Zimmerman is a neighbourhood watch “captain” in a gated community. Martin was a 17 year old African American wearing a hoodie and visiting relatives. Zimmerman thought maybe Trayvon Martin was a prowler. So he called 911 (the American 999) and followed Martin, talking to the 911 operative as he did so. On the tape of the call, Zimmerman says to the 911 dispatcher, “He looks […pause…] black.”
Media attention has focused on whether it was a racist killing, and on whether Zimmerman was a racist. Of course it was a racist killing. And maybe the killer was a racist. But that’s not the point.
Media coverage has also focused on Florida’s recent “stand your ground” law. This law, recently passed in many other American states, is a breakthrough in global law.
Most legal systems have long allowed a claim of self-defence against attack. But under the stand your ground law you don’t have to be defending yourself. You just have to feel afraid, rightly or not.
But the real issue is what the cops in Sanford did. They did not create a crime scene or do any forensics – there was no CSI here. Martin’s mobile phone was lying beside the body. The police took it, but did not call any of the numbers in his phone. They did not try to find out who he was. They took him to the morgue and held him there as an unknown “John Doe” for three days. There is only one reason they could have done that – to give Zimmerman time.
For what? They let Zimmerman take home the clothes he had been wearing at the time. This was important, because Zimmerman now claims Martin knocked him down. The cops did not take pictures of Zimmerman to show the bruises, nor did they test Zimmerman for drink or drugs. Yet you can listen to the 911 call on the internet and Zimmerman is talking strangely.
Maybe the cops could not know for sure what happened. But they decided, immediately, to make sure there was as little evidence as possible against Zimmerman.
There is debate about whether Zimmerman will ever be convicted. But there is an obvious crime. The conviction would be a slam dunk. The facts of the case are not in dispute. That is the crime of obstruction of justice by the Sanford police.
At first it looked like they were going to get away with it. Then Martin’s mother and father talked to all the media they could, went to every meeting they could, spoke at every rally they could. They insisted the police release the 911 tapes, which they do routinely for homicides. The police resisted for two weeks and finally had to.
A few – three – black reporters covered the story. There were some rallies and demonstrations. Very large numbers of people passed on the reports on Facebook and Twitter. Thirty thousand people demonstrated for justice in the small town of Sanford itself. Over 30 schools in Miami Dade County, Florida, walked out, and there were protests across America.
Thirteen players from the Miami Heat pro basketball team photographed themselves in team hoodies, eyes lowered in respect, hands in pockets, and posted the picture. We are all hoodies, they were saying. And all over the place people were saying we are all Trayvon Martin.
Then the case took off. And what’s interesting is how defensive the right is. There are two million Americans in prison right now – ten times the number 40 years ago. There are 700,000 juveniles in prison. No country on earth, at any point in history, has imprisoned such a large proportion of its population on criminal charges.
The fury over Trayvon Martin is because it has happened so many times before. And it looked like this would play out like it always does. The spokesman for President Obama, for instance, told reporters the president could not intervene in a Florida legal case.
But the police chief in Sanford was removed. Then Obama reversed himself. On television, he said that if he had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin. Why? Obama is running again for president now. His pollsters must have told him that would be popular.
And that’s the really important thing. American people are shifting. There are signs of this all over the place. The right wing talk show hosts are on the defensive over contraception. Large majorities of Americans are against the war in Afghanistan. Fifty nine percent of Americans think that what the government should do about the price of petrol is to build more wind and solar power.
The Martin case may be the tipping point for forcing back stand your ground laws. It may never lead to justice. The police may get away with it. But every racist with a gun in his hand feels less confident now than he did last month.
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