April 3, 2012

Stand your ground ... and shoot

As the investigation of the shooting death of the teenager Trayvon Martin by a self-appointed neighborhood watchman goes forward in Florida, news accounts are reporting a toll of shootings, knifings and other violent homicides in which the state’s dangerous Stand Your Ground law was successfully claimed as a defense.

The killings included domestic disputes, barroom brawls and drug violence, according to The Tampa Bay Times, which surveyed 130 cases in which the 2005 law has been invoked. Seventy percent of the cases involved a fatality; more than half of the cases did not have to go to trial.

So far, that is the laissez-faire situation in the Trayvon Martin slaying. The civilian shooter, George Zimmerman, ignored a 911 dispatcher’s instructions, tracked the teen he found suspicious, unholstered his gun and fired — and then claimed immunity under the law. With the boy dead, Mr. Zimmerman was taken at his word when he claimed that his life was threatened in a confrontation. 

The victim was unarmed, walking back from a store. A videotape of Mr. Zimmerman’s arrival handcuffed at the local police headquarters shows none of the cuts and bruises he claimed resulted from an attack by the teenager. Audio experts have been asked to analyze police tapes of screams from the scene and a possible racial epithet uttered by Mr. Zimmerman about the black teenager. ...

Mr. Zimmerman’s gated community, a 260-unit housing complex, sits in a racially mixed suburb of Orlando, Fla. Mr. Martin’s “suspicious” profile amounted to more than his black skin. He was profiled as young, loitering, non-property-owning and poor. Based on their actions, police officers clearly assumed Mr. Zimmerman was the private property owner and Mr. Martin the dangerous interloper. After all, why did the police treat Mr. Martin like a criminal, instead of Mr. Zimmerman, his assailant? Why was the black corpse tested for drugs and alcohol, but the living perpetrator wasn’t? 

Across the United States, more than 10 million housing units are in gated communities, where access is “secured with walls or fences,” according to 2009 Census Bureau data. Roughly 10 percent of the occupied homes in this country are in gated communities, though that figure is misleadingly low because it doesn’t include temporarily vacant homes or second homes. Between 2001 and 2009, the United States saw a 53 percent growth in occupied housing units nestled in gated communities. 

Another related trend contributed to this shooting: our increasingly privatized criminal justice system. The United States is becoming even more enamored with private ownership and decision making around policing, prisons and probation. Private companies champion private “security” services, alongside the private building and managing of prisons. 

Stand Your Ground” or “Shoot First” laws like Florida’s expand the so-called castle doctrine, which permits the use of deadly force for self-defense in one’s home, as long as the homeowner can prove deadly force was reasonable. Thirty-two states now permit expanded rights to self-defense. 

In essence, laws nationwide sanction reckless vigilantism in the form of self-defense claims. A bunker mentality is codified by law. 

Those reducing this tragedy to racism miss a more accurate and painful picture. Why is a child dead? The rise of “secure,” gated communities, private cops, private roads, private parks, private schools, private playgrounds — private, private, private —exacerbates biased treatment against the young, the colored and the presumably poor. 
George Zimmerman seems to have taken a private vow to protect and defend — but, for some reason, he has not realized his stated desire to become a police officer. (In 2009, though, he was accepted into Seminole County’s Community Law Enforcement Academy, in which students take tours of the courthouse and jail, go on ride-alongs with sheriff’s department employees and visit a firing range.) 

“I don’t think it was safety that he was concerned with as much as people’s rights and people’s welfare,” his father said. “And where he was living has a lot of problems with people coming in and burglarizing. I think he became alarmed, and he helped organize the neighborhood watch.” 

Police records over the last several years suggest a man who was quite familiar with 911 dispatchers; who seemed, somehow, to be always in the middle of things. In October 2003, for example, on perhaps his greatest day in civic vigilance, Mr. Zimmerman chased after and assisted in the capture of a man who had stolen two 13-inch TV/DVD players from an Albertsons. 

Mostly, though, his calls were less exciting, more anticipatory. Dangerous potholes. Stray dogs. Speeding vehicles. Open garage doors. Suspicious characters. On Feb. 2, he reported seeing a black man in a black leather jacket and printed pajamas in the Retreat; nothing came of it. 

This is what George Zimmerman did. ...

“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood,” Mr. Zimmerman said to start the conversation with the dispatcher. “And there’s a real suspicious guy.” 

This guy seemed to be up to no good; like he was on drugs or something; in a gray hoodie. Asked to describe him further, he said, “He looks black.” 

“Now he’s just staring at me,” he said. 

The incomplete knowledge of the next six minutes, from about 7:11 to about 7:17, comes from recorded 911 calls; a few witnesses who often heard more than saw; Mr. Zimmerman’s account, as told to others; the police account, as told to the Martin and Zimmerman families; and a 16-year-old girlfriend in Miami who was on the telephone at the time with Trayvon. 

