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Trayvon Martin was a teenager who was shot to death in Sanford, Florida, on Sunday February 26, 2012 (between 7:15 and 7:30 PM local time) in the course of a fight with a neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman, who claimed that the shooting was in self-defense. Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder, tried and found not guilty.
Many details of the case are to date very unclear; however, several aspects, including the fact that the local police department did not initially arrest or charge Zimmerman, the very controversial state law which was claimed to excuse him (though he did not actually invoke it), and the racial identities of shooter and deceased, turned the case into a national media circus. Trayvon Martin as a topic is basically an online racist magnet. It's rumored that if you say 'Trayvon Martin' three times into a mirror, a Donald Trump supporter will show up to defend slavery.
Zimmerman was an elected 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. 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.
On February 26, 2012, Martin had come to the community with his father to visit his father's fiancee, who also lived there. Although of K-12 public school age, Trayvon Martin was under suspension. On his way home from a corner store with a bag of Skittles and a watermelon iced tea, he was spotted by Zimmerman (who was not on duty as neighborhood watchman at the time; he was on his way to the grocery store), 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 advised Zimmerman not to approach Martin and that a police officer would be on the way soon. What happened after that has not been precisely determined, but Zimmerman and Martin got into a fight, Zimmerman received a fractured nose and lacerations on his head from where it was banged into the concrete sidewalk, and Martin was shot 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.
Discussions of the case have been widely infested with PIDOOMA, with both supporters and detractors of Zimmerman simply declaring that they know what "must" have happened, and proceeding to make arguments accordingly.
"Stand your ground" law
Many people have taken this incident as an opportunity to attack Florida's Stand Your Ground law, which is more lenient towards those claiming self-defense than the laws of most other states, reducing (but not, as falsely claimed, eliminating) the duty to retreat. However, Zimmerman did not put forth the Stand Your Ground law in his defense, and the facts of the case are not inconsistent with the application of the general self-defense standards. Despite this, 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.
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, 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. The Sanford police released Zimmerman after 5 hours of questioning, and informed Trayvon Martin's father between 9 and 10 AM on Monday 27 February 2012 after the elder Martin filed a missing person report; no form of identification was found on or near Trayvon Martin on Sunday night, nor could any witness (residents of the gated community living near the shooting) identify the teenager.
To use some of these templates, it was not enough that Zimmerman be a trigger-happy vigilante crank. It was not even enough if 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 (especially if black males are seen as "thugs" or "gangsters"). Yes, it is even possible for black people, especially black people with authority or class privilege, to hold anti-black views of this nature (beyond the self-hate that comes with being oppressed).
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 and Richard Cohen of the Washington Post made some remarks about how black and Hispanic youths ought not to wear hoodies and other "gangsta" apparel lest they be perceived as dangerous. Their remarks were roundly condemned as victim blaming, forcing the commentator and the newspaper respectively to issue non-apologies. 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.
On July 13, 2013, the jury declared George Zimmerman not guilty of all charges pressed at him after a long, tedious trial, mostly decided by the testimony of Vincent Di Maio. According to him, the gunshot wound was in fact consistent with Zimmerman's version of the story. The reaction by legal experts in the rest of the world can be described by a facepalm. However, the media circus lasted for a few more months, before dying down (not completely, however).
As regards poetic justice; in the summer of 2016, Zimmerman was punched in the face at a restaurant as a direct result of bragging about having shot the young Trayvon Martin to death. Stay classy, dude.
- It should be noted that one claim regarding this, that Zimmerman should have obeyed "the police" when he was told not to approach Martin, is false: in the United States, a 911 dispatcher is not an officer of the law and has no authority to give binding orders to civilians.
- It should be noted that both of these ideas have come under heavy questioning by commentators on the Martin case.