“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.”
President Obama uttered those now famous words last week when asked about Trayvon Martin during a press conference in the Rose Garden where he announced his nominee for the new President of the World Bank. His remarks served as his first public comments regarding the notorious incident involving the fatal shooting of an unarmed, seventeen year old African American young man by a neighborhood watch captain in a gated subdivision in Sanford, FL. They also placated the desires of Martin family supporters who wished to hear the President speak on the matter, and drew the rhetorical ire of his political opponents. President Obama’s remarks, while stirring in their candor and personal nature, also encapsulated the tragedy of the shooting; the horror that befell Trayvon could have visited virtually any young African American man. One of the more notable tragedies of this incident is that it remained in relative obscurity for roughly ten days.
Notwithstanding, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton’s nightmare began more than a month ago. As reported by Daniel Trotto of Reuters, Tracy Martin, is Trayvon’s father. He was divorced from Trayvon’s mother (Sybrina Fulton) in 1999, and is a truck driver from Miami. He maintained a long-distance relationship with his fiancee, Ms. Greene, and visited her on weekends, joyfully making the four-hour trek to the Orlando suburb. As reported by The Grio, on the evening of February 26th, Tracy Martin and his fiancée, Brandy Greene, decided to have dinner after the two spent time together with their children earlier in the day. They left Tracy’s son, Trayvon, and Brandy’s son at Brandy’s townhouse, located in a “neat subdivision in Sanford, FL” called Retreat at Twin Lakes. The two young men had bonded previously to facilitate the transition of them officially becoming step-brothers. On the night of the 26th, they intended to watch the NBA All-Star Game while Tracy and Brandy went out for dinner. At some point during the game, Trayvon decided to walk to a nearby shopping plaza that housed a 7-11. While there, he bought an iced-tea for himself, and a bag of Skittles for his soon-to-be younger step-brother. He never made it home.
When Trayvon did not return home, Tracy Martin believed that Trayvon merely went to a movie with a friend and mistakenly left his phone off. When he did not return the next morning, Tracy Martin became gravely concerned. What he would later learn devastated him.
Trayvon returned to Retreat at Twin Lakes some time around 7:15p.m., potentially cutting through an opening in the wall that surrounded the gated subdivision. Once inside, he eventually ducked underneath the awning of the neighborhood’s clubhouse to shield himself from the rain. It was some time around then that George Zimmerman, a volunteer for the subdivision’s neighborhood watch, observed Trayvon. Zimmerman called the police on a non-emergency line, and reported seeing someone who appeared “suspicious.”
When Trayvon left the clubhouse, Zimmerman followed him in his vehicle. Trayvon seemed to notice Mr. Zimmerman and made initial efforts to distance himself from Zimmerman. Trayvon walked off the road in order to walk in between two rows of town homes, and hopefully escape the strange man following him. Mr. Zimmerman exited his vehicle and pursued Trayvon on foot. Both men were engrossed in conversation.
George Zimmerman was on the telephone with the Standford Police Department. On one of the recordings from the call, Zimmerman can be heard referring to Trayvon as a “[expletive] coon.” The recordings also reveal that the Sanford Police Department commanded Zimmerman to discontinue his pursuit of Trayvon. Zimmerman ignored them.
Trayvon was on the telephone with his girlfriend. Reportedly, Trayvon told her, “Oh, he’s right behind me; he’s right behind me again.” “Run!” she replied. Trayvon then said, “I’m not going to run, I’m just going to walk fast. . .” It was the last thing he told her. The next thing she heard him say was, “Why are you following me?” Another voice said, “What are you doing here?” The pair repeated this overture. A scuffle ensued, and the phone call came to an abrupt end.
Neighbors flooded 911 operators with reports of a loud altercation, shouting and gunfire. When police officers finally arrived, they found Trayvon Martin dead from a single gunshot wound to the chest and a frazzled George Zimmerman alleging self-defense. The responding officers believed Mr. Zimmerman’s account of the incident, despite ample evidence to the contrary, and thereby elected not to arrest him. In short, the officers determined Mr. Zimmerman reasonably exercised deadly force in an act of self-defense against a young man he pursued and confronted, a young man nearly half his age and literally half his size. When Tracy Martin consulted with some prominent civil rights attorneys, he was advised to, “trust the system.”
