Walking while black:
Trayvon Martin’s fatal shortcut
By Jay D. Jurie | The Rag Blog | March 22, 2012
SANFORD, Florida — During the intermission of the NBA All-Star Game on February 26, 2012, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin of Miami, who was staying at the condominium of his father’s fiance in Sanford’s Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community, decided to visit the nearby 7-11.
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 played on the high school football team, 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.
Although Zimmerman, a Hispanic of stocky build, had no extensive criminal record, he did have previous run-ins with the law. In 2005 he was involved in a bar incident that included the use of profanity and was charged with resisting arrest. Entering a pre-trial diversion program, he avoided conviction.
That same year, domestic abuse injunctions were cross-filed by Zimmerman and his then-girlfriend. In 2008, he was involved in a court dispute that involved non-payment of credit card debt. Since that time, Zimmerman had enrolled in community college criminal justice classes, and had expressed an interest in becoming a police officer. At the time of the Feb. 26 shooting, Zimmerman’s occupation was unknown
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.” Allegations have been raised that after saying “they always get away” barely audibly he said “fucking coons,” but there is dispute as to whether he said that, or if — in versions of the tape publicly released by Sanford Police — that had been erased
Zimmerman disregarded the dispatcher’s admonition and continued following Martin. At some point Zimmerman exited his SUV. Why he did so is unknown, and remains one of the key mysteries of this case. 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 was 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. On March 20, Crump disclosed to the media that Martin had been speaking to his girlfriend on his cellphone immediately prior to the shooting.
This information has been verified by cell phone call records. According to the statement released by the yet-unidentified girlfriend, Martin tells her that an unidentified person is right behind him, again. She tells Martin to run, and he says he’s going to walk fast. He asked the unknown person “why are you following me?” and she hears another voice reply “what are you doing around here?” after which the call ended.
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. Brown, Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, and Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte, Jr., flew to Washington, DC and met with Justice Department representatives on March 20.
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 was the first among 21 states, mostly in the South and West, to adopt some version of the National Rifle Association-inspired “stand your ground” law. 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 Zimmerman, the sole survivor of the encounter, it cannot be said with any certainty that it was Zimmerman who stood his ground. As indicated by the statement of his girlfriend, Martin 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, indications are that he sought to “retreat.” Or finally, when accosted — as would have been his right under Florida law — to have stood his ground. Indications are that Martin was killed trying either to get away from, or to defend himself, from 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 are ongoing and new developments continue to crop up. On March 18, hundreds marched in Titusville, the County Seat of neighboring Brevard County. Both Seminole and Brevard Counties are in Florida’s 18th Judicial Circuit.
State Attorney Norman Wolfinger, of that Circuit, announced on March 20th that he was empaneling a grand jury on April 10 to hear the matter. This announcement was immediately denounced by critics of the investigation, who continued to insist on an immediate arrest of Zimmerman. They contend Wolfinger is trying to take the heat off himself and buy time to stall the growing protests.
As law students rallied on March 19 at the Seminole County Courthouse, other FAMU students rallied at the State Capitol, calling upon Gov. Rick Scott to direct the FDLE to conduct an independent investigation.
Following the meeting with Sanford officials, the Justice Department on March 20 announced that it would be investigating the death of Martin and looking at any possible violations of his civil rights and whether what occurred might be considered a hate crime. An investigation team would be sent to Sanford.
Later in the evening on March 20, the NAACP held a mass meeting at Sanford’s Allen Chapel AME Church. Inside, a press conference was held with NAACP President Ben Jealous, other members of the NAACP, invited guests, including Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett, and the media. There were about 250 people outside who took over the street and engaged in an impromptu demonstration with signs and chanting.
Before he entered the Church, Jealous mingled and spoke with members of the crowd out front. One man in the street carried a large wooden sign that read “Honk if Sanford PD Suck” and that obviously received great popular approval. Most media outlets in the country had reporters on the scene, including a local correspondent writing an article for People’s World. A media helicopter annoyingly hovered over head the entire time.
The thrust of the NAACP meeting was to call for the firing of Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr., for his department’s failure to arrest Zimmerman. After demonstrating for about an hour, a large group splintered off for a march to the police station, only about two blocks away from the church.
On March 21, a delegation from the Florida Civil Rights Association demonstrated in Orlando, and called for the revocation of Zimmerman’s concealed weapons permit. Congresswoman Brown had previously pointed out that since he has not been charged with any crime, Zimmerman is still legally entitled to carry a firearm.
She has stated that if this was a police shooting, the officers involved would be required to turn in their weapons and accept desk duty until an investigation was complete, provisions that do not apply to members of the public, such as Zimmerman. State firearms officials have already responded that the only grounds they have to revoke a permit would be a felony conviction.
On March 21, the Sanford City Commission held an emergency meeting to consider the meeting location for their regular meeting scheduled for March 26. They voted to move that meeting to the Sanford Civic Center to accommodate the anticipated overflow crowd. By a vote of 3-2 they also voted “no confidence” in Police Chief Bill Lee, Jr.
Those voting in favor included Mayor Jeff Triplett and City Commissioner Velma Williams, who had traveled to Washington, DC, to meet with representatives of the Justice Department. The no confidence vote is only a recommendation; it goes to City Manager Norton Bonaparte, Jr., for action, and he’s said he’ll “take it under advisement.”
A mass meeting featuring the Rev. Al Sharpton and others is slated for March 22 in Sanford.
A call has been issued for a March 31 march from a local school to Sanford Police headquarters to demand the removal of Police Chief Lee.
An online petition calling for “Justice for Trayvon” has reportedly received more than 985,000 signatures at our press time.
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, laws such as this may too easily put guns into the wrong hands, and the provisions to suspend or revoke a permit are inadequate.
Sanford City Commissioner Velma Williams has already proposed a “Trayvon Martin Law” that would amend or curtail Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
If Florida legislators want to do something constructive, they might codify provisions from the National Neighborhood Watch Manual into state law, stipulating a need for training, instituting a “do not confront rule,” and specifying that while on neighborhood watch patrol it is unlawful to be armed.
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, see the YouTube video of Matt Diaz, Sr., calling the State Attorney’s office, seeking answers about the killing of Trayvon Martin.
[Jay D. Jurie, a veteran of SDS at the University of Colorado at Boulder, is a resident of Sanford, Florida, where he teaches public administration and urban planning. 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/
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Delinski, Rachel, “Chief Lee: Arrest of Martin’s Shooter Would be a Violation of Civil Rights,” Sanford Herald, March 14, 2012. www.mysanfordherald.com
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Robles, Frances, “Shooter of Trayvon Martin a Habitual Caller to Cops,” Miami Herald, March 17, 2012. http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/17/2700249/shooter-of-trayvon-martin-a-habitual.html
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. http://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/local/os-trayvon-martin-shooting-zimmerman-letter-20120315,0,1716605.story
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