Monday, 15 July 2013

U.S.: Zimmerman's case & "Stand Your Ground" law

The acquittal in Florida's Trayvon Martin murder trial has drawn criticism around the world. The ruling has drawn considerable international attention because it "appeared to be so systematic and also divided the country but also raised the question why there hadn't been a single African American on the jury. 

Many had feared that if an all-white jury issued a not-guilty verdict for George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, a black teenager who had been unarmed, it could trigger race riots across the country.

Zimmerman claimed he had shot the 17-year-old in self-defense after a nighttime confrontation in his gated community, despite police advice not to pursue the young man. Zimmerman claimed that Martin had punched him and slammed his head into the ground during a fight before he fired at him in self-defense. Prosecutors had portrayed Zimmerman as a wannabe cop who profiled and pursued Martin.

Mostly peaceful protests were held across the country following the verdict. US President Barack Obama had cautioned against allowing passions to boil over. "If I had a son, he'd look like Trayvon," President Barack Obama said Sunday in a statement. "I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher. But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken."

Zimmerman's attorney based all his argument on Florida's controversial "Stand Your Ground" law, which critics have dubbed a "shoot first" law. Implemented in 2005, and adopted by 20 other US states, it says that anyone who fears harm or death is not required to retreat from a potential perpetrator, even if they have the possibility of safely doing so. It also places the burden on prosecutors to prove without any doubt that the shooter feared harm or death.

Even though there is still hope that the federal court will open the case again, after this ruling, US laws urgently need reform.These are laws in the spirit of the Wild West times.

 Florida's "absurd" "Stand Your Ground" law, describing the ruling as "predictable," but still "scandalous. With this combination of racist prejudices, lax weapons controls and vigilantism anchored in law, incidents like the death of Trayvon Martin will happen again and again.

It may be that a black president's charisma and the statements from a number of African-American opinion leaders calling for calm will prevent massive riots like those seen after the Rodney King verdict in 1992. But things cannot be good in the long term. If societal peace means anything to the USA, then laws like 'Stand Your Ground' belong in the trash can of history, and coexistence must have a different basis than through some overarmed deterrent.

A black teenager wearing a sweatshirt in a middle-class housing development can only mean trouble. But that puts what the Americans call 'racial profiling' in the spotlight -- blanket suspicion based entirely on a person's skin color, clothing or taste in music. The fact that there are police officers who tend to target young African American men more often that young white men is indisputable. That drug dealers with dark skin tend to be prosecuted more severely is a statistical fact. And the fact that African Americans in southern US states are given the death penalty more often than whites also hasn't changed since Obama became president.

In this case, the Americans argued so much over the influence of the color of a person's skin that another idea was mostly overlooked -- that of the dangers and excesses of vigilante justice. Many Americans only feel secure if they are allowed to carry a loaded weapon, and the Zimmerman case shows what this can lead to. Amateurs with crudely developed suspicions who overestimate their abilities run roughshod on neighborhoods, ultimately spreading the insecurity they are supposed to be curbing.

Laws of this type serve a weapons lobby that argues very effectively that the unlimited right to possess weapons is indispensable when it comes to self-defense. So even though in this individual case, the ruling was legally appropriate and faultless, it still raises serious questions. If politicians continue to blur self-defense as codified in 'Stand Your Ground' law, the self-proclaimed protectors of the law will also be empowered in the future to make bad decisions that at times result in a deadly outcome. Martin's death was and remains a tragedy, and state politicians in Florida are partially responsible for it.

By Guylain Gustave Moke
Political Analyst/Writer
Investigative Journalist