Who has the right to “stand your ground”?
April 01, 2012
Florida teenager Trayvon Martin had been dead for a month and the national furor over his shooting by vigilante George Zimmerman was into its third week before anyone, to my knowledge, asked that fundamental question. Law enforcement officials, experts, and commentators across the spectrum had assumed that the only issue was whether Zimmerman was entitled to use Florida’s “stand your ground” law to justify shooting Martin.
MSNBC commentator Melissa Harris Perry finally declared what the undisputed evidence on the Sanford, Florida, police dispatcher’s 911 tape of the run-up to the killing shows: 17 year-old Martin, armed only with food, was being aggressively pursued by a grownup who outweighed him by 100 pounds, plus a 9-millimeter firearm. Under the “stand your ground” law, Martin had every right to use whatever force, including lethal, was necessary to protect himself from the threatening confrontation Zimmerman initiated.
Did Martin physically attack and severely beat Zimmerman after the latter confronted him, as Zimmerman alleges? Evidence so far suggests not, but under Florida’s law, it wouldn’t matter if Trayvon had pounded Zimmerman bloody. Zimmerman was the aggressor, brandishing deadly force. The right to “stand your ground” was entirely Martin’s. Those who scrutinize the police video for evidence of injury to Zimmerman perpetuate the myth that the law was automatically on the aggressor’s side.
Virtually everyone seems to have accepted that “stand your ground” contains a hidden covenant: it is designed to protect a “higher status” person who feels threatened and uses force injurious to a person of “lower status.” It seems inconceivable that the law could be used to exonerate a black teenager who used force against a white (or, Latino-white in Zimmerman’s case) grownup who had awarded himself superior authority.
Notably, the National Rifle Association—which repeats after nearly every heinous shooting that the remedy is to arm the victim(s)—has been strangely reluctant to declare that black teenagers should be allowed to carry guns in areas where they fear racially-motivated vigilante attacks.
But it isn’t just conservatives. In 2012, as always, nearly everyone accepted that ground-standing privileges accrue only to the older, whiter party of the first part, not the younger, blacker party of the second part. In the disposition of Martin’s killing, only Zimmerman’s feelings, Zimmerman’s fears, Zimmerman’s story, and Zimmerman’s life had value.
These appalling assumptions, so accepted they weren’t even questioned, stem from the poisonous culture that, I argue in a Politico op-ed, authorities across the spectrum have created by continually stigmatizing young black men as a class and generation. President Barack Obama blamed African Americans’ “epidemic of violence” on “entire generation of young men in our society,” connected “this generation” of young African Americans to “violence” and “addiction,” and fanned anxiety toward “teenagers hanging around on street corners.” CNN’s Roland Martin branded today’s young African Americans as “a generation of folks that do not value life.” New York Times liberal columnistBob Herbert has labeled young black men as “insane,” “predators,” and “running wild,” among other epithets. That’s before we turn to Fox News.
How do these prominent prejudices differ from Zimmerman’s presumption that Martin—due to his young age, black race, new generation, and public presence—was inordinately likely to be a drug-crazed, criminal threat? Those stigmas reduced Martin’s status to an inferior automatically unentitled to have his feelings, fears, life, or rights valued when pitted against a superior citizen represented by Zimmerman.
The way to get rid of “stand your ground” laws is to reverse the assumptions of privilege that governed discussion of Trayvon Martin’s killing and demonstrate that such laws can also be used by the very sorts of people their champions intended to target.