An unarmed 17-year-old boy was shot and killed last month by a Neighborhood Watch leader. What happened? The kid was walking home after buying some Skittles at a convenience store for his little brother. George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man who headed the local Neighborhood Watch, saw the kid and thought he looked “suspicious.” Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person. The 911 dispatcher told Zimmerman not to follow the kid. Zimmerman did anyway, getting in his SUV and trailing the teenager. Some sort of confrontation ensued, and Zimmerman shot the kid to death. Zimmerman has not been charged with any crime.
Apparently Zimmerman’s tactics were of concern to neighbors even before this incident. He’s been arrested before on charges of resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer. But he has not been arrested for shooting a 17-year-old kid.
Oh, and guess the races of the parties. Just take a shot in the dark.
The big problem here — aside from the racist killing of an unarmed minor — is Florida’s self-defense statute, which says that a person is justified in using deadly force if he “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
A “reasonableness” standard is important in evaluating a self-defense argument. The key, though, is reasonable to whom? In many jurisdictions, deadly force is only justified if a reasonable person in the same circumstances would believe it was necessary to prevent death or great bodily harm. What’s interesting — and troubling — about the Florida statute is that it doesn’t include any duty to retreat (instead allowing force to be met with force), and it doesn’t require that a “reasonable person” would find the circumstances potentially life-threatening. It requires that the individual who used deadly forced “reasonably believed” that the use of force was necessary. It’s a small distinction, but an important one (and it’s Bernie Goetz all over again). A “reasonable person” would not think that a young black man walking down the street was a threat to his life. But an individual with a particular set of experiences and views might be able to convince a jury that he reasonably believed that. In a racist society, you can find a racist person who “reasonably believes” that the existence of a black kid is dangerous, and that a confrontation with a black kid — even if the white adult started it — is life-threatening.
As the law professors say:
But what is reasonable? Ekow Yankah, an associate professor of criminal law at Cardozo School of Law in New York, says that to some people, it is reasonable to be suspicious of a young black man walking alone in the dark.
“We have to decide what counts as ‘reasonable’ to be afraid of, and nobody should pretend that that isn’t socially and culturally loaded,” says Yankah.
Gregory O’Meara, an associate professor of law at Marquette University School of Law, agrees.
“These ‘stand your ground’ laws license pistol-packing urban cowboys and paranoid people,” says O’Meara, who fought the passage of a similar law in Wisconsin. “We’ve all been trained to be afraid of black men, and if you’re afraid enough that justifies everything.”
And since there’s no duty to retreat, the fact that Zimmerman left his own home and pursued 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in his SUV doesn’t matter. This isn’t a case where two people are sharing public space and one accosts the other; this certainly isn’t a case where someone breaks into another’s home or robs a convenience store and is shot to death by the homeowner or clerk. This is a kid walking down the street who, because he’s black, looks “suspicious” to a white neighbor who then calls law enforcement, is dissatisfied by their lack of response (apparently “there’s a black kid walking down the street” doesn’t always get a squad car immediately dispatched to your neighborhood), gets a gun, leaves his own home, gets in his car, follows the kid, engages in some sort of altercation and then shoots the kid dead. Under “stand your ground” laws, that very well could qualify as “self-defense.” even when the person “defending” himself clearly went on offense.
This is about racism. It’s also about the genius on the right of passing all kinds of backwards laws that are inevitably used in the service of powerful people against the less powerful:
According to the National Rifle Association – which has lobbied for and in some cases assisted in writing laws expanding self-defense statutes – since 2006, at least 29 states have passed amended self-defense laws that the gun rights advocacy group supports, including four last year. Although each state’s statute is slightly different, generally, this new crop of laws allows citizens to use deadly force on someone they reasonably believe is a threat to their life. Instead of having a so-called “duty to retreat” from perceived danger, a citizen can “stand their ground” and meet force with force. Some laws also create immunity from civil lawsuits for those found to have reasonably used deadly force.