Trayvon Martin was a teenager who was shot to death in Sanford, Florida, on February 26, 2012 in the course of a fight with a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, who claimed that the shooting was in self-defense. Zimmerman now stands charged with second-degree murder.
Many details of the case are to date very unclear; however, several aspects, including the fact that the local police department did not arrest Zimmerman, the controversial state law under which he claimed self-defense, and the racial identities of shooter and deceased, turned the case into a national media circus.
On February 26, 2012, Zimmerman was on duty as neighborhood watchman at the gated community where he lived. Due to a crime wave in the community that had resulted in the police being called there over 400 times in the space of three months, the neighborhood association had set up a neighborhood watch, but Zimmerman had been the only person in the community interested in heading it up — in fact, it appears that he was one of those busybody cranks with dreams of a career in law enforcement who call the police whenever they see a pothole.
Martin had come to the community with his father to visit his father's fiancee, who also lived there, and had gone on a trip to the convenience store. On his way home with Skittles and iced tea, he was spotted by Zimmerman, who noted that he was dressed similarly to other miscreants who had been causing trouble in the neighborhood, and consequently thought he looked suspicious and called the police to report him.
The emergency dispatcher told Zimmerman not to approach Martin and that a police officer would be on the way soon. However, Zimmerman was armed, having purchased a gun at the advice of an animal control officer after a local pit-bull had cornered his wife, and apparently decided to settle the matter himself.
What happened after that has not been precisely determined, but Zimmerman and Martin got into a fight, Zimmerman received a fractured nose and some flesh wounds, and Martin was shot dead by Zimmerman.
Although the detective who first investigated the shooting did not believe Zimmerman's claim of self-defense and asked that he be charged with manslaughter, the Florida attorney's office did not believe there was enough evidence to do so. However, after the state's appointment of a special prosecutor and the opening of a federal investigation, Zimmerman was arrested on April 11.
 "Stand your ground" law
In many states, Zimmerman would not have been able to claim self-defense, since at common law, for the use of deadly force in self-defense to be justified a person is required to attempt to retreat before using it. This is not the case in Florida, which has a "stand your ground" law enacted with the help of the NRA. This law expands the reach of the Castle Doctrine beyond one's castle and removes the requirement to retreat. The controversy over Martin's death re-ignited old questions about these laws, renewed calls for their repeal, and caused the state of Florida to assemble a citizens' task force to review the law.
Martin was African-American, which re-ignited some very unpleasant questions about the lackadaisical attitude of law enforcement in the U.S. South toward crimes against black people, specifically lynching. From that point on, the entire affair was shoehorned into established templates used for discussing racist crimes.
 Zimmerman's ancestry
To use some of these templates, it was not enough that Zimmerman be a trigger-happy vigilante crank. It was not even enough if, as Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post put it, Zimmerman made "a hair-trigger assumption" that "'black male' equals 'up to no good'." No, it was also necessary that Zimmerman be white, firstly to play to stereotypes of racists as cross-burning terrorists in white hoods, secondly on account of the idea that to be "racist" requires a quantum of collective power that only white people possess.
Unfortunately, there was one tiny problem with that: Zimmerman's parents' marriage was illegal under the then-unenforceable Racial Integrity Act of 1924 in their native Virginia, on account of his mother being a Peruvian of African descent,, and Zimmerman consequently identified as Hispanic. In popular discourse, Hispanic people are usually placed under the heading of "persons of color" and not regarded as "white;" however, with respect to this case, many people suddenly made the astounding discovery that "Hispanic" is an ethnic or cultural classifier rather than a racial one, and that the U.S. Census Bureau has a handy category called "White Hispanic," in which they promptly placed Zimmerman. This happened enough in connection with the Martin case that it rated a mention from another Washington Post columnist, Ruben Navarrette. Some others chose to ignore the facts altogether and continue to describe Zimmerman as "white" without qualifiers.
The controversy over Zimmerman's ancestry is a great example of how America's "traditional" ideas of race have broken down. For centuries, Americans were either white or black, especially east of the Mississippi River, where Hispanics and Asians were never prevalent in large numbers until fairly recently. Anachronisms like the "one-drop rule" emerged from this. Ethnic hate crimes always had whites on one side and non-whites (which, depending on the era, may have included Irish, Italians, Poles, etc.) on the other. However, with the growth of America's Hispanic, Asian and mixed-race communities since the civil rights movement, what was once "common sense" regarding race relations no longer works. Unfortunately, there is still a tendency among white Americans, on both sides of the political spectrum, to see race relations in "black and white" (so to speak), viewing non-whites as a monolithic group and ignoring the possibility that different non-white groups may have as much tension with each other as they do with whites (and vice versa). The question of privilege is also important here; a very good case can be made that focusing on Zimmerman's ancestry is largely irrelevant in light of the wider cultural perception of African-American males and how it colors people's day-to-day interactions across racial boundaries.