Sanford Police cite FL. Stat. §§776.013, a Florida law more widely known as “Stand Your Ground,” as a basis for their failure to arrest George Zimmerman. The law affords Florida citizens with the legal right to “stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force” if the citizen “is not engaged in an unlawful activity and . . . is attacked in any other place where he or she has the right to be.” The law not only affords this wide latitude to Florida’s citizenry during confrontations, it also allows police officers who have responded to the scene of the confrontation that has resulted in the death of an individual to decide whether to make an arrest in reference to the killing. Essentially, that discretion hinges on whether the police officers believe a self-defense claim raised by the killer. They must decide if there is sufficient evidence to contradict a claim of self-defense. Ordinarily, Florida police officers defer to the courts to make this determination. When they elect to do so, judges decide whether the use of force was reasonable. In this instance, the police elected to make the determination themselves.
While Florida’s Stand Your Ground statue incorporates numerous rudimentary components of criminal law, it is inherently problematic. Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute stems from legal notions of justification and affirmative defense. Every jurisdiction within the United States has affirmative defenses (e.g. self-defense, insanity, etc.) for charges related to unlawful killings (e.g. first degree murder, second degree murder, manslaughter, etc.). Affirmative defenses provide for justification to even the most heinous of charges; however, those justifications are rare, and they are rooted in age-old understanding of human interaction (e.g. one can not be held liable for one’s actions if one lacks the capacity to fully understand their ramifications, one has to right to defend oneself against the threat of severe bodily harm or death, etc.). Notwithstanding, affirmative defenses are a tactic for trial, where due process determines the outcome.
Undoubtedly, the Florida legislature drafted their Stand Your Ground statute to circumvent this process, and it remains my contention that legislative maneuvering illustrates the fatal flaw of the law. In allowing for police officers at the scene of a confrontation to determine, with finality, whether an unlawful killing has transpired morphs the police officers the into judge and jury and private citizens the executioner. Moreover, as is the case with Trayvon, this perverted process allows for the execution prior to the determination of guilt of the executed. In short, Trayvon Martin was determined to have committed an act that warranted his killing in the absence of a fair proceeding because police officers at the scene believed Mr. Zimmerman’s claim. Now only one arbiter remains, special prosecutor Angela Corey, will determine whether charges are warranted. While the legal wrangling continues, Zimmerman roams free, though he has remains in hiding. That is a troubling proposition.
Also troubling is how the incident reveals deeper, unseemly truths about America. Florida purports itself to be the very embodiment of the motto, “e pluribus unum,” from our nation’s Great Seal, as it is one of the country’s few multi-racial, multi-ethnic havens. It literally beckons the world’s “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free” with its warm weather, beautiful beaches to go along with promises of liberty and the chances of upward mobility. It is in a cruel twist of irony, or merely a telling exposure of the status quo, that a small enclave within Florida’s borders is swiftly threatening to become “the Selma and Birmingham of the 21st Century.” The Trayvon Martin incident has become emblematic of the divisive nature of concepts such as race, violence and justice.
On Monday Trayvon’s family had to assume a defensive posture as stories began to circulate that Trayvon’s school recently suspended him for ten days because school officials found an empty baggie with marijuana residue in his backpack. Other reports circulated that Trayvon had a prior suspension for tardiness and for graffiti at school. Trayvon Martin’s family confirmed the reports. Without question, these reports emerged to counterbalance the pristine image of Trayvon many of the family supporters gladly embraced as the story of his death continued to unfold. Nevertheless, the questions raised regarding Trayvon’s past indiscretions are irrelevant and represent little else than thinly veiled attempts to demonstrate that Trayvon deserved to die a violent death. Trayvon’s possession of a nominal amount of marijuana and prior suspensions, certainly demonstrate questionable behavior, but it has no bearing on the factors leading to his death. They merely distract from the salient issues. By all accounts, Trayvon Martin was walking home, when George Zimmerman, a man with a history of violent, aggressive behavior (and overzealous, vigilante-style law enforcement), followed him, confronted him and shot him to death. Implicit in each leaked story revealing unseemly aspects of his past is the statement that Trayvon was no different than the images we see of young African American men in the media. It is much easier to justify the killing of Trayvon if looks just like the scores of other African American young men are killed regularly because of their involvement in illegal activities. It would only prove in the minds of many that such a death was an inevitability for Trayvon. The portrayal of African American men in the media only feeds this expectation.
