The senseless death of Trayvon Martin at the hands of a neighborhood vigilante in Florida highlights the convergence of the state’s dangerous self-defense laws with a criminal justice system that still embraces racial profiling. Not only does our law enforcement system disproportionately arrest and sentence black men as criminals at extraordinary rates; it also apparently completely fails to protect them in Florida when they are the victims of crime themselves. In effect, Florida’s laws codify racial prejudice into self-defense claims.
Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which allows the use of deadly force if a person believes himself to be in imminent danger, have irresponsibly turned the state into a Wild West of vigilantism. The law is so vague that individuals need nothing more than a particular phenotype to be labeled sufficiently suspicious and potentially harmful enough to be on the receiving end of deadly force that is excused by subjective self-defense claims. This appears to be what happened this past weekend in a suburban community outside of Orlando.
Responding to public outrage, the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into Martin’s shooting, which will hopefully reignite the discourse over the role that such laws play in encouraging racial profiling and discriminately paint entire groups of people as potentially harmful based on nothing more than the color of their skin. But this case requires more than federal intervention. While Gov. Rick Scott argues that the law should simply be examined to see if it is being abused, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law should be repealed, given its ability to enable racial profiling and the shocking spike in justifiable homicides that resulted from its passage. With 16 other states also reportedly passing similar legislation since Florida’s inaugural passage in 2005, often with the strong support of the National Rifle Association, these laws represent a growing threat across the country.
While the Stand Your Ground law does not limit itself to self-defense claims made in incidents where a gun delivers the deadly force, the NRA continues to campaign for these laws in states such as Iowa, Alaska, and Minnesota. This law has also been adopted as model legislation by the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has developed a notorious reputation for supporting legislation favorable to corporate funders in statehouses across the country.
In the wake of Martin’s tragic death, Florida must not only reassess its Stand Your Ground law but it should also reassess its permissive gun laws as it was one of the first states to allow residents to carry concealed weapons. Our criminal justice system must make it illegal for a 250-pound man who had resisted arrest with violence and been charged with battery on an officer (though the charges were later dropped) to be allowed to buy a 9mm semiautomatic handgun and use it in “self-defense” against an unarmed 140-pound teenager.
Zimmerman claimed self-defense
By now the details of the case are well-known. The 911 tapes revealed that George Zimmerman called dispatchers and reported watching a “suspicious” looking individual walk through his gated community. Despite the fact that dispatchers said officers would be sent to the area and told Zimmerman not to pursue the young man, Zimmerman still set out on foot to confront him. Neighbors’ 911 calls are set against a backdrop of bloodcurdling screams for help and a single gunshot that ends the noise. Martin was found dead with a single gunshot to the chest. Martin only had some Skittles and an iced tea in his possession when he died, bought moments earlier at a local convenience store.
When officers arrived on the scene, Zimmerman claimed self-defense. The police not only accepted Zimmerman’s explanation but then engaged in a series of actions that reveal little interest in investigating the true cause of young Martin’s death. Drug and alcohol testing is considered standard procedure in homicide investigations, yet Zimmerman was not tested. Witnesses reported they heard Martin screaming for help, yet one witness reported that a police officer incredulously corrected her and said it was Zimmerman who had cried for help. And Zimmerman, who was known for fixating on young, black males in the 46 times he had called the police reporting suspicious activity in the gated community since January 1, 2011, has still not been arrested or charged with any wrongdoing. Despite the fact that Zimmerman’s father is on record as denying his son could possibly be a racist as a Spanish-speaking minority with many black family members and friends, his past behavior of suspecting young black men in particular cannot be ignored.
Stand Your Ground law enables profiling
How could this happen? Well, the apparent ineptitude of the local police department is completely sanctioned by the state’s Stand Your Ground law, which, as soon as Zimmerman uttered the words self-defense, allowed officers to take him at his word and not press charges. Florida was the first state to pass such a law in 2005, after the National Rifle Association lobbied the state legislature, expanding upon a previous law that allowed the right to protect yourself with deadly force inside your home and doing away with a previous requirement to first retreat from conflict. The revised law gave individuals the right to protect themselves outside the home as well so long as they “reasonably believed” that such force would stop another person from hurting them.
