Walking While Black: Trayvon Martin’s Fatal Short-cut
By Jay D. Jurie / The Rag Blog /
SANFORD, Florida — Walking from a nearby 7-11 on February 26, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin took a short cut to the gated community home where he was staying with his father’s fiance. Shortly after 7 p.m., 28-year-old self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman called the Sanford Police Department on a non-emergency line to report a “suspicious person” who “looked like he was up to no good” in the neighborhood.
Shortly thereafter, several residents called 911 to report a disturbance and gunfire. After police were dispatched at 7:17 p.m., they arrived to find Martin face-down on the ground, with a gunshot wound to the chest, and apart from a pack of Skittles candy and a can of Arizona ice tea he’d purchased at the convenience store, he was unarmed. Martin was pronounced dead at 7:30 p.m.
That he was African-American, wearing a hoodie, and walking after dark in a neighborhood where he had every right to be constitutes the only evidence Martin was a “suspicious person.” A junior in high school, math was his favorite subject, and he earned A’s and B’s. He was studying to be an engineer, was interested in flying, and attended flying school part time. Martin had no criminal record nor any history of violence.
Police found Zimmerman standing nearby with a 9mm handgun in his waistband, a bloody nose, blood on the back of his head, and grass on the back of his shirt. Zimmerman admitted at the scene that he had shot Martin. What else has been established is that Zimmerman, a Hispanic of medium to stocky build, had expressed a desire to become a police officer, even though he had a 2005 arrest that included assault on a police officer.
He possessed a concealed weapons permit and was “patrolling” the neighborhood in an SUV when he spotted Martin.
According to the National Neighborhood Watch Manual (2010), “[Neighborhood] patrol members should be trained by law enforcement. It should be emphasized to members that they do not possess police powers and they shall not carry weapons… Members should never confront suspicious persons who could be armed and dangerous.”
There is no evidence that Zimmerman had ever received any training that might qualify him to serve as an effective neighborhood watch volunteer and he explicitly disregarded the imperatives not to carry a weapon and not to confront persons.
Several news outlets have reported that Zimmerman had contacted Sanford Police 46 times within the past 15 months. In a previous encounter, Zimmerman alleged that someone had spat at him. After he called police on February 26 and disclosed that he was following Martin, the tape reveals the dispatcher told him “you don’t need to be doing that.” Zimmerman is also clearly heard on that tape saying “these assholes, they always get away.”
Zimmerman disregarded the dispatcher’s admonition and continued following Martin. At some point Zimmerman exited his SUV; why he did so is unknown. Then occurred what a police spokesperson described as an “altercation.” Other details of what transpired remain sketchy and in dispute.
According to an Orlando Sentinel report, one partial eyewitness, 13-year-old Austin McLendon who was walking his dog, heard screaming and cries of “help me.” He saw one man wearing a red shirt, later identified as Zimmerman, on the ground. When the boy’s dog escaped, he turned to catch it and didn’t see what happened next, but heard a gunshot. McLendon was quoted as saying he heard no more screaming after the shot.
Another witness, Mary Cutcher, initially related that there was no punching, hitting, or wrestling, and the shooting was not self-defense, as Zimmerman insisted. She contended that police ignored her statement. After it aired on WFTV, the local ABC affiliate, police challenged the coverage and twice tried to contact her. On their third contact, it was reported that she changed what she had said and signed a sworn statement that corroborated Zimmerman’s version of events.
According to a story filed on the blog of Orlando Sentinel TV critic Hal Boedecker, Cutcher told a CNN interviewer “I don’t know this family [the Martins], I’m only trying to help, and I think that they [the Sanford Police Department] are trying to cover up something — that they made a mistake — and honestly, I feel like they’re taking the light off of them and trying to discredit my statements.”
According to Sela Mora Lamilla, a second witness quoted in the Boedecker story, “we were just telling the truth.”
Others in the surrounding area heard the altercation and called police. Screaming and the calls for help can be heard on the audio tapes. On one tape the sound of the gunshot is heard, after which the calls for help and screaming immediately stop. A key issue that remains in dispute is who was screaming; Zimmerman has claimed it was him.
Under mounting public pressure, police released the tapes more than two weeks after the shooting. After listening to the tapes, Martin’s parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, claimed it was their son, not Zimmerman, who was screaming and calling for help.
When police arrived on the scene, Zimmerman was initially handcuffed, but then released after he told police he’d acted in self-defense. Contrary to standard police homicide investigation procedure, Zimmerman was not alcohol- or drug-tested. More than three weeks after this incident, Zimmerman had still not been arrested or charged with any crime.
Sanford Police claimed there was “no probable cause” to make an arrest. Martin’s parents secured the services of attorneys Benjamin Crump and Natalie Jackson to seek recourse for their son’s death. As questions surrounding the police investigation and their decision not to arrest Zimmerman began to grow, the Police Department referred the case to the State Attorney’s Office.
Shortly after the Orlando Sentinel editorialized that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) needed to be brought in to investigate the situation, Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr., issued an invitation to the FDLE. He issued a similar invitation to the U.S. Department of Justice. U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL) met with Sanford city officials and also solicited Justice Department involvement.
