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 is, however, sparking outrage nationwide, including among many whites.
The slaying also raises the issue 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 his victim, the young Martin).
The record, pried lose from reluctant police, shows that Zimmerman called 911 telling police he saw Martin acting suspiciously. Police, who initially refused to release the 911 tapes, told Zimmerman not to confront Martin, but he rejected the police orders. A scuffle ensued where Zimmerman shot Martin with a 9mm pistol he was carrying.
Zimmerman, initially described as having no police record, is a self-appointed town watch captain and wannabe policeman with a checkered past. Neighbors have reportedly complained about his aggressive behaviors. He had called police 46 times in the past year alon in his town watch capacity. In 2005 police charged Zimmerman with assaulting an officer, but later dropped charges.
Federal authorities are now investigating the fatal shooting of Martin by Zimmerman, whom Sanford police cleared without doing any background check (it turns out he was once arrested for assault on a policeman) and without conducting tests to see if Zimmerman was under the influence of drugs or alcohol at the time of the shooting. Some people who have heard the 911 tapes contend he was under the influence of some substance, based on the sound of his voice on those recordings.
Martin, when killed by Zimmerman, was walking back to a relative’s home in the integrated neighborhood after buying a bag of candy and a can of ice tea from a local convenience store. Martin, a well-respected high school student, had no criminal record.
The shooting of Martin, however, raises an issue as 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 a man in the back of the head as his victim was getting out of the water.
Since this law’s approval, Florida authorities have cited it in finding legal justification in an astonishing 400 slayings 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 a person “reasonably” believing their life to be in danger.
Police and prosecutors in Florida have opposed changing traditional self-defense standards, warning that the looser “Stand Your Ground” standards were ripe for abuse and create what critics term a shoot-first/ask-questions-later environment.
In the Trayvon Martin incident legal experts are wrangling over whether Zimmerman surrendered the immunity protections in the “Stand Your Ground” law because he was the aggressor by his refusal to follow police orders to not confront Martin.
What riles many is the Sanford Police Department’s refusal to arrest Zimmerman and the decision by the department to let the courts sort out his self-defense claim during a trial. Some shooters who have raised self-defense claims under the “Stand Your Ground” rule hve faced trials, while police and prosecutors have simply accepted some claims, eliminating the need for a trial.
By quickly accepting Zimmerman’s self-defense claim, the Sanford Police raise concerns about the race-tainted stereotype of the dangerous black brute that reflexively causes many 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’s having disregarded police orders and continuing to confront the smaller Martin, who was apparently 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 charging the federal government with committing “Genocide” on African-Americans.
The “New Acts of Genocide” addendum to that 1951 petition 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 located 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 allegely won but actually stolen by George W. Bush remains a stinging point among blacks.
Florida’s then Governor Jeb Bush, George’s brother, later acknowledged his role in the voter suppression that handed the White House to his brother. Jeb Bush enthusiastically 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 the 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 as it did slaves.
“There is enough evidence of probable cause here to arrest Zimmerman,” said Benjamin Crump, the attorney for Trayvon Martin’s family, adding, “Race is the elephant in this room.”