In March 1799 authorities in North Carolina found no fault in a teen fatally shooting a black man after confronting that man about his being on a public road.
In February 2012 authorities in Florida found no fault in a man fatally shooting a black teen after confronting that teen about his being on a public road.
How authorities in Sanford, Florida have handled the fatal February 26th shooting of 17-year-old black teen Trayvon Martin by a town watch operative in Sanford, Florida is sparking outrage nationwide.
That slaying does raise the specter of race-tainted inequities that have roiled through American society since before the formal inception of the United States.
Police in Sanford, outside Orlando, quickly accepted the claim of George Zimmerman, 28, that he shot Martin in self-defense while he was allegedly
losing a fight with the younger, physically smaller teen. Zimmerman is a three inches taller and is nearly 100-pounds heavier than Martin.
Zimmerman called 911 telling police he saw Martin acting suspiciously. Police told Zimmerman not to confront Martin but he rejected the police orders. A scuffle ensued where Zimmerman shot Martin with a 9mm pistol.
Zimmerman is a self-appointed town watch captain and wannabe policeman with a checkered past. Neighbors have reportedly complained about Zimmerman’s aggressive behaviors. He’s called police 46-times in the past year in his town watch capacity. In 2005 police charged Zimmerman with assaulting an officer but dropped charges.
Federal authorities are now investigating the fatal shooting of Martin by Zimmerman who Sanford police cleared without doing any background check on Zimmerman who was once arrested for assault on a policeman or conducting tests to see if Zimmerman was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the shooting as some contend citing the sound of Zimmerman’s voice on 911 tapes.
Martin, when killed by Zimmerman, was walking back to a relative’s home after buying a bag of candy and a can of ice tea from a convenience store. Martin, a well-respected high school student, had no criminal record.
The shooting of Martin, however, raises an issue as equally contentious as racism – the propriety of Florida’s controversial 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law which turned self-defense law on its head by removing the duty to retreat before using deadly force against an alleged attacker.
That law additionally allows the use of deadly force against unarmed persons.
In May 2010 a Florida man successfully cited the “Stand Your Ground” law following his shooting of another man during a fight at a beach where he shot that man in the back of the head as that man was getting out of the water.
Since this law’s approval Florida authorities have cited it in finding legal justification in nearly 400 homicides according to media accounts. Almost two dozen other states have adopted similar laws.
This law, backed by the National Rifle Association, allows the use of deadly force under the loose standard of if a person “reasonably” believes their life is in danger.
Police and prosecutors in Florida opposed changing traditional self-defense standards warning the looser “Stand Your Ground” standards were ripe for abuse creating what critics termed a shoot-first/ask-questions-later environment.
In the Trayvon Martin incident legal experts are wrangling over whether Zimmerman surrendered immunity protections in the “Stand Your Ground” law because he was the aggressor refusing to follow police orders to not confront Martin.
What riles many is the Sanford police refusing to arrest Zimmerman and letting courts sort out his self-defense claim during a trial. Some raising self-defense claims under “Stand Your Ground” faced trials while police and prosecutors accepted some claims eliminating a trial.
The Sanford police quickly accepting Zimmerman’s self-defense claim does raise the race-tainted stereotype of the dangerous black brute that reflexively causes whites to fear for their lives.
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee embraced Zimmerman’s claim that he was forced to fire on Martin because Martin was beating him badly and no one was responding to his cries for help.
Lee contends Zimmerman’s injuries are “consistent with” his story apparently finding no fault in Zimmerman disregarding police orders and confronting the smaller Martin who was doing nothing wrong.
Lee’s police are drawing verbal fire for reportedly badgering witnesses to alter their accounts in favor of Zimmerman’s version.
Martin’s father and the local NAACP head are among many voicing the sentiment that Sanford police would have reacted differently if Martin had shot Zimmerman under the same circumstances.
Florida, like many places in America particularly the South, has a sordid history of race-based inequities.
Incidents in Florida are mentioned frequently in the 1951 petition an interracial group of Americans sent to the United Nations charges the federal government with committing “Genocide” on African-Americans.
The “New Acts of Genocide” addendum to that 1951 petitions lists racist incidents from Florida more than any other single state.
Those incidents include a Florida sheriff fatally shooting one black prisoner and wounding another and “racist terrorists” killing a NAACP leader and his wife by bombing their house. That petition decried federal and Florida state officials for failing to act in those murders.
That “New Acts” section also cited whites legally excluding blacks from one Seminole County, Fl town, about 15-miles from Sanford, “to prevent Negroes there from voting and from receiving fire, sanitary and public health services.”
Sanford absorbed the all black town of Goldsboro in 1911, quickly renaming streets bearing the names of black pioneers according to historic accounts.
The mass disenfranchisement of thousands of blacks by Florida election officials during the 2000 presidential election won barely by George W. Bush remains a stinging point among blacks.
Florida’s then Governor Jeb Bush, George’s brother, later acknowledged his roles in that voter suppression. Jeb Bush backed passage of the “Stand Your Ground” law calling it a “good, common sense anti-crime” measure.
The murder of Trayvon Martin shares similarities with the 1799 North Carolina shooting. Both incidents involved the killing of blacks on questionable provocation and white authorities loosely applying laws to clear the murderers.
In that 1799 incident the Supreme Court of North Carolina acquitted the teen who had confronted a black man on a public road. The teen told that man to get off the road or he would shoot him with a shotgun.
That man walked to the other side of the road where the teen blocked him again. The teen shot the man after “the negro shoved him with some violence to the other side of the road” according to the court record…that exhibited shades of the black brute stereotype.
NC’s Supreme Court ruled the shooting manslaughter not murder – a crucial ruling for the teen because NC law barred punishment for manslaughter in the “malicious killing of a slave.” Incidentally, NC law at that time deprived free blacks of rights just like slaves.
“There is enough evidence of probable cause here to arrest Zimmerman,” said Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon Martin’s family. “Race is the elephant in this room.”
Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, forthcoming from AK Press. He lives in Philadelphia.