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March 20, 2012 11:21 AM Trayvon Martin Case: Roost, Meet Chicken

By Ed Kilgore

I hadn’t paid much attention to the Trayvon Martin case until yesterday, but I can now understand why it is generating so much outrage. For all that it resembles a hundred old-school “police brutality” cases where a young black male met a bad end in a murky encounters with white men in authority, it’s actually something different: a lesson in what might happen when a society decides to deliberately supplement its police forces by heavily arming citizens and hoping they act responsibly.

Sometimes they don’t, and sometimes, moreover, if you pass laws designed to give people the benefit of doubt when they are defending themselves you can give vigilantes a license to hunt and kill. The more we learn about the Martin case, the more it looks like that is exactly what happened, with the injustice compounded by the tendency of the actual authorities in Florida to take the side of a gun-toting neighorhood ethnic cleanser with an attitude and an arrest record against un unarmed black teenager brandishing a bag of Skittles and just trying to get out of harm’s way.

It says a lot about the resonance of this case that a relatively conservative African-American writer like John McWhorter would say the following about the refusal (so far) of the authorities to do anything about the shooter, George Zimmerman:

Unless the public has been grievously misled about what happened to Trayvon Martin, it would be nothing less than sinful for Zimmerman to go unpunished. So much so that for the first time in my life, a part of me would almost understand those who might be moved to wreak civil unrest in response.

The subtext of McWhorter’s unease is that it’s hard enough for African-Americans to constantly monitor their every move in the presence of police officers who may or may not regard them as automatic suspects; it’s another thing altogether when anyone you encounter might be an armed vigilante who enjoys the presumption of innocence in lethal “misunderstandings.”

Federal and state authorities are now investigating the case and its handling by local police in Sanford, Florida. Ta-Nahisi Coates, who did a lot to draw attention to the case, is optimistic about the outcome now that it’s not all being swept into the files:

What now have is, hopefully, an end to Keystone justice and, at the very least, a statement that the authorities will regard the killing of a child with something more than the lax scrutiny generally reserved for a broken tail-light.

Even if justice is served in this particular case, however, it’s still time to examine the laws and the attitudes that made this tragedy much more likely: the national crusade to shift the responsibility of protecting Americans aginst violent from the police to citizens themselves via concealed-carry and right-of-self-defense laws that also happen to arm and protect people like Trayvon Martin’s killer.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • SecularAnimist on March 20, 2012 11:29 AM:

    When Tea Party people came to DC for a rally a while back, they wore T-shirts with an image of a rifle scope's crosshairs and the message:

    "Let's play cowboys and liberals. Guess who has the guns."

    Make no mistake -- George Zimmerman is what every Tea Partier really wants to be.

  • This Guy on March 20, 2012 11:35 AM:

    Its going to be a brutally long hot summer.

  • Tom W on March 20, 2012 11:37 AM:

    Sadly, this case is just the tip of the iceberg.

    http://www.tampabay.com/opinion/editorials/article1220845.ece

    "Since the law went into effect, reports of justifiable homicides have tripled, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. It has been used to absolve violence resulting from road rage, barroom arguments and even a gang gunfight. In 2008, two gangs in Tallahassee got into a shootout where a 15-year-old boy was killed. The charges were dismissed by a judge citing the "stand your ground" law."

  • dalloway on March 20, 2012 11:38 AM:

    I feel threatened by all the white Republicans out there who hate liberals. Does that mean I can go to Florida and shoot a few?

  • toowearyforoutrage on March 20, 2012 11:40 AM:

    gun-toting neighorhood ethnic cleanser with an attitude and an arrest record

    What part of the coverage have I missed?
    Ethnic cleanser. Is there evidence of his wish to kill all black people? Let us not belittle those words lest we desensitize ourselves to true mass murderers. Yes?

    Arrest record? Do we not wonder whether the police force in question trumped up charges against a Latino man and later dropped them when he demonstrated fealty to the concept of law and order however over-zealously?

    We're liberals here, people. Open minds, please. I suspect more info will be very helpful and it WILL come.

    That said, henceforth, any gun Zimmerman is licensed to carry concealed should be labeled "Nerf". Following his quarry close enough to allow hand-to-hand combat to ensue reeks of Charles Bronson fantasies.

