Reyna with the kids in Fiamah, Monrovia, Liberia

Friday, March 23, 2012

"Not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character": Trayvon Martin

" Trayvon was our hero. At the age of 9, he pulled his father from a burning kitchen, saving his life. He loved sports and horseback riding. At only 17, he had a bright future ahead of him with dreams of attending college and becoming an aviation mechanic. Now that's all gone." Those are the words of Trayvon's own father, Tracy Martin, in a petition that he and the boy's mother, Sybrina Fulton,  started two weeks after their son's death to pressure the state's attorney in their Florida district to arrest and prosecute the man who murdered their son. As a parent myself, I cannot imagine the anguish of losing a child in such a senseless way, and then having to fight for his killer to be brought to justice. This should not have happened.

But it did. On February 26th, Trayvon Martin was walking back from a convenience store carrying a bag of Skittles and an iced tea when he was followed and then shot by  self-appointed neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  Trayvon was unarmed. Zimmerman told police that he was acting in self-defense. Police in Sanford, Florida, where the murder took place, have not yet arrested him because they say they can find no evidence to contradict that statement. If you listen to the 911 call that George Zimmerman made shortly before the shooting, it seems clear to me that he was acting out of paranoia, and while he may or may not have used a racial epithet, he clearly refers to Trayvon in a derogatory sense. He makes the statement, " These a**holes, they always get away". He starts following Trayvon because he says "This guy looks like he is up to no good, or on drugs or something" because "it's raining and he's just walking around and looking about...just staring, looking at all the houses." What is interesting is that Zimmerman felt  so threatened by Trayvon though he knew nothing about this young man. Obviously, I or anyone else can't read Zimmerman's mind, but it seems like he was judging this young man solely on his appearance, a black teenager wearing a hoodie.   In the 911 call tapes, when the dispatcher asks Zimmerman if he is following him, he says "Yes" and they say, "We don't need you to do that." Yet when the story is pieced together, it plays out that Zimmerman continued to follow him, at some point Trayvon turned around and said, "Why are you following me?" and then a scuffle ensued, though it is not clear who started it. Neighbors heard a commotion outside and also called 911. When the police arrived, Zimmerman had shot Trayvon Martin in the chest and he was dead.

This isolated incident brings several deep wounds in our American life to the surface, and the most obvious is racial profiling. This is an awful and ugly fact of our society, and as the poignant movie Crash portrayed so well, it is ingrained into each of us at some level, but some choose to look past stereotypes and see human beings just like them, and some choose to feed those stereotypes with ignorance. It may seem that I, as a white female, would not know a thing about racial profiling, and it is true that I myself have probably never been unjustly identified solely because of my race. But being in a mixed race marriage and living in a predominantly Hispanic and black neighborhood, I have witnessed family members and friends undergo this humiliating treatment while I have sat alongside inwardly atoning for the ignorant actions of some members of my race. I have sat in a car as my husband and brother-in-law were pulled over (as we were parking!!), questioned relentlessly as to why they were in the neighborhood they were in (we were in a mostly Italian, middle-class suburb) and then I was asked my name and scoffed at and told, "Well, you certainly don't look like a Rivera." That night, my husband and I both burned with shame and anger, but for different reasons. I and my children have watched my husband being asked to step out of the car and be handcuffed for no apparent reason, only to find out moments later that they had mistaken my husband's name for someone else's. No apology, either, for the handcuffing in front of his own children. A young black teenager was walking from our house to the youth center several blocks away with a guitar in his hand, and was stopped by the police. They questioned whose guitar he had, and said to him, "Black kids don't play guitars."  On another occasion, I was taking a young black man home from our youth group and was pulled over in front of his house. I was questioned as to why I had him in the car with me. He actually apologized to me and said "This happens all the time". A year later, that same young man was arrested and had drugs planted on him by the arresting officer.

Let me clarify why I share all these stories. It is not to claim that I know about racial profiling, because I understand that I CANNOT understand the humiliation that my black and Hispanic friends and family members go through when they are profiled because of their race. It is also not to take aim at police, because I believe that there are many fine policemen on our streets who genuinely want to serve and protect. It is just to show that racial profiling is SO real and SO prevalent still today, in 2012, in small Appalachian towns, in major cosmopolitan cities like Chicago, and yes, in the suburbs of Florida. When will we finally open our minds and hearts to our brothers and sisters, fellow humans, and learn to judge people "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." When I think about the senseless death of a Florida teenager wearing a hoodie and walking home with some snacks in his hand, a carbon-copy of a scenario I see at least ten times a day in my own neighborhood, I grieve, and I too,  long for Dr. Martin Luther King's dream to be realized.

