It seems the grieving family of Trayvon Martin, the slain 17-year-old whose killer has thus far gone free due to a claim of self-defense, may get some justice. The US Department of Justice announced today that it will investigate the killing and the local police’s bumbling investigation into the crime.
But we still need to talk about the conditions under which this crime took place. Martin was killed by a neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman, even though the 911 operator Zimmerman had called to report Martin’s “suspiciousness” told him not to pursue. The law that may have emboldened Zimmerman, and that has most definitely shielded him from proper prosecution, is referred to as Florida’s “stand your ground” law. Passed in 2005, it kicked off a wave of similar legislation across the country that expanded the rights of civilians who use lethal force in self-defense, undoing the former requirement that they retreat from confrontation when possible. And as Liliana Segura reported in 2008, “The new laws are particularly expansive in that they go beyond the boundaries of private homes to include cars, workplaces or anywhere else a person may feel threatened.” Months after Florida passed its bill, similar legislation was proposed in more than twenty states.
At the time, a critic warned the law could “turn Florida into the OK Corral,” Segura reported. And that warning has played out. Martin was not the first victim of cowboy-esque figures taking the law into their own hands. Segura reported the case of 61-year-old Texan Joe Horn, who saw a pair of black men on a neighbor’s property and, out of frustration that law enforcement wouldn’t arrive in time, went outside and shot them both, once again against the desires of the 911 operator. As he said in the call transcript, “I ain’t letting them get away with this shit.”
Echoes of that sentiment can be heard in the 911 transcript of Zimmerman’s call. Before getting out of his car and taking matters into his own hands, he says, “They always get away.”
“Stand your ground” laws, and the sentiments expressed by these two men who made use of them, stem from a deep distrust in the police force. Neither man thought the police could adequately handle the situations they witnessed. Both decided they, individual actors, could better take care of matters. And this distrust is a symptom of the deep suspicion of government that runs through our society. It’s part of the notion that citizens can get things done better than our governmental entities can. But as the killing of Trayvon Martin shows so clearly and horrifically, that’s just not the case.