The violent death of teenager Trayvon Martin in Florida shows that it is still life-threatening to be black in America. Instead of the courts, the media and demonstrators are debating the case.
America’s black population demands justice for their “martyr”; in mourning, America’s president perceives the killed boy as the son he never had; America’s gun lobby takes – for the short term – shelter: The violent death of Martin, who was shot to death by a paranoid neighborhood watchman because he went through the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time while wearing a hood, has plunged the country into a race conflict that appeared suppressed and was almost forgotten after Obama’s election.
What especially inflames thousands of demonstrators in memorial services and protest marches from San Francisco to Atlanta and Chicago to Washington is that no action was taken against the alleged vigilante murderer. The gunman lives untouched and in freedom, although he has gone into hiding out of fear. A self-defense law makes it possible in Florida to respond to a perceived threat to life and property with deadly preventative force and to come away without charges.
Gunman Lives Untouched
The case of Trayvon Martin offers at least three lessons: Obama’s “post-racial” presidency was an illusion; it remains life-threatening to be a young black man in America. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association that helped push through the so-called “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida in 2004 is making progress on the way back to the time of rule by force.
It was, thirdly, the power of social media that transformed Trayvon’s death from a local scandal to a national event. Hundreds of thousands of reports on Twitter and Facebook formed a digital ostracism before traditional media took notice of the case for the first time. One may find it encouraging or (like the gunman George Zimmerman) terrifying: Arab dictators as well as North American people who act as policemen on their free time must know that their deeds will become known.
Tender Love of Guns
It was the pressure of the wave of indignation on the Internet that forced Washington to act. The U.S. Justice Department and FBI are investigating the case that takes graying civil rights activists back to their battles in the 1960s. It is pointless to lament the American infatuation with weapons. As long as the majority in the nation and states cherish this tender love of weapons at home, in church and at the university, every critical word is wasted.
At best, one can remember this love when Americans believe their country is the desired model of democracy, inner peace and quality of life for the rest of the world. In just this context, one might also ask how it constitutionally happens that 20 states have followed Florida's example, replacing the once-valid civic duty to avoid conflict with the right to defend one’s own territory beyond one’s own home: “Stand Your Ground.”
Every tourist can fall into the trap of presenting a perceived threat to someone somewhere. Should one advise travelers to Florida to supply themselves with weapons as a precaution? There, nothing is easier.
Zimmerman Was His Own Executioner
The details of the deed are still unresolved. So there are two portrayals of what 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, visiting from Miami in a suburb of Orlando, did on Feb/ 26 and what was done to him. The family and friends of the boy swear he bought tea and candy, nothing more, was followed by Zimmerman, accosted and murdered. Zimmerman’s lawyer alleges that Martin attacked his client, broke his nose with a punch and hit his head on the pavement.
Which portrayal is closer to the truth is not to be decided here. The bizarre and fatal fact remains that Martin is dead and Zimmerman is free. It was done without arrest and without the decision of an examining magistrate, simply because the police believed his self-defense story. Zimmerman was his own judge, jury and executioner. Instead of a court, the media and demonstrators are debating the case.
America’s original sin is slavery, its everyday scourge of violence. A quarter of the convicts of the world sit in the prisons of the country that represents five percent of the world’s population. For every single white or Hispanic prisoner in U.S. prisons, there are six black prisoners; every year, hundreds of black teenagers die from firearms.
“Stand Your Ground” Self-Defense
They are not seldom murdered by other black people, drug dealers and gang members - by gangsters who increasingly invoke the “Stand Your Ground” self-defense in Florida. The number of such cases has tripled: Investigators and lawyers warned of this perverse effect when the NRA whipped up the legislature in Florida.
Here, every rogue and self-proclaimed neighborhood sheriff would have been guaranteed the preventative authority and freedom from punishment that are usually reserved (with good reason) for trained and sworn officials. That it struck Trayvon Martin, a black youth, might indeed be a terrible coincidence. This time.
Yet America’s black population have centuries-old reasons to feel persecuted. In 2005, when Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law went into effect, the U.S. Senate resolved to formally apologize for a failure: The congressional chamber had never succeeded in 200 attempts to adopt an anti-lynching law that would have forbidden vigilantism, particularly against black people. Democrats from the south, “Dixie Democrats,” had always hindered this; still, at the end of the 1960s, it came to lynchings.
Stereotype of the “Criminal Black Man”
In the consciousness of most Americans, the color of crime is still black. Pop culture and sports stars do their part; statistics and projections also serve to feed the stereotype of the “criminal black man,” as U.S. criminologist Katheryn Russell Brown called it.
Black fathers report these days in a touching manner of the warning conversations that they all have with their sons one day: “The Talk” explains to the boys that they are in mortal danger because others consider them dangerous. “Don’t make a false move on the street, don’t run and yell,” they implore their sons. “Address police officers as ‘Sir’ and never object – be quiet and live.” Trayvon Martin was one of these sons. He had no chance.