These days, you might see more people wearing hooded sweatshirts than normal. You might see more people eating Skittles than normal. If you notice this, don’t feel intimidated. If this warning sounds absurd, it should.
South of the border, there is a news story that is stirring up racial tension and is bringing to light some questionable legal decisions and processes.
There are a few indisputable facts in this story.
On the evening of February 26th of this year, a 17 year old man name Trayvon Martin was walking home and talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. He just stopped at a convenience store where he had purchased an ice tea and a bag of Skittles. He explained to his girlfriend that he was being followed, and, during the call, yelled back asking why the guy was following him. His girlfriend told him to run, and they hung up the phone.
The man following him was a 28 year old named George Zimmerman. He was a self-appointed neighbourhood watch captain who suspected young Mr. Martin was up to no good. Mr. Zimmerman had called 911 about Martin’s presence. The dispatcher assured him that police were on the way and that he need not continue following, and they hung up the phone.
What happens next is up for dispute, but the end result is not.
Shortly thereafter, the dispatcher received other calls from that area, reporting shouting and a gunshot had been heard. When the police arrived, they found Trayvon Martin lying dead, face down, with George Zimmerman nearby. Mr. Zimmerman claimed that Mr. Martin had attacked him, and so he fired his gun in self-defense. There were no other witnesses. The evidence at the scene seemed to corroborate his story, and he was released the same day.
This has caused an outcry in the African-American community because Trayvon Martin is black and George Zimmerman is white. Would law enforcement officers have been so lenient if the races were reversed?
Details continue to emerge about this story, and many of them are unflattering toward the victim. At the time of the shooting he was serving suspension from his school for having been found with an empty baggie of marijuana. Police say that the condition the shooter was in at the scene suggested a violent altercation had taken place, with the victim being the aggressor.
Besides the race issue, the biggest thing being debated is Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. A number of other states have similar laws in place. It states that “a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if he or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.” This legal provision gives an individual great leeway to determine what constitutes a valid threat and it puts the onus on the courts to prove that the threat wasn’t credible.
So, in this case, George Zimmerman felt that was in imminent danger of serious harm, despite the fact that he was at least 25 pounds heavier, 10 years older and the only one carrying a gun, and so he was legally entitled to use deadly force to protect himself. The popular opinion however was that Martin was the hapless victim and Zimmerman the violent aggressor. If the story of Martin’s violent attack is true, that weakens that perception, but I think it points to a greater truth.
Zimmerman had been following Martin. Zimmerman had a gun and was physically larger than Martin. The young boy would have had good reason that he was in imminent danger. According to Florida state law, he was no legally compelled to flee and could use whatever force he deemed necessary to defend himself. In theory, he could have beaten Zimmerman to death and been protected under the law.
I am exaggerating, but I am doing so to prove a point. If the story of Martin’s attack on Zimmerman is true (and video footage of Zimmerman later that night seems to suggest otherwise) it would obviously be an escalation of the violence. Zimmerman had a legal right not to flee and he too could escalate the violence. The result of this escalation is what we are dealing with now.
Traditional Jewish teaching was that “an eye for an eye” was suitable justice, limiting the victim to exact no greater harm than was caused to them. Jesus brought a different message of love, forgiveness and prayer, not just for our friends, but for our enemies and those who persecute us as well.
The escalation of violence often begins when we see ourselves, either as a nation or as individuals, as victims. We use the status that we give ourselves to validate any show of force we have in mind. But the path to peace, the road to reconciliation begins when one side refuses to exercise their right to escalate the situation.
This story is not over. So far the protests have been peaceful. So far cooler heads have prevailed and higher governmental powers have initiated due process to see if the recourse pursued was adequate. Whether or not that will not bring justice, we have been given a model of what happens when two sides are legally entitled to escalate violence.