It was the 250-pound, 28-year-old George Zimmerman who pulled the trigger that killed the unarmed, 140-pound, 17-year-old African-American, Trayvon Martin, in Florida last month, but it was, at depth, Americans’ Second Amendment ‘Right to Bear Arms’ and anti-Black racism, so deeply embedded in the fabric of America, that must take responsibility for the teen’s death.
The record of events is that Zimmerman, a self-declared community watch captain in a gated Sanford, Florida community, pursued and confronted Martin who was returning from a convenience store carrying a packet of Skittles and a bottle of ice tea. Martin was on his way to the home of his father’s fiancée where he had been staying.
Reportedly, when he began to feel threatened by Zimmerman’s pursuit of him, Martin pulled his ‘hoodie’ over his head, a reflex gesture for more security.
This shooting came to national attention because those closest to the victim would not let it go.
No amount of public outrage is going to bring this young Black man back, but it can be the catalyst for changing some of the perverse laws that allow America to continue to believe that carrying a deadly weapon is a right.
In Florida, the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law is what allowed Zimmerman to execute Martin with seeming impunity, since he is still a free man, with no charges yet having been brought against him. However, public protest has meant that the Federal Bureau of Investigation is now looking into the killing.
In the five years after the Florida law was enacted in 2005, cases of justifiable homicide there tripled, and the law featured in some 93 cases involving 65 deaths. Similar laws exist in 22 States.
In the case of Martin’s killing, the competency of the police investigation has been questioned and, as a result, the police chief has had to step aside. It appears that police accepted Zimmerman’s account of what happened without much scrutiny – he wasn’t even given the standard drug and alcohol test. He was also allowed by the police to leave the scene of the crime with his gun. And this was despite Zimmerman having been “the subject of complaints by neighbours in his gated community for aggressive tactics”, according to the Huffington Post.
People across the U.S. have massed in protests calling for charges against Zimmerman and President Barack Obama has commented on the tragedy, remarking that a youth such as Martin could have been his own son.
America’s gun lust is one thing, but Martin’s killing again speaks of who controls the stories that are told about Black people and particularly young Black men. It is not a story about the vulnerability of young Black men, but rather one about them being violent and involved in criminality. It is a story that allows authority figures – appointed or self-appointed – to act as judge and executioner, putting at risk the very existence of young Black men.
It is not the story that Black people know only too well of their young men being heavily punished and criminalized or killed, as in young Martin’s case, for the things young White men also do and for which they are not equally punished.
If the situation was reversed – if an armed 250-pound Black man had pursued, then shot and killed an unarmed 140-pound White teenager – that hypothetical Black man would surely have been arrested immediately or, more likely, shot and killed on the spot by the police.
This assaultive narrative, written into our unspoken social code, influences the exchange between Black people and mainstream institutions, not just in the United States, but also here in Canada.
Recent Toronto Star reports on Toronto police stopping Black youth and other youth-of-colour at a higher rate than the general population bear that out. The Star reports concluded that at the rate at which young Black males were stopped and information taken from them – name, address, associates that are stopped along with them – the police would have managed to ‘card’ every individual of colour in certain designated neighbourhoods, essentially making each and every one ‘known to police’.
The groundbreaking work begun by late activist Dudley Laws and the Black Action Defence Committee to foster a better understanding of Black youth by law authorities must not be allowed to falter.