The Zimmerman verdict could spark a nationwide movement to challenge "self-defense" laws that support racism.
Immediately following George Zimmerman’s acquittal on all charges brought against him for killing Trayvon Martin, mass protest began in the streets and on social media, evoking the great mobilizations for civil rights in American history. While many trials invite public scrutiny and speculation through intense media coverage, few others so clearly illustrate the racial tensions that connect the present with the embarrassing and ugly pieces of America’s past. The Zimmerman trial offers a status update on systemic racism in the United States and calls for attention to and action on Stand Your Ground laws. It also reminds those working for social justice of what litigation can and cannot accomplish, challenges us to consider how public safety measures can serve all Americans, and plainly illuminates the need for greater legal and political empowerment of young men who look like Trayvon Martin.
Stand Your Ground bills have been passed by over 30 states, based on a campaign that began in Florida in 2005 led by the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). (ALEC went on to disavow advocacy for Stand Your Ground in 2012.) These laws provide immunity from criminal and civil proceedings to people who “stand their ground” and use potentially deadly force instead of retreating if they reasonably believe doing so is necessary to “prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” They are alternatively known as “Castle” laws based on Castle doctrine, which traditionally provides for defense in a home and is named based on the saying, “a man’s home is his castle.”
While Stand Your Ground was not invoked by the Zimmerman defense, the case has raised the law’s profile because it is the reason that Zimmerman was not arrested until almost two months after he killed Trayvon Martin. Florida Stand Your Ground law requires police to have specific evidence refuting a self-defense claim in order to arrest someone claiming self-defense as the basis of their violent actions, shifting accountability to law enforcement from people who use force in the name of “self-defense.” There is a growing realization that Stand Your Ground serves to promote anti-black racism — both in who is perceived as threatening and whose claims of feeling threatened are legitimized.
According to a federal lawsuit brought by Markel Hutchins that challenges Georgia’s Stand Your Ground law, some courts have “accepted the race of a victim as evidence to establish the reasonableness of an individual’s fear in cases of justifiable homicide.” The lack of specificity in circumstances justifying the use of deadly force leads to Americans of color being disproportionately targeted by such force. Stand Your Ground is more likely to be applied in cases of white-on-black crime. Hutchins also claims that the law does not equally protect him and other black Americans acting in self-defense. According to the Tampa Bay Times, people in Florida who kill a black person walk free 73 percent of the time in Stand Your Ground cases, while those who kill a white person go free 59 percent of the time.
Marissa Alexander, an African American woman, was not protected by Florida’s Stand Your Ground law when confronting her ex-husband, who was violating his restraining order and had a documented record of domestic violence. For firing a single warning shot as she “stood her ground,” even though the shot did not injure anyone, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Stand Your Ground thus failed to serve a black woman who was being threatened by a man who was known to have abused her.
The Zimmerman verdict is not only disappointing because it seems wrong that killing Trayvon Martin, who was innocently walking along in his hoodie on the wrong street at the wrong time, should go unpunished. It is also because an institution of justice seems to have affirmed the racism in Zimmerman’s suspicion and pursuit of Trayvon – racism evidenced by Zimmerman’s history of dozens of “emergency calls“ to the police to report suspicious black men, including one incident where the “suspicious black male” in question was between seven and nine years old.
But while offensive to contemporary American morality, racism is not a crime. In fact, racist thought and speech are protected in American courts of law by the First Amendment, an application of Voltaire’s principle of “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Our foundational legal doctrines are ill-suited to today’s tasks of addressing issues of race advantages and disadvantages to achieve an authentically equal and just society. This is one reason that our courts are often not ideal tools for policy change.
The Department of Justice is investigating Trayvon Martin’s killing, and the U.S. Commission of Civil Rights launched an investigation into the racial bias of Stand Your Ground laws in May. While a lawsuit proceeds to challenge Stand Your Ground in Georgia, there is also the possibility that the Martin will family will bring a civil suit to challenge the constitutionality of Stand Your Ground in Florida.
In the meantime, grief, outrage and worry in reactions to the Zimmerman trial could prove effective and meaningful in motivating new race consciousness and appropriate action. Americans can civically engage and establish a productive discourse to scrutinize Stand Your Ground; increase awareness of the law and of related rights, especially in communities of color; and get involved in state legislative processes to demand alternative policies on public safety and permissible use of guns. The creeping proliferation of Stand Your Ground legislation and its flaws, which are only now starting to be recognized, underlines the importance of these steps as well as the need to increase the diversity of Americans who vote and serve the country as attorneys and elected officials.
Naomi Ahsan is a Research and Program Associate at the Center for Community Change and is Director of Programming for the DC chapter of Roosevelt Institute | Pipeline.
Hand with gun image via Shutterstock.com.