A lot of people are very angry about the shooting of Treyvon Martin last month in the old North Florida town of Sanford. I'm one of them.
Florida, as you may know has been a model of old South attitudes toward black people, but was the incident racially motivated as is being loudly asserted or is there racism involved in interpreting what happened?
As you might suspect from his name, Martin was black. He was only 17 years old and when he was accosted one night, dressed as many 17 year old males are, in a hoodie and sneakers and baggy pants; the kind of costume that produces unease and possibly is designed to produce unease, after dark, when worn by someone strolling through your neighborhood.
Young Martin was shot by a "neighborhood watch" volunteer - one of those people who lurk about neighborhoods at night looking for people who don't 'belong' there, but although such groups are often encouraged by local police and like any citizen who qualifies, is allowed to bear arms for the sole purpose of protecting themselves, these volunteers are not and are not allowed to be policemen. Indeed the concealed weapons license course stresses that fact repeatedly.
If you've ever lived in a community that has rules, you've probably chuckled about "Condo Commandos" who delight in the feeling of power they get from reporting you for having your garage door open for more than 5 minutes or failing to take in your garbage can by the required time. I would imagine that such folks would delight even more in taking on the role of protector while walking a beat at night. Does that describe George Zimmerman? Not having all the facts and being unlikely ever to have all of them, I can only speculate.
Mr. Zimmerman, 28 years of age, is being accused by the family of Treyvon Martin of a hate crime and a racially motivated killing. Of course I can't know what was on Zimmerman's mind, but I do read that he is of Hispanic origin and comes from a racially diverse family. There may be many reasons having nothing to do with race for Zimmerman to have accosted the young man and shot him. And of course it's inevitable that Florida gun laws will be blamed for this sad event by those who haven't read them and I despair when thinking about any lesson we should be learning here.
The laws governing concealed weapons here in Florida are rather clear about the right to defend your life when a person has reasonable fear of a lethal attack and it's rather clear about one's right to defend against someone trying to forceably remove you from a place you have a right to be, such as your house or your car. I'm no lawyer, yet I can speculate that a public sidewalk is one of those places one has a right to be. The law is equally clear about your right to use a weapon being severely undermined in a situation where the attack was provoked or 'escalated' by you. In other words, should I draw a weapon and shoot someone I picked an avoidable fight with, or made it worse by remaining when I should have walked away, I won't get away so easily with a self-defense plea as Zimmerman inexplicably seems to have done. The law is also clear about using a weapon to gain advantage in a dispute or as a threat. Simply showing it or even mentioning that you have one is a serious offense in many cases. "Get off my block kid, I've got a gun" is one of those cases.
The rights of a neighborhood watch volunteer extend as far as observing and using a telephone to call the police. They do not include provoking a fight, attempting to chase someone out of a neighborhood, shoving, pushing or physically engaging anyone. From the testimony of Martin's girlfriend who had been talking with him on the phone when Zimmerman 'went after' him and allegedly pushed him to the ground, that may be just what happened and if so, Zimmerman had long since transgressed and his right to use lethal force against an unarmed person had long since departed, at least in my non-lawyer opinion -- yet Zimmerman has not been charged.
Somehow, in the city of Sanford, this possibly unjustifiable use of force seems to have been ignored. I suspect that if there's racism lurking in this case, we'll find it in uniform or carrying a briefcase. Attempts to get around the apparent lapse by law enforcement people by framing the incident as a civil rights violation or a hate crime are not likely to be successful and any chance for justice drowned in the storm of predictable and formulaic accusations.