Darryl E. Owens of the Orlando Sentinel, in his column of March 17, observed that Florida has a long history of racism, including a 1920 white riot against blacks that culminated in a lynching, and the 1923 burning of the black town of Rosewood.
He alluded to the 1955 lynching of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi as a reason that African-Americans today remain mistrustful, and noted that “…another young black kid’s death has revived the suspicion that a black life doesn’t have all that much value…” and that “black folk… all too well know the deep, abiding sense that, in a country where segregation, Jim Crow, and prejudice have created unequal footing, African-Americans also too often endure separate but unequal justice.”
Like Florida, Sanford has a long history of racism, and not all of it in the distant past. A city of approximately 50,000, Sanford has roots as an agricultural community. At one time it was referred to as the “Celery City.” When agriculture began to decline in the post-World War II era, former agricultural workers were left stranded with little in the way of employment, resources, and educational opportunities. Pockets of African-American poverty spanning several generations remained — within and in close proximity to Sanford.
On Christmas Day, 1951, a bomb planted by the Ku Klux Klan blew up the home of African-American civil rights pioneers Harry T. and Harriette V. Moore. Harry Moore died on the way to the hospital in Sanford and Harriette Moore died there nine days later. Following the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the City filled in the swimming pool in Sanford’s downtown park, rather than integrate it.
More recently, in 2005, another young African-American man, Traveres McGill, was shot and killed by two white security guards in an apartment complex parking lot. One guard was a volunteer Sanford Police officer, and the other was the son of a former officer.
They claimed McGill was attempting to run them down with his car, and argued they shot him in the back in self-defense. Though one was initially charged with manslaughter and the other with firing into an occupied vehicle, a judge later dismissed both charges for lack of evidence.
In January 2011 homeless African-American Sherman Ware was standing outside a Sanford bar when for no apparent reason he was cold-cocked and knocked unconscious by Justin Collison, a white 21-year old. Collison, the son of a Sanford Police lieutenant, was not arrested until nearly two months later, after the incident was publicized on YouTube. He was eventually convicted of battery and placed on probation.
Then-Sanford Police Chief Brian Tooley, on the verge of retirement, was forced out of office early due to this case. Present Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr., was hired with a commitment to restore damaged race relations. Upon acceptance of the job, his pronouncements to that effect were encouraging.
However, this perception has now soured. On March 14, the Sanford Herald ran a banner headline that read: “Chief Lee: Arrest of Martin’s Shooter Would be Violation of Civil Rights.” The civil rights that Lee was concerned about were those of the shooter, George Zimmerman, not those of the deceased shooting victim, Trayvon Martin.
Lee based his statement, and his department’s decision not to arrest Zimmerman, largely on Florida Statutes Chapter 776.012, also known as the “stand your ground” law. This statute authorizes any person, virtually anywhere, any time, to engage in “the use of deadly force” if the person “reasonably believes… such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself…”
This statute further states that if deadly force is “justified,” then the person using it “does not have a duty to retreat.”
Florida is among 15 states, mostly in the South and West, that have the National Rifle Association-inspired “stand your ground” law on the books. When it was briefly part of the public debate before enactment in 2005, some expressed concern that it would produce unnecessary deadly consequences, such as “road rage” encounters escalating into killings. Those concerns have proven prophetic. While there have been other examples of what has gone wrong with this law, unfortunately, Trayvon Martin’s death is among the most tragic.
Adding further injury to the loss suffered by Martin’s family, Florida’s “stand your ground” statute provides not only immunity from criminal prosecution for a person using deadly force, but from civil liability as well. In other words, if the protective cover that has been afforded Zimmerman continues to be upheld, Martin’s parents cannot file a wrongful death lawsuit against him for killing their son.
When asked why Zimmerman was not arrested — since the police dispatcher had told him to quit following Martin — Lee replied that it was only advisory, not a police order. In combination with “stand your ground,” and Zimmerman’s concealed weapons permit, these appear to be the major factors upon which the Sanford Police “no probable cause” to arrest decision was based.
Lee has also asserted that there are additional factors that weigh in favor of Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense. Initially, these additional factors included the now-released tapes, which though inconclusive, do not appear to support Zimmerman.
At a March 19 protest rally at the Seminole County Courthouse, organized by law students from around the state and the Florida Civil Rights Association, representatives of the Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University (FAMU) Black Law Student Association (BLSA) related that they had met with a representative of the State Attorney’s office to insist upon transparency and demanded the immediate release of all other information pertaining to the case.
The BLSA representatives stated that such transparency was the only way to dispel the impression that the Sanford Police Department and the investigative process were functioning as George Zimmerman’s defense counsel. The students were informed that the tapes will be voice-tested to determine who was screaming and calling for help.
Given what is known to date, aside from the testimony of the sole survivor of the encounter between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, it cannot be said with any certainty that it was Zimmerman who stood his ground.
