Monday, April 23, 2012

Trayvon Martin's Death: The Fear of Difference

Clearly, not all of the facts have come to light in the tragic death of Trayvon Martin.  However, what is clear from the 911 tapes is George Zimmerman's anger at what he perceived to be a "punk" whose suspicious behavior--at least according to Zimmerman--mandated not only a call to local police but also Zimmerman's decision to leave his vehicle to pursue and ultimately kill a teen who was simply walking back to his father's fiance's nearby residence after buying some snacks at a neighborhood convenience store.

Although a number of people throughout this country say that Martin's race was not a factor in Zimmerman's decision-making process, anyone who labels a total stranger as a "punk" certainly illustrates his preconceived hostility.  And in doing so, he rationalizes his fear of difference.

Some speculate that the "hoodie" Martin was wearing was one initiating factor.  For example, Geraldo Rivera argued on national television that parents should not let their children wear such apparel (and, thus, he unknowingly implied that Zimmerman's suspicion was somehow justified because of Martin's attire).  Such profiling based on one's clothing is most commonly applied to children and adults of color.  If one asks a roomful of Latinos, African Americans, Asians, and others of color if they've been profiled and/or actually stopped and questioned by police or private security personnel because of their clothing or supposed gang attire (the coded language that police and others use to justify such harassment), one will hear a variety of anecdotes that paint a xenophobic tableau of contemporary America.

Others argue that Zimmerman's actions were justified because of the history of burglaries in his neighborhood.  Regardless of the number of crimes in any neighborhood, one is not allowed to pursue or confront strangers as if one is a police officer.  Zimmerman and others like him have the right to watch others in public and even report suspicious individuals and activities to their local police, but no one should associate past crimes in a specific neighborhood to strangers who, like Trayvon Martin, aren't acting in a suspicious manner.

And then there's the matter of Zimmerman's ability to legally carry a concealed weapon.

Florida was among one of the first states to become a "shall issue" state with respect to concealed carry permits:  If one pays the fees, takes and passes the required CCW classes, passes the background checks, isn't a convicted felon, and doesn't have a history of mental illness, one will be able to obtain a permit like the one Zimmerman possesses to legally carry a concealed weapon in public.  In contrast, California is still a "discretionary" state where one must give a justifiable reason for wanting a concealed carry permit (in addition to the required training classes and background checks) that must be approved by the applicant's county sheriff's office (the most common CCW permit-issuing authority in most discretionary states) or local police department.

Specifically, those who've taken any CCW course should know that they should never put themselves in the position of a pursuer:  CCW holders throughout the United States know that they can only use their weapons in situations where flight is impossible and where an attacker has the means to cause a life-threatening injury.  By physically pursuing Martin, Zimmerman violated that primary tenet since he's not a police officer, just a CCW holder; consequently, Zimmerman created a situation by becoming a pursuer and not just an observer.  Moreover, a fist fight between two men in most jurisdictions would not constitute a life-threatening situation; otherwise, countless police officers would be shooting people who physically challenge them to the point of fisticuffs on a daily basis. Consequently, Zimmerman's use of a firearm against an unarmed Trayvon Martin certainly would be viewed by the vast majority of CCW instructors--and most police officers--as inappropriate use of a concealed weapon.

If George Zimmerman somehow avoids conviction of second degree murder or a lesser charge of manslaughter, his actions will set a dangerous precedent that CCW holders can not only pursue people they deem to be suspicious but also utilize deadly force against people who don't wield lethal weapons.