CROSSVILLE — The drama that has taken place in Sanford, Florida, has all the marks of a great American tragedy. Beginning with the shooting of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, and coming to a climax but not an ending with the acquittal of George Zimmerman by a jury of six women (five white and one Puerto Rican) on July 13, 2013, the drama has brought to light a number of key issues before our nation today.
One issue is what kind of community life we will seek to have in our country. It was not accidental that the shooting took place in a gated community—one that has tried to protect itself from those who are “other.” Had the community ever provided George Zimmerman, a volunteer community watchman, any guidance or instruction on how to represent his community creatively on such occasions? There is no evidence of this.
Seeing Trayvon walking through the village on a rainy evening, Zimmerman quickly profiled this youth during a 911 call, describing him as being “up to no good.” He then began following him and finally caught up to him—an encounter that ended in Trayvon’s death. Unfortunately we have only Zimmerman’s version of the encounter, not Trayvon’s.
Susan McFarlin of Gallatin, in a letter to The Tennessean on July 18, asked a thought-provoking question, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live in a world where a ‘good’ man stops to ask a 17-year-old boy, walking home in the rain, if he could give him a lift?” What if George Zimmerman, as a neighborhood watchman, had shown a basic attitude of hospitality and empathy for the young Trayvon walking through the neighborhood? There is a good chance that Trayvon would still be alive today.
But Zimmerman, in his encounter with Trayvon, had a gun and a “Stand Your Ground” law of self-defense to back him up. When police arrived after the shooting, Zimmerman told them that he had to shoot Trayvon in self-defense. As a result, he was not arrested immediately but only after a gap of 44 days. During the resulting trial his attorneys sought to portray Trayvon as the aggressor and Zimmerman as the victim, displaying a piece of sidewalk cement as Trayvon’s weapon of choice and a photo of a shirtless Trayvon to suggest a picture of a thug.
Although the attorneys did not base their case on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, the judge brought this law into jury consideration by instructing the jury members as follows: “George Zimmerman...had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force, if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself.” She said nothing, however, about affording Trayvon, who probably had a similar fear of death or of great bodily harm at the hands of Zimmerman, the benefit of this law—even if he was not old enough to carry a gun.
At least twenty-two states, including Tennessee, now have “Stand Your Ground” laws. The National Rifle Association, arguing that such laws are making America safer, is trying to get these laws adopted in additional states. Another outcome, however, is emerging. Using homicide data from 2006 to 2008, two researchers at Georgia State University have found that “Stand Your Ground” laws that provide protection for deadly force in public places have resulted in a “significant increase in the number of homicides among whites, especially white males.”
But getting back to our gated communities, and our gated nation, how will we deal creatively with our young poor minorities who are so often excluded, disposable, the other? Too often they are perceived as a threat to be contained or eliminated rather than as an object of compassion and social investment.
An ancient rabbi once asked his pupils how they could tell when the night had ended and the day was on its way back. “Could it be,” one student asked, “when you can see an animal in the distance and tell whether it is a sheep or a dog?” “No,” answered the rabbi. “Could it be,” asked another, “when you can look at a tree in the distance and tell whether it is a fig tree or a peach tree?” “No,” said the rabbi. “Well, then, what is it?” his pupils demanded. “It is when you look on the face of any man or woman, and see that he or she is your brother or sister. Because if you cannot do this, then, no matter what time it is, it is still night.”
• • •
This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.