The dominate image of African Americans in American press, literature, theater, film and other popular mediums of expression has evolved from primitive, barbaric, sexually-charged, simple-minded brutes to mutations and permutations of those images. In her article entitled, Mules, Madonnas, Babies, Bath Water, Racial Imagery and Stereotypes, Professor Ammons argues the “subtlest and most pervasive of all influences are those which create and maintain the repertory of stereotypes.” She continued by writing by the time a child has reached the age of four or five, the child has learned the significance of skin color and racial membership. She continues by stating whites are taught implicitly and explicitly they are better than blacks, and adults conform their behavior to what is socially acceptable based on changing laws of social mores. While such lessons begin in the home, our popular culture and media help shape the contours of such perceptions once one leaves the home. From the minstrel shows of the mid-1800s to the modern day portrayals of African American men in television programming, films and music, these traditions continues. To worsen matters, hip-hop purports itself to be the preeminent black aesthetic and the voice of the black community, yet the overwhelming majority of its output is violent, misogynistic drivel and or tacit endorsements of drug culture. Presumably reason many prominent rappers remained silent on the matter, or waited until it became politically convenient to speak, because the “art” they create contributed to the correlation between African American men and violence. As I once said, “All we ever talk about is X and Coke/Sex and dope, bling bling and the gleam on the Lexus spokes/If I were a white man, I would lock me up too/Because that’s all that we ever say we be up to/We talk about the sex and drugs, drugs and sex/We ‘bubble hard in double Rs and the bubble Lex’/We call it hip-hop, but it’s really hip-hopcrisy.” It is a shame that we as African Anericans bemoan the prejorative stereoptyping of our people in the media, then perpetuate the same or worse stereotypes when we have the opportunity to speak for ourselves.
The Trayvon Martin incident has captivated me in ways that few similar instances has prior. As a participant of hip-hop culture and a member of the hip-hop generation, I understand full well how hip-hop has assisted in the perpetuation of the very stereotypes that caused George Zimmerman to view Trayvon Martin as “suspicious.” On a more personal level, I can fully relate to the set of experiences that resulted in his tragic death. I have lost count of how many times I meandered through my own “neat” subdivision, or the elegant, gated communities of friends, after school or on a weekend after playing basketball. Both my friends and I have numerous experiences, coupled with the anecdotes of friends and family, of law enforcement accosting us, if for no other reason than because of we are African American men. Since Trayvon’s story became a national topic of discussion, we all shared stories with each other that effectively have noted any of us could have come to the violent end Trayvon met.
One of the more tragic revelations in the Trayvon Martin incident lies in the fact that it is no aberration. Rather it continues a protracted, torturous history of the untimely death of young African American men at the hands of those charged to protect the community. Namely, Ervin Jefferson, Dane Scott, Jr., Wendell Allen, Trayvon Martin, Ramarley Graham, Alonzo Ashley, Steven Eugene Washington, Victor Sheen, Oscar Grant III, Sean Bell, Travares McGill, Ronald Madison, James Brissette, Aaron Campbell, Timothy Stansbury, Jr., Orlando Barlow, Ousmane Zongo, Patrick Dorismond, Amadou Diallo, Emmett Till and countless others died in unfortunate encounters with law enforcement, security guards or other individuals responsible for protecting the community. Only a few of them garnered national attention, and for the most part it was only a fraction of the attention the Trayvon Martin incident has received. Even fewer discuss the tragic death of men like Trayvon who are killed at the hands of men who look like them. Philadelphia alone has witnessed 87 homicides this year, many of those men look like Trayvon and died at the hands of someone who looked like him. Aside from a few news articles and candlelight vigils, those men are almost forgotten. It would seem as though our society does not value their lives in the same way we value the lives of others, or even the lives of dogs. It is as though we do not care about these young African American men until they are no longer with us, regardless of whether they might look like they could be the son of the man who holds our nation’s highest office.