Most African-Americans have experienced something similar, something as humiliating and degrading.
Ask African-Americans followed by security guards while shopping. Ask the parents of Trayvon Martin, whose 17-year-old son was slain “walking while black” in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted recently of second-degree murder and manslaughter in the February 2012 slaying. In the minds of the six women on the jury, Zimmerman was the victim, not the pursuer, not the stalker.
Nevertheless, the verdict was a gross miscarriage of justice. As a Latina juror declared after the acquittal: Zimmerman “got away with murder” but she voted to acquit because of Florida law.
Martin, unarmed, a skinny kid and no threat to anyone, was walking with Skittles and iced tea. Zimmerman was a self-appointed community vigilante, a wannabe cop.
He was also an obsessive. He called 911 more than 40 times, often ranting about the “presence of frightening strangers.” He had two run-ins with police because he couldn’t control his temper.
In the Martin murder, Zimmerman shouted to a police dispatcher: “Shit, he’s running!” The dispatcher asked: “Are you following him?” Yes. “We don’t need you to do that,” the dispatcher replied.
But Zimmerman persisted in his mad pursuit. He began following Martin, first in his SUV then on foot. Zimmerman, confronting Martin, asked that racist question: “What are you doing around here?
The national manual describing the code of conduct for Neighborhood Watch programs is emphatic: “Members do not possess police powers and they should not carry weapons or pursue vehicles.” Zimmerman ignored that code.
However, the jury was instructed that Zimmerman “had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or bodily harm.”
The verdict was predictable and inevitable. Southern “justice” is often a travesty. Florida’s stand-your-ground law gives Rambos like Zimmerman an easy defense. It allows citizens to take extraordinary steps to defend themselves when they feel threatened. Skin color is perceived as a threat. They make all black men suspects. They are licenses to kill.
Such outrageous laws should be abolished but they won’t be. Florida, like some 20 other states with stand-your-ground laws, is a leader in the nation’s gun-crazed culture. Last year alone Florida issued 173,000 new concealed-carry gun permits. In 2012 police, security guards or vigilantes like Zimmerman killed 136 unarmed black men and women, people deemed a threat to white property and privilege.
Such laws allow hotheads to shoot first and ask questions later.
The murder of the innocent Trayvon Martin exemplifies the persistent racism in America, a nightmare that never ends. Social justice and human dignity remain elusive for blacks in this blatantly biased nation.
One consolation: blacks get great sympathy from liberal whites. As Nation magazine phrased it: “Thousands have marched, hundreds of thousands have signed petitions and millions have expressed their grief and outrage at the acquittal.”
Typical of that outpouring was a white woman friend of mine. When she heard the news, she wept.
Jake Highton is an emeritus journalism professor at the University of Nevada, Reno.