Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the law that breaks the law

Unless you’ve been vacationing in the Mariana Trench for the last two weeks, you already know much of the gathering back story, as agonizingly reliable, as ubiquitously recognized everywhere from the floor of that trench to the summit of the highest mountain on this planet: the lives of young black men in America remain at a tragically presumptive risk.

Trayvon Martin of Miami was visiting his father and stepmother in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, their gated subdivision in Sanford, Fla., about 20 miles north of Orlando. He was watching the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 26 with his family — his mother, who brought him, his 13-year-old brother and the others — when little brother asked Trayvon to buy him some Skittles at a nearby convenience store.

What transpired in the following minutes and hours and days — the death of Trayvon at the hands of George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic neighborhood-watch wannabe; the inconsistencies of his story about the incident; the police department’s refusal to make an arrest; the emergence of evidence of Zimmerman’s state of mind vis-à-vis race; the state and federal investigations set to step off this month; the grand jury set to convene next month — has already assumed the status of national tragedy.

The deeper tragedy, of course, is the one just under the surface. We’ve lived this movie before. We’ve seen this kind of law enforced before.

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It might be tempting to look at such cases as the Trayvon Martin tragedy as a case of mistaken identity, a momentary overreaction, if not for the facts — the immediate facts and the ones that more recently emerged.

Martin, 17, was shot to death by Zimmerman, who told police he shot Martin in self-defense, finally confronting the teen after calling 911 and reporting Martin as a "suspicious person." But the fabric of Zimmerman’s defense began to fall apart almost immediately. Cell-phone recordings are a clarifying thing.

In Trayvon’s case, the last conversation he had on his cell phone, with his girlfriend moments before he was slain, are calling into question Zimmerman’s claim that he was menaced by Trayvon, whom Zimmerman outweighed by at least 100 pounds.

In Zimmerman’s case, a snippet of conversation with a 911 dispatcher brings into stark relief the presence of Zimmerman’s racialist state of mind.

The dispatcher asks Zimmerman what entrance of his home the presumed intruder was heading toward. What’s next is audible, indelible.

Zimmerman says, “The back entrance … fucking coons.”

And over the course of the next ninety seconds, other cell-phone calls to 911 would result in multiple audible perspectives, some of them punctuated by the screams of a child, a sound with a weight, a primal power, an emotional valence all its own.

And then, a gunshot.

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George Zimmerman pulled the trigger on Feb. 26, but at the end of the day, he stands in for some in the leadership of the state of Florida. They won’t spend a day in court over it, but the other people who helped kill Trayvon Martin the night of Feb. 26 were the legislators who worked for the passage of Florida Statute 776-012.

An excerpt of that law, enacted Oct. 1, 2005:

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony ...

The St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times reported that, as of October, five years after the law went into effect, the Stand Your Ground defense was implicated in 93 cases that resulted in 65 deaths statewide.

In an e-mail for supporters of ColorofChange, Rashad Robinson wrote that “Florida's notorious ‘Shoot First’ law takes a shooter's self-defense claim at face value — incentivizing law enforcement not to make arrests in shooting deaths that would lead to murder charges in other states.

On Monday, Dan Gross of the Brady Campaign told Ed Schultz on MSNBC: “It’s a bad law, but as bad as it is as a law, it’s just as dangerous as a state of mind, and it’s a state of mind that permits things like this — encourages things like this — to happen. When you combine that state of mind with Florida’s incredibly weak gun laws in general, it’s a recipe for tragedies like this to happen.”

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The Florida Stand Your Ground law, ironically enough, undercuts the authority of law enforcement to do its job. The law has been opposed by the state's law enforcement officials and officers. Which makes sense: it effectively defangs Florida police departments and abrogates unto nervous, fearful, angry citizens the law of the gun. It’s the wild West 3,000 miles east of, and 130 years removed from, the wild West.

The legal language of Florida Statute 776-012 is suitably clinical and homogenizing, but its definition in real terms has been clear enough: It’s a law whose latitude is the absence of latitude. It is the law that breaks The Law, the matrix of social convention and order and empathy that permeates and animates an enlightened society. The Florida law violates the big law, the one that binds us as human beings, free from an existential threat borne of one’s very identity.

“"Laws like that make modern-day vigilantism that can have these kind of tragic consequences," Melissa Harris-Perry said Saturday in MSNBC. "Too many young black men are losing their lives to mistaken identity and overzealous assumptions about their criminal intent."

And it’s not like Florida didn’t have any warning from people in a position to know. Before the law even went into effect, Miami police Chief John Timoney — a former chief at the New York Police Department — told The New York Times that "[w]hether it's trick-or-treaters or kids playing in the yard of someone who doesn't want them there or some drunk guy stumbling into the wrong house, you're encouraging people to possibly use deadly physical force where it shouldn't be used.''

◊ ◊ ◊

Florida has its law, the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI have theirs. As expected, those agencies and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Florida, have opened an investigation into the "facts and circumstances" of Trayvon’s death. Justice, according to a statement released late on Monday, plans to “conduct a thorough and independent review of all evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation…”

“With all federal civil rights crimes, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with the specific intent to do something which the law forbids – the highest level of intent in criminal law.”

The government of the Sunshine State is making its pivot. On Monday, Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey.

“The circumstances surrounding the death of Trayvon Martin have caused significant concerns within the Sanford community and the state,'' Scott wrote. "I understand an investigation was initiated by the Sanford Police Department and referred to the Eighteenth Judicial Circuit State Attorney's Office. I believe it is appropriate that the Florida Department of Law Enforcement provide any assistance necessary to fully investigate this matter.”

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What’s obvious, given the sad calculus of race relations in Florida, is that before long, there’ll be a full court press to go back to business as usual in Florida. The operative business being “business”: Central Florida played host to almost 900 conventions last year, events attended by 1.3 million people and generating about $1.4 billion in economic benefits.

It may not be realistic to expect the business of Florida conventions to pay much attention to what will be, in that relentless world, just another unremarkable death of a young black man, victimized like other young black men, not so much in the prime of life as approaching it.

But maybe one of them will.

It certainly won’t be the convention that kicks off in Tampa in August, the one to formally decide the Republican nomination for the presidency.

Perhaps another convention will.

◊ ◊ ◊

Marc Morial, the CEO of the National Urban League, rightly took point on the Trayvon Martin tragedy. In a Tuesday statement on the organization’s Web site, Morial made it personal: “As the father of a 10-year old African American son, I join all African American parents and Americans of conscience everywhere in calling for an end to the war against young black men and a thorough investigation of the death of Trayvon Martin.”

Morial’s call for justice is admirable. One has to hope he’ll double down on his demand for the right thing to be done by doing another right thing— like moving the 2012 BEEP Leadership Conference planned for June 6 to 9 of this year from its current anticipated location, at the Buena Vista Palace Hotel & Spa in Orlando, Fla., 20 miles from Sanford.

Symbolic? More than that. It’s symbolic where it hurts. To go ahead with the conference in Orlando, or anywhere in the state of Florida, would be to suggest that business as usual is acceptable, that putting convention money into the coffers of the state treasury is more important than making a statement: that until the “war against young black men” Morial aptly describes is addressed and ended in Florida, and elsewhere, there is no business as usual in Florida, or anywhere else in these Untied States.

Image credits: Trayvon Martin: The Martin family. Zimmerman: Orange Country Jail/Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Visit Florida logo: © 2012 Visit Florida. Stand Your Ground national law map: Legal Community Against Violence, via 

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