  • Bob M on March 20, 2012 11:52 AM:

    Shooting the Other is American as apple pie. You may be too young to remember this:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yoshihiro_Hattori

  • K in VA on March 20, 2012 11:54 AM:

    This is a terrible, terrible tragedy. I wish it would result in a careful and thoughtful assessment of everything that wrong with matters of race and crime in this country.

    What I fear, though, is that it will simple remind a lot of hatemongers that we have a non-white man in the White House.

  • stormskies on March 20, 2012 11:57 AM:

    What part of the coverage have I missed?
    Ethnic cleanser. Is there evidence of his wish to kill all black people?

    ************

    According the this man's neighbors they have all said that he had a 'thing' for young black males .. a special hatred and focus .....

  • Danp on March 20, 2012 12:07 PM:

    John McWhorter is a conservative? I've only known him as a brilliant linguist.

  • Eric k on March 20, 2012 12:08 PM:

    Ethinic cleanser may be too strong a word, but on the 911 tapes he says "those people always get away...f'ing coon".

  • Eric on March 20, 2012 12:12 PM:

    Dan,

    He is the go to "reasonable black conservative" that gets trotted out whenever there is a racially charged incident and the right wants to basically say "nothing to see here".

    It tells you how bad this case is that he might end up going Reverend Al on it

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 20, 2012 12:12 PM:

    Police say they have not charged Zimmerman, 28, because they have no evidence to refute his story.

    Odd. I'm pretty sure that there are plenty of people (poor and darkly hued, of course) who have been arrested, convicted, and executed on less evidence than this case's...

    Not to be advocating running over Zimmerman's civil liberties and such, but why the hell are the police pussy-footing around him? Seriously, any right-thinking police force should be justifiably miffed by some random Yosemite Sam chasing and shooting innocent civilians in the street under the aegis of "community patrol". Just like the 911 responder told Zimmerman: "We don't need YOU to do that."

  • estamm on March 20, 2012 12:19 PM:

    That law in Florida can be easily fixed... just change it so that the free kill only applies if you whack the scary person in your 'castle'... that is, your home.

  • Peter C on March 20, 2012 12:20 PM:

    I'm with you, @K in VA. It is terribly sad. There is a horrible societal cost to a culture of politically-fomented racial acrimony combined with a dangerous casualness to the dispersion of lethal force. Both of these are strategic choices made by the Republicans and their Tea Party who have abandoned civility and promote 'government for us' over 'government for all'.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 20, 2012 12:28 PM:

    And it isn't like I'm against safety and community patrols. Just this past Thursday evening I saw something on the late evening Green Line train in DC Metro that turned me into a giddy, goofy tourist: the Guardian Angels!!! I'd only heard of them in passing and had never actually seen the patrols. I definitely had the four-year-old "Wow!!" look on my face.

    An organized and co-operative community patrol (that isn't armed to the teeth) is commendable and welcomed. But some armed lone ranger roaming about--packing HEAT--and beholden to no authority (or sense decency), trying do a citizen's arrest on every teenager wearing jeans and a hoodie... THAT's scary.

  • Ennis on March 20, 2012 12:29 PM:

    Toowearyforoutrage- “Following his quarry close enough…” Trayvon was a high school kid returning home from the store. He was not someone’s quarry. I can only imagine the fear that he felt when he realized that someone was following him in a car on that dark night.
    According to Zimmerman 911 call, Trayvon looked at Zimmerman, started to approach him, and then Trayvon decided to run from him. Since the killing happen close to where Trayvon was staying, we can assume that Zimmerman follow Trayvon until there was a confrontation.
    I identify with Trayvon since the same thing could have happened to me at any time in 63 years of life.
    Plus, I don’t identify with anyone who totes a gun around, unless they are on active duty in the military, something I know about.
    I’m a liberal, and my mind is fairly opened. But my mind is no so opened that it can encompass a man with a concealed weapon, following a young black male, spewing derogatory assumptions about that young person as he stalks him.
    I recognize that I’m bias, and have placed myself in Tryvon’s shoes. My reading of you is that you are equally biased, and have placed yourself in Zimmerman’s shoes.

