By: KILIAN SCHLEMMER
When George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a sizeable portion of Americans reacted with protest and outrage. While anger at the acquittal of Zimmerman is both understandable and justified, we should be careful not to point our anger in the wrong direction. Since the acquittal on July 13, disdain has often been shown towards the jury’s decision. The jury however should in no way be blamed for the acquittal. The laws which exist in many American states, alongside common cultural values in the U.S., are ultimately what allowed Zimmerman to walk away legally unpunished.
The jurors were instructed on how to do their jobs, and they did precisely what the legal process demanded of them. The prosecution was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman did not act in self-defence, leaving the jury with no choice but to reach a verdict of not guilty. One member of the jury, known publicly as Juror B29, told ABC News that multiple members of the jury felt Zimmerman was guilty, but there was simply no way he could be found guilty under Florida law. She went on to say that Zimmerman “got away with murder.”
The anger caused by Martin’s death and Zimmerman’s subsequent acquittal should be pointed towards the culture and the laws that legally allow for an unarmed teenager to be followed and shot in the chest by a semi-automatic pistol. We don’t know what happened in the short moments immediately preceding Martin’s death; all we have as evidence is an array of conflicting witness statements and the muffled sounds picked up by Zimmerman’s cellphone. What we do know is that Zimmerman was suspicious of Martin for inadequate reasons, that Zimmerman followed the unarmed Martin even though police told him not to, and that Zimmerman killed Martin with a single gunshot.
We also know that under Florida’s laws, Zimmerman is not guilty of murder or homicide. Zimmerman’s defence attorneys rested on the concept of self-defence in establishing their client’s innocence, and the fact that this defence worked is utterly disheartening. In the call Zimmerman made to the Sanford Police Department, he was told not to follow Martin. He followed him anyway, and although he himself chose to engage Martin, he was able to claim that he was defending himself. Zimmerman decided to take the law into his own hands, and because of Zimmerman’s unwarranted suspicion and following of Martin, an unarmed and innocent17-year-old returning from a trip to a convenience store was killed by a powerful firearm. In its inherently distorted nature, the law allowed for Martin to be deemed an unarmed aggressor, and Zimmerman to be deemed a gun-yielding neighbourhood watch officer who acted in self-defence.
Aside from standard self-defence laws, the legal concept of “stand your ground” was also a controversial topic surrounding Martin’s death. Although Zimmerman’s legal team opted not to utilize “stand your ground” in their defence, the concept was explained to the jurors in the trial in order to help them understand that Zimmerman had no legal obligation to retreat during his confrontation with Martin. “Stand your ground” is a commonly used legal defence in Florida, and it allows somebody to use lethal force against a threat instead of retreating from the situation, even in a public place. This means that Zimmerman can claim he was standing his ground while facing a threat, even though his decision to follow an unarmed teenager who was committing no crimes was what created the threat in the first place. Martin had no interest in involving himself in any sort of a physical confrontation with anybody; he was trying to return home from a 7-Eleven. If we don’t challenge “stand your ground” laws, we allow untrained, inexperienced, and reactionary citizens to take the law into their own hands, which can evidently result in the killing of innocent teenagers who wear hooded sweatshirts and look “suspicious.” As U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said, these laws “senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods.”
On top of unjust and harmful self-defence laws, a deeply rooted culture exists in the United States which directly encourages the George Zimmermans of the world to make horrific decisions with their firearms. This culture also enables them to get away with it. The idea of independent gunslingers who take the law into their own hands is not only accepted, but blatantly celebrated in conservative American culture. When these cultural values are paired with the unwarranted suspicion of innocent people, catastrophes can occur.
When Zimmerman called the Sanford Police Department to report the “suspicious” Martin, he was heard saying “these assholes, they always get away.” Zimmerman believed he was just as qualified to approach Martin as a police officer was, bearing in mind that Martin did nothing to warrant being approached by either Zimmerman or a police officer in the first place. Zimmerman also believed that Martin should not get away, and tragically enough, Martin did not. Trayvon Martin lost his life because a neighbourhood watch officer decided that a teenager in a hooded sweatshirt was dangerous, and that it was his duty as an ordinary citizen to pursue the hooded teenager with a high-powered, semi-automatic firearm.
The cultural fanaticism many Americans exhibit towards guns further allows for these types of tragedies to occur. This obsession with firearms also allows for men like George Zimmerman to be viewed by some as the heroes of a ludicrous cause that calls for the rampant expansion of gun toting. In an interview with Sean Hannity of the Fox News channel, Zimmerman said that he “always” carries his weapon, even though neighbourhood watch officers are strongly discouraged from carrying guns on duty. When it was confirmed that Zimmerman’s weapon would not be returned to him because it may be used as evidence in a future civil trial, an American firearms group immediately sprang into action. The Buckeye Firearms Foundation claims that Zimmerman’s gun rights are being violated, and so they have raised $12,000 to be spent on weapons and security for Zimmerman. In the wake of a teenager’s death caused by Zimmerman’s firearm, the actions of these gun enthusiasts are preposterously insensitive. The increasingly proud gun culture in the U.S. has poisoned societal priorities to such a degree that gun lobbyists and firearms enthusiasts are made to seem like the victims. The victim here is not George Zimmerman because his gun rights were violated; the victim is a 17-year-old who was killed by a bullet for the crime of walking home from a 7-Eleven.
Whether it is in the media or in private conversation, we hear a lot about Zimmerman’s right to defend himself, and his right to carry a gun. While these rights may legally exist, they are the wrong rights to focus on in this tragedy. Trayvon Martin had his own set of rights. Trayvon Martin had the right to wear a hooded sweatshirt, and the right to buy skittles at a convenience store. He had the right not to be followed by a man with a gun. Trayvon Martin had the right to be a teenager with his whole life ahead of him, and most importantly, he had the right to return home to his family on the night of February 26. George Zimmerman is the product of a culture where walking around with machines designed to take human life is seen as a non-negotiable right. If such a culture did not exist, Trayvon Martin would still be alive today.
Changing our culture does not mean we are abandoning our lives. Changing our culture simply means that we acknowledge how much better we can be.