I wait for an era when young Black men will no longer have to live in fear. Decades after the abolishment of slavery, we were haunted by the reality of being hunted down, beaten and lynched by both everyday citizens and law enforcement. Young boys like Emmett Till were openly and viciously murdered because of the sentiments of bigoted individuals who believed they had the right to carry out their own brand of injustice.
Today, Black (and Latino) youth are routinely targeted, profiled and ‘mistakenly’ shot by those sworn to serve and protect us (i.e. Sean Bell). And now, in what can only be described as the most blatant form of vigilante murder, a 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin loses his life at the hands of self-proclaimed ‘crime stopper.’ But the only crime here is that this killer has ended poor Trayvon’s life under the guise of his own preconceptions and has not been charged, nor arrested. We will head to Florida to ensure that all that changes immediately.
On Thursday, March 22 at 7 p.m., National Action Network (NAN) and I will convene an urgent rally at the First Shiloh Baptist Church in Sanford, FL. to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. We will be joined by community leaders and concerned citizens from all ethnicities, backgrounds and walks of life that cannot even begin to comprehend this nightmarish situation. A young teenager walking home, armed only with candy and a drink, should never lose his/her life because someone in a gated community feels ‘threatened.’ George Zimmerman, the accused adult shooter, is roaming the earth freely while Trayvon’s mother, father and family members must bury their precious child. It is an atrocious miscarriage of justice, and we demand that authorities in Florida arrest Zimmerman immediately and charge him for the crime of murder. Anyone with sound reasoning cannot disagree.
In 2005, the state of Florida enacted one of the toughest ‘stand your ground’ self-defense laws which allowed civilians to use deadly force against ‘intruders’ or anyone they believed was a ‘threat’ to their life. Supported — and in many ways lobbied — by the National Rifle Association, these laws don’t require a person to retreat from the situation, thereby allowing them to even pursue someone who ‘threatens’ them. The legislation not only protects individuals from prosecution, but goes so far as barring them from civil suits in many cases as well. As the model for dozens of other states that now carry similar laws, the Florida self-defense rule creates an environment where anyone at any moment can claim they were fearful of someone as a justification for cold-blooded murder. And that’s exactly what we see here in the tragic case of Trayvon Martin.
In the recently released 911 tapes of that fateful day, Zimmerman was clearly told to stand down by authorities, but he didn’t comply. Many eyewitnesses said they heard screams of help, but no one came to Trayvon’s assistance in time to save his life. Zimmerman claimed he had spotted a ‘suspicious’ individual, and as several news outlets have reported, he pursued Trayvon, not the other way around.
In a society that still views young men of color as threatening, dangerous and suspicious without cause, these self-defense laws in Florida and elsewhere give free rein for anyone to openly kill those that they may not like or those that make them feel uncomfortable because of their own inherent prejudices. And the race/ethnicity of Zimmerman or any citizen in this type of scenario doesn’t matter, because at the end of the day, it is the race of the victim — Trayvon — that does matter. It is his race and his demographic that is consistently depicted as the threat, and negatively portrayed in popular culture.
A few years ago, a man in Oklahoma City shot and killed a 16-year-old who allegedly tried to rob the drugstore where he worked. This pharmacist attempted to plea self-defense, but because he shot the teenager in the head, chased someone else out and returned to shoot the kid five more times as he lay on the floor, he was sentenced to first-degree murder. Young Trayvon’s only crime was buying a pack of skittles and walking through the wrong neighborhood. He had his entire life ahead of him and we demand justice without delay. Zimmerman must be held accountable. Join us in Sanford on Thursday as we call for a repeal to Florida’s outrageous self-defense laws. It’s about Trayvon’s life, not supposed self-defense.
I’m still waiting for the day that young Black men (and women) can walk freely in any neighborhood without fearing for their lives.