Mr. Zimmerman told the dispatcher that this “suspicious guy” was in his late teens, with something in his hands. He asked how long it would be before an officer arrived, because “These assholes, they always get away.” 

Mr. Zimmerman’s father said that what largely aroused his son’s suspicion was how this person was walking close to the town houses, and not on the sidewalk or in the street. Perhaps someone up to no good — or, perhaps, someone disoriented in a maze of identical structures, ducking the rain and looking for the house he had left less than an hour before. 

Around the same time, Trayvon told the girlfriend he was talking to by cellphone that somebody was watching him, according to Benjamin Crump, a lawyer for Trayvon’s family. The lawyer said that the girl, whose name has not been released, said she told Trayvon to run — and that Trayvon responded by saying: “I’m going to walk fast.” 

Mr. Zimmerman told the dispatcher that the hooded figure was now running. He jumped out of his car to follow him, the beep-beep of his car, as recorded on the 911 call, announcing the instant that he moved beyond his understood mandate as neighborhood watch coordinator. 

The wind could be heard whooshing through Mr. Zimmerman’s cellphone as he tried to keep the visitor in view. Also heard is a garbled epithet that some have interpreted to be a racial slur, though his father insisted that his son would never say anything like that. Dispatcher: “Are you following him?” 

Mr. Zimmerman: “Yeah.” 

Dispatcher: “O.K., we don’t need you to do that.” 

Mr. Zimmerman: “O.K.” 

He and the dispatcher arranged for Mr. Zimmerman to meet a police officer near the mailboxes at the development’s clubhouse, and the call ended with a “thank you” and a “you’re welcome.” 

Some of what happened next, along a poorly lighted path that runs between the back ends of two long rows of town houses, is lost to the night. 

According to what the girlfriend has told Mr. Crump, Trayvon asked the man why he was following him, and the man responded by asking what Trayvon was doing there. She said she heard what sounded like the earpiece to Trayvon’s cellphone falling away before the line went dead. There was no answer when she tried calling back. ...

Sanford police have said that once Mr. Zimmerman declared that he had shot Trayvon in the chest in self-defense, they were barred from arresting him by the state’s now-famous Stand Your Ground law, the broadest protection of self-defense in the country. It immediately requires law enforcement officials to prove that a suspect did not act in self-defense, and sets the case on a slow track.  ...

For example, the lawyers said that, as of late last week, no investigator had interviewed Trayvon’s girlfriend. ...
Trayvon Martin had it coming, or so we will soon be led to believe. The surely unattractive details of his short life as a black man in America will tumble forward—his troubles in school, the weed baggie that got him suspended, the altercation in which police and George Zimmerman claim he was the aggressor. He was a maladjusted, Negro man-child, so ferocious he could kill an armed man with his bare hands. He had to die. ...

On Monday, local law enforcement offered a preview of this old, familiar narrative when someone leaked Zimmerman’s account of the night to the Orlando Sentinel. According to the Sentinel, Zimmerman had given up his hunt of Martin and was returning to his SUV when the 17-year-old caught him by surprise. Do you have a problem, Martin is said to have asked, before answering for himself, “Well, you do now.” He reportedly began pummelling Zimmerman, leading the armed man to shoot and kill. Sadly, it’s necessary to point out that there isn’t an imaginable scenario in which an armed man can shoot an unarmed child to death and it be okay. But set that obvious fact to the side. Trayvon Martin did in fact have it coming. He was born black and male in the United States and was thus marked for death. ...

Of course, this violent manifestation of white supremacy is not visited upon black male bodies alone. Indeed, as Tea Party candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle reminded us in the past election cycle, we must very much begin to see Latinos in the same way—lurking, dangerous, illegal. Fear and loathe them. If you encounter them on a dark street be ready to go to arms. And so Latino men have a lengthening gruesome roll call, too.

Surely all these people have done something to bring the murder, the poverty, the brutality down upon themselves! That’s America’s unique twist on systemic oppression. We cage people, then call them animals. We starve people, then jibe them for being malnourished. We write laws that allow people to gun down unarmed children and then make the child the aggressor. And so now Trayvon Martin will be all manner of sinner—a pothead, a dropout, a ne’er-do-well with a temper problem who had it coming. But what he will indisputably be is dead, like too many before him and surely many after him. He had it coming, as a black man in America.
The fatal flaw in Florida-style gun laws

The gated community mentality 

In the eye of a firestorm

The Trayvon Martin had it coming narrative

Compare with this incident - After police shooting of Pasadena student 911 caller arrested ... involuntary manslaughter - it's not taxing to join some dots and wonder how this is any different; except that the Martin killing is protected by a law that allows people to shoot, claim they were 'standing their ground', then figure out a story to match.


  1. Anonymous9:04 PM

    What a great place to live if you were an avid paranoid schitzo - with a gun or 27.

    But that's one thing yanks do well: murder each other with guns, over 30,000 every year, or 300,000 every decade.

    You gotta laugh, they spend so much on this terrorism/security bullshit while snuffing each other out like nobodies business.