 Gated community
The term "gated community" has also been used quite a bit in relation to Zimmerman's neighborhood. For many people, this calls up the image of a fortified sundown town containing only rich, paranoid white people. However, due partially to the housing crash, which was particularly severe in that part of Florida, this particular gated community had turned into a poorer, "majority-minority" area.
 Sanford, Florida
Sanford, Florida, the town where the shooting occurred, has a history of poor race relations and poor policing. The KKK was particularly active in the area in that organization's heyday, and the town's police department has several times been accused of letting white perpetrators of crimes against blacks off too easy. Ironically, about a month before the shooting, Zimmerman had spoken at City Hall as part of a movement to protest the police's handling of one of these cases.
 Today Show controversy
NBC played a portion of the call between Zimmerman and the Sanford police on The Today Show, clipped in such a way as to make it sound like smoking-gun proof that Zimmerman had targeted Martin for being black, when actually Zimmerman only made reference to Martin's race when prompted to do so. NBC caught a certain amount of guff for this, and launched an internal investigation of the matter.
Martin was clad in a hooded sweatshirt, or "hoodie," at the time of his death. Geraldo Rivera of Fox News made some remarks about how black and Hispanic youths ought not to wear hoodies and other "gangsta" apparel lest they be perceived as dangerous. His remarks were roundly condemned as victim blaming, forcing the commentator to issue a non-apology apology. Martin's hoodie was turned into a symbol of solidarity, with movements linked to Occupy Wall Street carrying out "Million-Hoodie Marches." U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush of Illinois even put one on to give a speech in the House of Representatives about Martin's killing, but was expelled for violating a rule against wearing hats.
 Trayvon Martin Day
In May of 2012, an elementary school in Washington, D.C. hosted an event called "Trayvon Martin Day" as part of an anti-bullying campaign, during which parents were given iced tea and students were given Skittles.
This, and similar events, prompted complaints that Zimmerman was being convicted in the court of public opinion well before all the facts were known. Ironically, when lynching was prevalent, one of the chief talking points used against it was that it embodied just that sort of knee-jerk presumption of guilt.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 1.2 http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/03/17/v-fullstory/2700249/shooter-of-trayvon-martin-a-habitual.html
- ↑ http://miami.cbslocal.com/2012/03/11/114706/
- ↑ http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/25/us-usa-florida-shooting-zimmerman-idUSBRE83O18H20120425
- ↑ http://www.nydailynews.com/news/national/homicide-detective-chris-serino-wanted-george-zimmerman-slapped-manslaughter-charges-shooting-death-trayvon-martin-article-1.1051848
- ↑ http://news.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/11/prosecutor-to-announce-decision-on-zimmerman/
- ↑ http://www.prwatch.org/node/11366
- ↑ Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "Use of Deadly Force for Lawful Self Defense."
- ↑ http://articles.cnn.com/2012-04-19/justice/justice_florida-stand-your-ground_1_task-force-ground-law-deadly-force?_s=PM:JUSTICE
- ↑ http://truth-out.org/opinion/item/8049-to-be-black-in-america
- ↑ http://www.antiracistworkshop.org/define/def.html
- ↑ It should be noted that both of these ideas have come under heavy questioning by commentators on the Martin case.
- ↑ http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/25/us-usa-florida-shooting-zimmerman-idUSBRE83O18H20120425
- ↑ http://www.cnn.com/2012/03/29/opinion/navarrette-white-hispanic/index.html?hpt=po_r1
- ↑ http://thinkprogress.org/justice/2012/03/18/446768/what-everyone-should-know-about-trayvon-martin-1995-2012
- ↑ http://www.palmbeachpost.com/money/real-estate/south-florida-home-prices-worst-since-crash-1509827.html
- ↑ http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/04/08/us-usa-florida-sanford-idUSBRE83706920120408
- ↑ http://www.miamiherald.com/2012/05/22/2813681/zimmerman-rode-with-cops-ripped.html
- ↑ http://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Justice/2012/0404/George-Zimmerman-911-call-what-the-fallout-is-from-botched-editing
- ↑ http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0312/74529.html
- ↑ http://www.npr.org/2012/03/24/149245834/tragedy-gives-the-hoodie-a-whole-new-meaning
- ↑ http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2012/03/28/453744/bobby-rush-hood
- ↑ http://www.wjla.com/articles/2012/05/trayvon-martin-day-declared-at-d-c-elementary-school-76327.html
- ↑ http://www.wjla.com/articles/2012/05/trayvon-martin-day-at-d-c-school-76338.html