In the New York Times today, Charles Blow has the heart wrenching story of how an unarmed 17-year-old African American walking in a gated community in Florida was killed by George Zimmerman, the leader of the local neighborhood watch. Zimmerman called 911 claiming that Martin looked “suspicious.” The 911 operator told Zimmerman that police were on the way and to not confront Martin. Zimmerman ignored that advice, confronted Martin, and ended up shooting him with a 9mm handgun. The shooting occurred on February 27, yet local police have still failed to charge Zimmerman with a crime.
As Mr. Blow explains in his column, the Trayvon Martin story is another example of the burden of suspicion and guilt that our society continues to impose on young black men:
This case has reignited a furor about vigilante justice, racial-profiling and equitable treatment under the law, and it has stirred the pot of racial strife.
As the father of two black teenage boys, this case hits close to home. This is the fear that seizes me whenever my boys are out in the world: that a man with a gun and an itchy finger will find them “suspicious.” That passions may run hot and blood run cold. That it might all end with a hole in their chest and hole in my heart. That the law might prove insufficient to salve my loss.
That is the burden of black boys in America and the people that love them: running the risk of being descended upon in the dark and caught in the cross-hairs of someone who crosses the line.
The burden of suspicion that Mr. Blow describes usually does not lead to a killing. But it is a large part of the explanation of why, for example, so many young black men are in prison on drug charges. Even though white and black people use drugs at essentially the same rates, black men are far more likely to be in prison or otherwise subject to the criminal justice system on drug charges. And one primary reason for that disparity is that police target young black men for searches and arrests, while largely turning a blind eye to drug use among whites. Mr. Martin’s death is a shockingly extreme example of the type of suspicion that far too many African Americans face almost every day.
The killing also demonstrates the folly of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, which overturns the common law “duty to retreat” from dangerous situations outside of one’s home whenever it was feasible to do so safely. Under these laws, which have been passed in at least 14 states over the past decade or so, individuals can use deadly force to defend oneself whenever they “reasonably believe” that they are under threat of death or great harm, even if they could have reasonably retreated or avoided the threat.
Such laws are allowing a disturbing level of violence and vigilantism occur. For example, last year a road rage incident led to a verbal and physical altercation in which one angry driver ended up getting an ice pick out of his car and killing the other driver with a blow to the head. Charges against the killer were dismissed on the basis that he was within his self-defense rights under the Stand Your Ground law.
Police organizations and prosecutors have opposed these Stand Your Ground laws because they could give cover to criminals, such as for crimes committed during gang shootouts, and are making it more difficult to prosecute some killers. Unfortunately, the National Rifle Association and other right wing groups support these laws and have had a fair amount of success in getting them passed. The killing of Trayvon Martin is yet another example of the terrible impacts of that success.