Billie Holiday’s anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit” seems eerily appropriate these days.
If you think we don’t need to worry about lynching anymore, or if you need to bring tears to your cold, dry eyes, just contemplate Trayvon Martin for a second. I have tried in the past days to think of something, anything intelligent to say in the face of this recent episode in the history of racial injustice. But I have been unable to get my head around it.
For one thing, I just keep trying to walk in the shoes of a teenager going to the corner store for a soda and candy only to confront an armed man who stalks and then shoots you dead. I think of myself and the many walks I take around my neighborhood, and I imagine a man swooping down on me, assuming my criminality based on nothing, and then that man attacking me. It boggles my mind. Sanford is just on the other side of the Spring Hammock Preserve from the town where I live.
However, this would never likely happen to me: I am a woman, and I am white. The part of this scenario that I can’t even possibly imagine is what it is like to be a young black man and to carry the fear and mistrust that long years of racism have draped over my life. As Ben Jealous, President of the NAACP, notes (on one of the videos at MSNBC linked below), we are 150 years past the end of slavery, but African American males are still routinely discriminated against, treated as criminals, and disregarded as victims of violence. Here is yet another incidence, and a particularly horrible one.
If there is one thing I have learned from my occasional forays into watching The First 48, it’s that people are killed for really stupid reasons—a moment of drunken pique, fifty bucks (or less), or in a macho stand-off. Many of the people who kill don’t really mean to. Many kill because they are afraid. A lot of them cry and regret it afterward. But the police still send them to jail.
Here in Florida, however, we have a really, really, really bad law. It was passed in 2005, and it’s commonly referred to as the “Stand Your Ground” law, explained here by the Orlando Sentinel. It allows people to shoot others on the street, in public, outside their homes if they “reasonably” feel threatened in any way. Because “feeling threatened” does not mean actually being threatened, and because what is “reasonable” is open to interpretation, this law is a license for anyone to commit murder and go unpunished simply by saying they felt threatened.
Mind you, self-defense has always been a claim that shooters could make, even long before the Stand Your Ground law was in effect. However, most of the time, shooters were responsible for trying to escape a conflict first. There had to be some actual, tangible, inescapable, visible physical threat, or at least the defensive shooting had to happen in a person’s home. Not anymore in Florida or in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Washington, or West Virginia. Such legislation is also pending in Alaska, Iowa, Minnesota, and New York, as MSNBC reports.
Perhaps this law was not intended as a license to kill, but the Orlando Sentinel article reports that in just the first five months after the law was passed, here in Central Florida alone there were six men killed and four wounded in this way, only one of whom was armed. Funny that the threatened ones were the ones who were armed. It also notes that in case after case, these shooters have not been prosecuted.
Supporters of the law claim that it is being misused and was never intended to give free passes to those who kill without sufficient cause. But it’s hard to prove that someone wasn’t afraid. Prosecutors may not pursue these cases because they don’t feel they can win them. In this case, however, the chances ought to be better than average. The killer, George Zimmerman, was on the phone with police dispatchers who told him to cease following Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman disobeyed the dispatcher and made a seemingly racist comment about how “these assholes” get away with their crimes. Trayvon was on his own cell phone with his girlfriend when Zimmerman was stalking him, and he is the one who expressed fear. It is clear in this case who was the aggressor, and it was Zimmerman.
Yet, nearly a month has gone by and Zimmerman is still a free man and still retains possession of his gun. He is a man with a criminal history of domestic violence and battery, a failure as a wanna-be cop, and someone who frequently got in altercations with others. He was obsessed wth calling the police. Trayvon Martin, whom Zimmerman accused of being “up to no good,” was a boy who was an A/B student who loved sports and math. His life was over just like that because some moron with a gun was roaming the streets looking for trouble and targeted him because he was black.
Things change, yes, they do, but sometimes and in some ways they don’t change enough.
George Zimmerman should be arrested and prosecuted (whether convicted, I don’t know), the Sanford Police Department procedures should be reviewed, and this law should be changed. Even that is not enough, and we all have to keep working to change the myriad ways in which our world is damaged by the long history of racism.
There is nothing really new I can say in regard to all of this. There are others closer to the situation and wiser than I who have taken up the banner. All I can do—and must do—is add my little voice to the chorus of outrage and grief.