Critics of the law call it the “Shoot First” law because they believe it encourages individuals to resort to deadly force first and then ask questions later. After Florida’s passage, 16 other states have considered similar legislation—even though reports of justified homicide in Florida have spiked after the law was enacted. From 2000 to 2005 the state reported an average of 34 justifiable homicides per year. The next half of the decade tells a different story. In 2007 this number spiked to 102. In 2008 it was 93. And in 2009 it was 105. By the first six months of 2010, the number was already 44.
A state representative who was in office when the law passed, Lt. Gov. Jeff Kottkamp, said, "The intent is that you can only use the same amount of force as you believe will be used against you. … it certainly wasn’t that you can shoot and kill somebody wielding a souvenir baseball bat."
Intent is one thing, but not establishing provisions that would guard against the use of disproportionate force that allows a battle between a 9mm semiautomatic and a bag of Skittles is another. In effect the law shifts the burden of proof that defendants did not act out of self-defense onto the (often) deceased shoulders of their victims.
And at the heart of this case is the fact that these laws allow individuals to act (with deadly force) on racist hunches about who is suspicious and who might harm them. Legal analysis has shown that such self-defense arguments can actually mask racial bias. For instance, Maxine Burkett, an associate professor of law at the William S. Richardson School of Law at the University of Hawaii, argues that “self-defense arguments that may seem to work in a benign, race-neutral manner for white America … take on a significantly different meaning in the context of black-white interactions.”
George P. Fletcher, one of the leading criminal law scholars in the United States and the Cardozo Professor of Jurisprudence at Columbia University Law School, also argues that “racial fears invariably infuse routine judgments in American society about what kinds of acts constitute a serious danger or what kinds of violent responses should be regarded as reasonable acts of self-defense.” It then follows that racial stereotyping about “who commits crime” in our society draws no distinction between the guilty and innocent if they share the same phenotype, before pulling a fatal trigger and claiming self-defense.
The only reason Zimmerman could have felt Martin was suspicious enough to call the cops was the color of his skin. And it was the Stand Your Ground law that allowed officers to believe Zimmerman’s claim that he needed to defend himself with deadly force against an unarmed 17-year-old who was trying to avoid a confrontation.
The Justice Department steps in
This case raises painful questions about the purpose of the criminal justice system in our society. Theoretically it is supposed to be a system that objectively protects us all by imposing penalties on those who violate our society’s laws. But we have seen that illusion of objectivity crumble as certain groups of individuals—black men in particular—are subjected to disproportionate arrests and sentencing for laws that they do not disproportionately violate.
Martin’s senseless death exposes, ironically, just how dangerous the criminal justice system has become for black men in our country. Instead of working to reduce the uneven criminalization of black men, most commonly noted by the derisive term “driving while black,” the criminal justice system broadens its impact through laws such as Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, which now justifies using deadly force against an individual for simply “walking while black.”
The Justice Department and the FBI have announced that they will investigate Martin’s shooting. According to a statement from the Justice Department, “The government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids. Negligence, recklessness, mistakes and accidents are not prosecutable under the federal criminal civil rights laws."
Given that we know the law forbids discriminatory action against an individual due to his race or ethnicity, let’s hope that the investigation leads to a critical review of the laws that allow defendants to act as profiling vigilantes and local police forces to deny justice to victims based on the color of their skin. Gov. Scott should empanel a group of experts to review the impact of the law so that its impacts and related facts can be properly examined before it is allowed to lead to another tragic death. We are confident that reasonable minds, given the facts and evidence, will and should call for the repeal of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. But our society also has further work to do—ridding our nation of the lethal combination of self-defense laws and permissive gun laws that enable the return of vigilantism in our communities.
Instead, Police Chief Bill Lee continues to defend the investigation. He is on record as saying “We are taking a beating over this…This is all very unsettling. I’m sure if George Zimmerman had the opportunity to relive Sunday, Feb. 26, he’d probably do things differently. I’m sure Trayvon would, too.”
While it’s clear to me what Zimmerman could have done differently—follow dispatchers’ orders not to pursue Martin before officers arrived on the scene, for one—it’s unclear what Martin did wrong in this scenario except to mistakenly think that he could buy some candy on a rainy evening and walk home from a convenience store, while being a young, black male in this country.
Julie Ajinkya is a Policy Analyst for Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress.
- Race and Beyond: Transforming ‘White Culture’ in the Wake of Martin Shooting by Sam Fulwood III