    Funny old world.


  2. Disgusting.

    Florida and Texas have certain histories. They are not like other places, not even in the US. Attitudes and laws are different. I remember a leading case from Texas (or Florida) where a man who had walked in on his wife in bed with another man pulled out his gun and shot her dead. He was charged with murder. The law provided that he was allowed to kill him but not her.

    He was acquitted. He claimed he was aiming at him but missed. That provided the reasonable doubt.

    True story.

    Mind you had he been convicted there was an excellent chance he would have been executed. In Texas they still had public hangings (legal, not lynchings) well into the twentieth century.

  3. Anonymous11:19 PM

    I'm glad we don't have guns in Tassie, we'd probably all shot ourselves by accident.

    Your story Geoff, reminds me of the only scene in an old movie I can no longer remember. A guy comes home unexpectedly, as he quietly approaches the bedroom he notices a man's coat on the floor, and then spies his wife in bed with another man.

    They don't see the husband, whom with sobre face silently walks away from the partly open door, picks up the coat, folds it and then lays it over the back of a chair, all neat and tidy. He then walked out the front door never to return.

    All very civilised don't you think.


  4. Interesting thing about that gated community is that it is poor, and getting poorer, (you can buy into it for about AUS 100,000, about half the developer's list price) and was providing little security.

    There is a gated community in a neighbourhood near here that local residents reckon is a source of crime. The place is full of gangs. I have heard that it was developed under a NSW Govt contract as subsidised housing.

    Maybe the idea of the gates is to keep them in. Early training for later in life. Get them used to it.

  5. "You gotta laugh, they spend so much on this terrorism/security bullshit while snuffing each other out like nobodies business."

    I feel like a dolt for never thinking of it from that angle before, Justin. It's a good point.

    Of course, as with the ostentatious war on drugs, so too the war on terrorists entails spending trillions of dollars, primarily to create maximum inconvenience and cost to ordinary people going about their lives, rather than solving or achieving anything.

    Both wars do nothing much more than create entire industries with ever increasing vested interests expanding the status quo, for less than pure reasons.

    Geoff - in the US case, I think the point is largely that it is a mixed gated-community, and was never a wealthy enclave - less so now, with more renters than owners - so merely being a black young man, putting up his hood as it started to rain, even at night, should not have been reason for anyone to be alarmed - certainly not some dick with a gun.

  6. Sure. I was off on a tangent about gated communities in general. There are quite a few of them around here. I've been in a few that are for rich folk. On islands usually that can only be accessed by boat or a gated manned bridge and with patrols.

    I've noticed more modest ones too of course which don't appear to be patrolled but you need a swipe card or something to get in the place.

    This one nearby is the first I've heard of which is specifically for poor people. You're not allowed in the place unless you can show whop you are. This is got me fascinated.

    Why would poor people need a gated community? Is it because some bright spark has worked out that poor people are the highest risk group to be victims of crime and that if rich people need a gated community to protect them from crime then how much more do poor people?

    Far fetched I know but don't forget that this state has just had 16 years of Labor Govt. Not just any Labor either. NSW Labor.

  7. I've got to check this place out.

  8. "Show whop you are" was not a Fruedian slip. Honest. It's a straight out typo. OK?

  9. Unlike the US, with many thousands of gated / protected communities, the equivalent in Oz is the equivalent of a swipe card, coupled with a monitored security service.

    You've already answered your own question, and it IS sensible and obvious - drug dealers, shady types chronically hang around government housing, and government high rise flats. How obvious to protect the tenants with secure buildings and lifts - give them all a swipe card? Yet, it has taken many decades for this to be implemented in high rise flats.

    Doesn't keep all the dregs out, of course, since quite a few of them live there, but even so, many have the good sense to not shit on their own door step. (Yes, some crims are quite sensible folk.)

    And yes, it is the poor - here and the US - who need far greater protection than the rich.

    The rich need protection from the rich, but only as it relates to so-called white collar crime.

  10. "whop"

    Yeah, it's the problem of thinking / looking / typing - our brains are woeful at doing three things at once. Was never a problem when we all wrote with a pen and paper (remember, in the days when we all knew how to spell properly?)

    As a touch typer, I continue to be mystified at the number of words my fingers add a letter to - eg, unit will become unity. Go figure.

  11. Anonymous8:09 PM

    Have you counted your fingers lately Caz?

    Remember, there is a little bit of Tasmanian in all of us, and it would account for the extra lettters.


  12. I'm a little bit Tasmanian, by osmosis.

    Grandmother's second marriage, to a Tasmanian, resulted in her leaving the mainland, along with five of her remaining children (her - mother of nine; him - father of 13), subsequently, I have many native born Tasmanian cousins, although many of those now dispersed across the land / world. The aunts and uncles remain steadfast in Tassie.

  13. Anonymous7:43 PM

    That would mean we r related Caz, or is it Cuz - probably in more ways than we cannn image.