,” Thurston stated in an opinion piece for U.S. News & World Report. “A victim traditionally has had the right to meet force with equivalent force. ‘Stand your ground’ expands that right to include a right to preemptively use deadly force when the victim fears death or severe injury, and to do so without retreating. Florida recognizes a right to use deadly force without retreating against an intruder to one’s home.”