  • TCinLA on March 20, 2012 12:43 PM:

    Further proof that Southern "justice" is to actual justice as Southern "intelligence" is to actual intelligence. This gator-bait peckerwood police chief is trying to portray himself as the "victim" in all this. Ah yes, the only racism left in America is the racism of those who say white people are racists.

    This wannabee storm trooper Zimmerman was pretty obviously a "head case" from the git-go. They have him with 60+ 9-1-1 calls since the first of the year. He was told to not do anything and went ahead. There's no "self defense" when the crime scene evidence shows you're the one chasing the one you shot.

    Watch all the gun nuts come out of their holes to defend him.

  • Anonymous on March 20, 2012 12:46 PM:

    Not that I was planning on visiting Florida, but I decided when this law was passed that I definitely would not vacation there while it was in effect. Perhaps a national boycott of FL tourism is in order, much like what happened in Arizona with their "papers please" law.

    What a tragic event. Even more tragic if justice is not served on Zimmerman.

  • boatboy_srq on March 20, 2012 12:53 PM:

    The part that to me is getting far too little attention is this: according to all the PSAs, parenting literature etc., we're supposed to teach our kids - all of them - to be suspicious of strangers and take steps to protect themselves. In this case, we have a teen, minding his own business, followed by a creep with a gun who apparently doesn't identify himself (from the 911 tapes) and doesn't carry a badge. What's he supposed to do? Yet somehow Martin is merely collateral damage to the "2nd Amendment remedies" set.

    As horrible as it is that here we have a community watch person packing heat, behaving like an entitled a#####e and shooting his neighbors' kids, what makes this worse is that the victim is dead because he did what society says he should do to protect himself, and was told that because the assumption is that stalker creeps with guns are out to molest/kidnap/murder our youth.

  • g on March 20, 2012 1:05 PM:

    Among other things, it certainly underlines the importance of appropriate training in law enforcement. A police officer with even the most elementary training would likely not have done what Zimmerman did.

    And that should be a cautionary tale to all those who want to privatize our public services.

  • Diane Rodriguez on March 20, 2012 1:06 PM:

    The situation clearly bears objective scrutiny, even though it seems pretty clear. As troubling is the lack of focus ( a bit on MSNBC by the Brady organization) on the NRA who pour money into fear mongering and the election of candidates for whom anyone not in your family or socio-economic group are the enemy. Couple that fear based biased with a weapon and the chance of avoiding a deadly clusterf..k are negligible. The NRA is the co-conspirator, albeit uncharged, in this situation.

  • g on March 20, 2012 1:09 PM:

    Trayvon was a high school kid returning home from the store. He was not someone’s quarry.

    What does every parent, every schoolteacher tell children to do if they are stalked by a stranger in a car? Run, shout, fight to get away.

    What a nightmare.

  • Anonymous on March 20, 2012 1:13 PM:

    'Police say they have not charged Zimmerman, 28, because they have no evidence to refute his story.'

    HELLO??? Zimmerman was FOLLOWING Trayvon in an SUV. He was on the phone with 911 who told him to STOP FOLLOWING HIM. He continued and then said 'he's RUNNING'. WTF? Wouldn't YOU? He kept it up 'they always get away'...stopped the car, got out...and ZIMMERMAN was attacked. Oh yeah, I think there is probable cause to arrest Zimmerman.

  • Mimikatz on March 20, 2012 1:28 PM:

    The young man was also apparently on his cell phone to a girl friend to whom he related what was happening as the scary white dude followed him in his car and then on foot. She told him to run but he didn't want to, then the guy approached and then the phone cut out. The story is on Daily Kos.

    I'd love to see this loser lunk sent away to a FL prison for awhile.

  • Old Uncle Dave on March 20, 2012 1:52 PM:

    Strange as it might seem, but Zimmerman would be safer in jail than out. Apparently Florida law would allow someone to pick a fight with him, then shoot him if he fights back.

  • marco on March 20, 2012 2:11 PM:

    I agree that something should be done to this nutcase zimmerman. However, let us not forget that he is not a "white" male but a latino. So for all this white vs black controversy let us remember that the two parties involved are both minorities. Racism against latinos occurs on a daily basis as it also does with african americans.

  • jeri on March 20, 2012 2:20 PM:

    No evidence?? Zimmerman's own actions refute his claim. If you fear you are in imminent danger, you don't chase after the perceived threat and whine that the threat is getting away.

