The Missing Discussion About Trayvon Martin’s Death
On April 2, 2012, 12:35 PM by Alexander Baldwin
For the past 3 weeks, the American media has saturated the airwaves combing through every aspect of the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman. The context of the situation is generally agreed upon: on February 28, Martin was walking back to his soon to be stepmom’s townhouse in the Twin Lakes gated community of Sanford, Florida after having purchased snacks at a nearby 7-Eleven. Zimmerman, acting as the neighborhood watch coordinator for Twin Lakes, approached Martin. This encounter escalated into a physical confrontation, and Martin was shot.
National dialogue and coverage since the shooting has focused primarily on three components of Martin’s death. First, motive and the backdrop of racial profiling: Zimmerman is of mixed heritage (Hispanic and white) while Martin was an African-American. Though no racial motivation has been definitively linked to Zimmerman’s actions, the shooting of an unarmed teenager with no criminal background inherently raises the question of why Zimmerman chose to follow and confront Martin. Second, Florida’s controversial self-defense laws and the investigation into the shooting: in 2005, Florida amended their self-defense laws to include a “stand your ground” provision, which provides significant latitude for individuals to use deadly force to prevent bodily harm. This provision would be referenced by Sanford police to justify the paucity of investigation after Martin’s death.
Lastly, the character of George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin themselves. Depending on the source, Zimmerman is a reckless vigilante with a history of violence and instability, or an over-eager do-gooder who simply defended himself in a violent situation. Correspondingly, Martin is portrayed as something between an innocent boy incapable of threatening a 28 year old former security guard, or a troubled teenager with a checkered past whose demeanor and clothing made him a perceived, albeit uncertain, threat.
But in the midst of the over-whelming coverage about the issues above, one significant element has been entirely overlooked: why was a man patrolling a gated community with a gun in the first place? The received wisdom is that a string of burglaries and thefts in Twin Lakes led to the formulation of a neighborhood watch by the homeowners association. When no one volunteered for the position but Zimmerman, he was given the informal position of neighborhood watch coordinator and began to patrol the community with an armed gun from his car. No background check was conducted on Zimmerman nor was he provided with any relevant training.
With several domestic abuse incidents and a 2005 arrest for assaulting a police officer, Zimmerman has a history indicative of an unstable person. Previous coworkers have come forward to describe him as reckless and aggressive with a ‘Jekyll And Hyde’ personality, while numerous residents of Twin Lakes have presented their own stories of intrusive encounters with Zimmerman. All signs point to a man without the training nor the mental facility to act as a de facto law enforcement agent, let alone carry a firearm while doing so.
At the heart of the matter though, Zimmerman’s character is immaterial. The real issue is the institutional framework (or lack there of) that allowed a person to carry a gun and act as a localized arbiter of justice with seeming impunity. The relentless roll back of state-level gun control laws seems impervious to the almost-routine abomination of killings and larger spectacles such as the Fast and Furious ATF scandal. The normalization of violent tragedies combines with a collective unwillingness to interrogate our role as the world’s gun runner – and the legislative framework that facilitates such a role – to legitimize the shoot first, ask later mentality. Indeed, we find ourselves existing within systems that enable a Zimmerman rather than protect a Martin.
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