Martin may have entered the neighborhood where he was staying, with his candy and tea, and noticed a “suspicious person” following him slowly in an SUV. He might have seen this person get out of this car and approach him. Not knowing this person, or his intentions, he might either have sought to “retreat,” or — as he would have every right to do under Florida law — stood his ground. Maybe Martin was killed trying either to get away from or to defend himself against Zimmerman.
Unless further information paints a more complete and accurate picture of what occurred, we’ll never know. What we do know for sure is that Zimmerman had a chip on his shoulder against “assholes,” whoever he imagined those “assholes” might be; that contrary to neighborhood watch instructions he was carrying a weapon; that he continued to pursue Martin after he was dissuaded
from doing so; and that for reasons known only to him, he got out of his SUV, apparently to confront Martin on foot. All this strongly suggests that, if not overtly racist, Zimmerman was an overzealous “wannabe” on a power trip. Or, as a participant at the March 19 rally put it, a “bully.” These factors alone may make whatever other information the police and prosecutors might have, and selectively release, difficult to overcome.
Meanwhile, protests about the circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin continue. Yesterday hundreds marched in Titusville, the County Seat of Brevard County, that shares the same judicial circuit as Seminole County. Two more mass meetings and a demonstration are scheduled in Sanford before the end of the month. Rev. Al Sharpton is scheduled to appear at a mass meeting on March 21st.
It has been reported there will be a demonstration in Tallahassee, the state capital. An online petition calling for “Justice for Trayvon” has reportedly received more than 285,000 signatures.
Members of the New Black Panther Party have already demonstrated outside Sanford Police Headquarters and said they may return. Members of the New Black Liberation Militia have threatened to make a citizens arrest of Zimmerman.
Beyond these immediate steps, a fresh look needs to be taken at Florida’s concealed weapons permitting process. Like the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords in Arizona showed, this process may too easily put guns into the wrong hands.
Sanford City Commissioner Velma Williams has already proposed a “Trayvon Martin Law” that would amend or curtail Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
During the 1960s the U.S. Justice Department was compelled to act in the Deep South when local law enforcement and the justice system failed to adequately and equally protect all citizens. That sort of intervention is necessitated in Sanford today. It may well turn out that possible violation of Trayvon Martin’s civil rights will have to be adjudicated under federal law.
Given its inability to reform itself, the Sanford Police Department may need to be placed in some form of federal receivership, as when the Sanford Housing Authority was placed in receivership under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development due to extreme fiscal and other mismanagement.
Above all, Sanford’s residents need to stay involved, and continue to demand greater responsibility, accountability, openness, and transparency over the long haul.
For one example of citizen involvement, go to Matt Diaz, Sr., calls the State Attorney’s office:
[Jay D. Jurie, a veteran of SDS at the University of Colorado at Boulder, now teaches public administration and urban planning and lives near Orlando, Florida. Read more articles by Jay D. Jurie on The Rag Blog.]
Audio of Trayvon Martin Shooting 911 Tape Calls: http://www.wftv.com/videos/news/teen-shooting-911-calls-1-3/vGZnj/
Boedecker, Hal, “Trayvon Martin: Thank God for the Media, ” Orlando Sentinel Entertainment Blog, March 16, 2012.
Delinski, Rachel, “Chief Lee: Arrest of Martin’s Shooter Would be a Violation of Civil Rights,” Sanford Herald, March 14, 2012. www.mysanfordherald.com
Herald Staff, “Chief Bill Lee Answers Questions about Investigation Into Shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, Sanford Herald, March 17, 2012. http://mysanfordherald.com/view/full_story/17920337/article-Chief-Bill-Lee-answers-questions-about-investigation-into-shooting-of-17-year-old-Trayvon-Martin?instance=home_news_2nd_left
Lee, Trymaine, “Trayvon Martin Case Salts Old Wounds and Racial Tension,” Huffington Post, March, 14, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/14/trayvon-martin-sanford-florida_n_1345868.html?flv=1#s766198
Lee, Trymaine, “Trayvon Martin Case Recasts Century-old Battle Lines for Local Activist,” Huffington Post, March 18, 2012. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/16/trayvon-martin-george-zimmerman_n_1352874.html?ref=topbar
Owens, Darryl, E., “Here’s Why People Are So Angry Over Trayvon’s Death,” Orlando Sentinel, March 17, 2012. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/seminole/os-trayvon-martin-shooting-darryl-owens-031712-20120316,0,3856677.column
Robles, Frances, “Shooter of Trayvon Martin a Habitual Caller to Cops,” Miami Herald, March 17, 2012.
Stutzman, Rene, “George Zimmerman’s Father: My Son Is Not a Racist,” Orlando Sentinel, March 15, 2012. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/os-trayvon-martin-shooting-zimmerman-letter-20120315,0,1716605.story
Stutzman, Rene, “Shooter’s Father: Son Didn’t Start Encounter,” Orlando Sentinel, March 16, 2012.
Stutzman, Rene, and Prieto, Bianca, “Trayvon Martin Shooting: Police to Release 911 Calls,” Orlando Sentinel, March 16, 2012. http://articles.orlandosentinel.com/2012-03-16/news/os-trayvon-martin-shooting-911-call-20120316_1_shooting-police-department-investigator-chris-serino,
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