  • Just some guy on March 20, 2012 3:14 PM:

    Boycott DisneyWorld, and the rest of the tourist garbage in Florida. If they want to be idiots, I will not take my family there.

  • boatboy_srq on March 20, 2012 3:30 PM:

    @marco:

    So, by extension, we should go easy on raving Teabag wingnut Sen. Rubio, because he's latino, too? Though since he's Cuban, it's unlikely he'd take favorably to being included in that group.

    Bigotry has all sorts of shades and all sorts of variety. One umbrella category doesn't excuse bad behavior toward another.

  • N.Wells on March 20, 2012 3:45 PM:

    "a lesson in what might happen when a society decides to deliberately supplement its police forces by heavily arming citizens and hoping they act responsibly."

    Sounds to me like the law is (unfortunately) working exactly as it was intended to: to permit armed racist white assholes to shoot brown-skinned people without repercussions, for darkly suspicious activities like buying snacks while black or trying to avoid scary white dudes with weapons. This craziness was predicted at the outset when these sorts of laws started to be proposed and passed. I'm outraged by this, and even more pissed off than usual against the civilization-destroying* activities of stupid expletive expletive expletive republicans. (*At least, destructive of the sort of civilization that I'd like to live in.)

  • N.Wells on March 20, 2012 3:48 PM:

    Just saw Marco's comment: thanks for that addition, Marco, so okay, scratch "white" in my comment and just leave "armed racist assholes".

  • Kathryn on March 20, 2012 4:43 PM:

    At the very least, Zimmerman should have been tested for alcohol and drug use initially. From the reports I watched last night, Trayvon Martin had his cell phone (reports he was on the phone at the time of being stalked stated by a commenter and Daily Kos). His body was taken to the morgue and no one attempted to contact his family by using his cell phone which any bozo could have done. It took his parents three days of phone calls and searching to find out what happened to him. The callous behavior of Florida officials from the cops to the morgue is breathtaking. If a 17 year old white boy was shot by a neighborhood watch guy while armed with skittles and an ice tea drink, how much effort would have been taken to locate his family?

  • schtick on March 20, 2012 5:08 PM:

    This country is going down the toilet. Vigilantees packing heat to legally kill people they are afraid of under the "stand your ground" law by "Bush III for president" to the tealiban packing heat in the New Hampshire House of Representatives and dropping a weapon on the floor of a Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting with the excuse he was "loopy" from giving blood. What in hell is going on with these freaking tealiban gun freaks?
    If George Zimmerman were black and the kid was white, Zimmerman would be lucky if he made to the station in one piece, nevermind no charges against him and more than likely no bail if he did make it there.
    The Sanford Police Dept is no different that any other. They lie and cover up for their buddies all the time. They knew about Zimmerman and his wannabe cop attitude fit right in with them. I imagine they were probably waiting for him to pass his GED before they hired him.

  • dalloway on March 20, 2012 5:38 PM:

    The Sanford police (and I use the term loosely) accepted Zimmerman's story at face value. They conducted a cursory investigation in which they pressured witnesses contradicting Zimmerman to change their stories, and apparently no autopsy was done to determine if there were any injuries on the boy's body that might not jibe with Zimmerman's "self-defense" story. They failed to notify the parents, making a later autopsy that much more difficult. In addition to the appalling stupidity of the Florida "stand your ground" law, this case fairly screams police misconduct.

  • jeri on March 20, 2012 7:10 PM:

    I suppose there will be no more murder or assault arrests in FL once word gets around that the phrase "self defense" is an automatic get out of jail free card.

  • Clint on March 21, 2012 5:05 PM:

    I think it is time for a full-on, nationwide boycott of Florida tourism. Hit those gun-totting, right wing zealots in their pocket and see how they like it.

  • Sandy on March 21, 2012 8:54 PM:

    Actually it's a case of racist brutality, police or otherwise; as well as a case of armed citizen vigilantes; as well as a case of what happens when we let the same kind of bigots and bullies make the laws now and expect different results than when they made them 100 and 150 years ago.

    And you just woke up to this case yesterday??? You might ask yourself why, and then it will also become a case of the subtle racism that allows white people to look away because, well... you tell me.