Charges for Trayvon Martin's Killer Are No Guarantee of Justice
Forty-five days after, by his own admission, George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, he was arrested and charged with second-degree murder. The announcement came from Florida special prosecutor Angela Corey on Wednesday, following a bizarre turn of events that included the launch of TheRealGeorgeZimmerman.com, a website started by Zimmerman himself seeking donations, and the lawyers that had thus far represented him in the media holding a press conference to declare they were stepping down after losing contact with their client. Their odd, to say the least, ramblings revealed that Zimmerman had tried to speak directly to special prosecutor, had a conversation with FOX News host Sean Hannity and may not have been in the state of Florida. Zimmerman has now retained the services of attorney Mark O’Mara.
But for many, all that counts is that after weeks of sweating this out in hoodies, they get to say “finally.”
As Reverend Al Sharpton stated at the press conference following the announcement of the charges, “This is not a night for celebration, this is a night that never should have happened in the first place.” For starters, Zimmerman should never have shot and killed Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who had just come from the store with a bag of Skittles and a can of iced tea. Zimmerman fulfilled his duty as citizen by dialing 911 and reporting what he thought was suspicious. At the point, he should have left it to the police to handle the situation. Instead, he ignored the dispatcher and followed Martin in order to enact vigilante justice.
Self-appointed black friend Joe Oliver has said that Zimmerman is not racist and this has nothing to do with race, but that is hard to reconcile with the fact that he followed, possibly confronted, and shot an unarmed black teenager in the chest because, at least in part, Zimmerman didn’t believe Martin belonged where he was. Zimmerman himself may not be a racist (who among us can know his heart?), but from what we know it isn’t difficult to conclude that racial prejudices regarding black men had something to do with his actions on that night.
The fact is, though, Zimmerman did kill Trayvon Martin, and at that moment this became a matter for the Sanford police department to investigate to the best of their abilities and resources, a task they failed at every turn. Not only did they treat Martin as the perpetrator, testing his body for drugs and alcohol and neglecting to do the same for the shooter, they didn’t bother to notify his family they had his dead body in custody. They held his cell phone and called not one person in his address book, including the girlfriend that has come forward to say she was on the phone with Martin at the moment the confrontation between the two began. Witness testimonies were ignored, forensic evidence was not collected or examined, and onlookers were left to wonder what it would take for the death of a black child to be taken seriously in Sanford.
Widespread cries for justice created a media firestorm, which put Martin’s character on trial. Pictures of him wearing gold teeth or posing with an elevated middle finger circulated, along with information of a school suspension for marijuana, in an effort to tarnish his image and turn the behavior of a normal teenager into that of an unscrupulous thug. Zimmerman’s surrogates went on television to spin a narrative of the night in question, one not supported by any evidence, that turned Martin into a cartoon villain. In an instance where we knew the time, location, and name of the shooter, the burden of proof shifted to a dead 17-year-old to show that he was a worthwhile victim.
Now, after a month and a half of spectacle and speculation, Martin’s parents Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton may find a moment to breathe easy, as his killer will face the justice system. However small, this is a victory. But it’s one that brings a cornucopia of new and old challenges to the surface.
Those new to the cause of defending black life will soon have to face the bleak truth black people have lived with for so long: we don’t often win. The justice system has never been kind when it comes to its dealings with black men. Emmett Till’s killers both died of cancer—as free men, never having spent a day in prison. The police officer caught on cell phone camera killing Oscar Grant served all of eleven months. It took more than five years for the cop who fired the first of fifty shots at Sean Bell to lose his job. Despite evidence of his innocence, Troy Davis was executed. And those are just the names we know.
There is a particularly intractable opponent in Trayvon’s case. Before this case is tried before a jury, a judge could determine that Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, with its particularly radical definition of self-defense, applies here and Zimmerman could walk free. In fact, it’s the “Stand Your Ground” law, coupled with the nonchalant attitude of the Sanford police, that prevented Zimmerman’s arrest in the first place. A provision of the law informs that the law enforcement “agency may not arrest the person for using force unless it determines that there is probable cause that the force that was used was unlawful.”
In Florida, “Stand Your Ground” law allows for the use of lethal force in the event one “reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another.” With such loose guidelines and only Zimmerman’s account of what happened in the moments before Martin was killed, it is still possible that a judge could rule this was self-defense. The Justice Department has also launched an investigation to examine whether there are any civil rights violations worth prosecuting in Martin’s death, but threshold for proof of a federal hate crime is much, much stricter than “Stand Your Ground.” This could all end without jail time for Zimmerman. Those committed in justice for Martin have to figure out what that looks like and remain involved to see it through.
It took forty-five days, a social media campaign, dozens of op-eds, nonstop cable news coverage, more than 2 million online petition signatures, marches in cities from coast to coast, a photo of solidarity from the Miami Heat, a Congressman being kicked off the house floor, millions of people in hoodies, and public agony of a grieving mother and father for the city of Sanford to treat Trayvon Martin like a human being. And this is supposedly what “progress” on racial justice looks like. This is a reminder that black life still is not treated with equal worth. It’s a reminder that the arc of the moral universe has only begun to bend.