The Trayvon Martin case also calls into question a controversial law in Florida, the Stand Your Ground law, which permits someone to use deadly force if they can claim self-defense. For the claim to be valid, the shooter or assailant  needs to be able to prove that they faced an imminent deadly threat. In this case, knowing that Trayvon Martin was unarmed, carrying a bottle of iced tea and a bag of Skittles in his hands,  and weighed a slight 140 pounds, it is a stretch to see how he could be perceived as an "imminent deadly threat". It is up to the police to decide if they believe the self-defense claim and therefore arrest the shooter or assailant or not. In this case, the Sanford police say that they were "prohibited from making an arrest at the time based on the facts and circumstances presented to them, including some physical evidence". Reportedly, Zimmerman had a bloody nose and blood on the back of his head. And Trayvon Martin had a fatal shot to the chest. It just doesn't add up. The law also gives no stipulation for gray areas, as in this case, in which Zimmerman was following Martin for some time and so could have provoked him. If the killer provokes his victim, then claims that he was attacked, and therefore used lethal force to protect himself, is that viable grounds for escaping arrest and prosecution? As Michael Siegel, a former federal prosecutor in Florida, shared with reporters from the Associated Press, in cases like this where the motives and evidence are murky, the usual practice if for the police to arrest the killer and then leave it up to the courts to decide if the self-defense claim holds.

What further complicates this law is a special caveat of the Florida version that grants immunity from prosecution or arrest to someone who successfully invokes the self-defense claim, which Zimmerman did. So it might seem that all hope is lost for justice for the Martin family. But there has been a determined fight by Trayvon's parents, who started an online petition to the prosecuting attorney in their district that has garnered over 1.5 million signatures already, and a growing national outcry led by the Rev. Al Sharpton and reaching the heart of the President, who compassionately stated today, "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon Martin."  It seems that these cries are NOT falling on deaf ears, and several investigations are being launched into the shooting death, the Sanford Police Department's handling of it, and the constitutionality of the Stand Your Ground law. The Justice Department and the FBI have launched civil rights investigations, and on Thursday the Governor of Florida Rick Scott announced that he was appointing a special investigation of the murder led by state's attorney Angela Corey.He also appointed a special task force to review the controversial law that is giving Zimmerman a free pass in this case. A report in the Tampa Bay Times showed how the law has been used irresponsibly, but successfully, to avoid prosecution by people involved in everything from road rage incidents to gang shootings. It is a dangerous law that promotes vigilante justice.

 Also on Thursday, the Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee stepped aside temporarily after the city commission gave him a vote of no-confidence. The tensions in Sanford remain high, in a town that is roughly 50% white and 30% black, and has a history of racial discrimination, especially among law enforcement. In 2005, two white security guards shot and killed a black teen and were not prosecuted because they too claimed self defense. It was later determined that the teen was shot in the back. In 2011, the son of a lieutenant in the force beat up a black homeless man and didn't turn himself in until the video was posted to Youtube. At the time, an investigation was launched into the department's conduct on the case, and the police chief was dismissed. All of the public outcry that has come about in the past week, and the pressure that is being put on the Sanford Police Department to arrest the killer, is small comfort to the citizens of Sanford and especially to Trayvon's family. They want to see an arrest, and soon. Every day that goes by without justice being served feels like a slap in the face to them. Yet they also say that nothing will bring back their sweet son, Trayvon. Because of one man's ignorance, his promising future was cut short.  He was killed for the "crime" of "walking while black". The Sanford Police Department didn't get it right, but hopefully the Justice Department and other parties involved will bring the restitution this young man and his family deserve. Hopefully this law will be amended so that it cannot be manipulated to serve someone's racist intentions. Hopefully our society will learn from this young man's senseless murder and move towards the fulfillment of Dr. Martin Luther King's dream of a world where our children are judged "not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character".


  1. Thanks for this, Ruthie. I know it's hard for a lot of our white Christian brothers and sisters to understand the horrible effects of racial profiling and violent-promoting gun laws.