It has been almost two weeks since a jury of six women found George Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter. It has been over a year since Trayvon Martin, a then 17-year-old boy, was tragically shot and killed as he walked from a Florida convenience store to his stepmother’s townhouse. Forty-four days later, Trayvon’s killer, George Zimmerman, was finally arrested because the public demanded justice.
While some have already moved on to discuss the royal baby, politicians’ sex lives, and more, this issue remains at the forefront of the minds of many African Americans and other racial minorities. People of color know all too well that racial discrimination, stereotyping, and profiling are still prevalent in America. They know racial discrimination exists because they experience it on a consistent and ongoing basis, from small slights to overt expressions. Their experiences with racial prejudice inform how they view Trayvon’s murder and Zimmerman’s trial, making it even more baffling when one juror commented that race never came up during jury deliberations.
Hopefully the Zimmerman verdict will spark not only an honest and frank discussion about race and institutional racism in our country, but also long overdue systemic changes that will build trust between our communities and within our legal system. Our legal system and the growing number of “stand your ground laws,” made infamous when Trayvon was gunned down, need to be critically addressed.
These “stand your ground” laws extend the castle doctrine, which allows one to use deadly force when defending one’s “castle,” to places outside the home. Although Zimmerman alleged traditional self-defense, he benefited from a jury instruction, which stated that he “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 great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Florida was the first state to pass such a law in 2005 and now at least 22 states have “stand your ground laws” that potentially increase violence and wrongful deaths based on misunderstandings, miscommunication, and racial prejudices. These laws give citizens unfettered power and discretion with no accountability. Homicides categorized as justifiable have nearly tripled since the law went into effect. These laws have contributed to an atmosphere of vigilante justice in our society, and when combined with an individual’s racial prejudices, create tragic results.
What’s more, the application of stand your ground laws appears to be uneven at best. In Jacksonville, FL, Marissa Alexander attempted to use Stand Your Ground as a defense for firing warning shots against her allegedly abusive husband. Instead, she received a 20-year prison sentence. The jury took 12 minutes to deliberate.
As President Obama poignantly questioned in a recent speech regarding Trayvon Martin, “If we’re sending a message as a society in our communities that someone who is armed potentially has the right to use those firearms even if there’s a way for them to exit from a situation, is that really going to be contributing to the kind of peace and security and order that we’d like to see?” Similarly, United States Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. characterized these laws as senseless and noted that Stand Your Ground Laws undermine public safety “by allowing, and perhaps encouraging, violent situations to escalate in public.”
Just as the public outcry after Trayvon’s death pushed for the arrest and prosecution of George Zimmerman, the public must continue to demand justice so that these troubling stand your ground laws do not get passed in more state legislatures, and the existing ones are expeditiously repealed. We must stand our ground.
Barbara R. Arnwine is president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. The Lawyers’ Committee is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, formed in 1963. For more information, please visit www.lawyerscommittee.org.
Yen Vinh Tran, Public Service Fellow for Lawyer’ Committee’s Public Policy Project, contributed to this op-ed.