19 Mar 2012

The death of a teenager

Orlando, Florida is one of Britain’s favourite tourist destinations, ferrying tens of thousands of visitors to the saccharin theme parks of Disney World and the Magic Kingdom. But next time you go, especially with your teenage kids be careful where you walk. Stick to the parks. I am exaggerating but not much. The warning comes thanks to the tragic case of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin.

Trayvon was a middle-class African American kid, described by his maths teacher as an “A and B student with a degree in cheerfulness”. He played football in the Little League and enjoyed skiing. Trayvon was staying with family friends in an affluent gated community in Sanford, close to Orlando, when on the evening of 26 February he popped out to buy some candy at the local shop.

On his way home, walking on the pavement, clutching a bag of Skittles and an iced tea he was spotted by George Zimmerman, a 28-year-old local neighbourhood watchman with a gun licence. Zimmerman, who is of Hispanic origin, rang 911 and explained that he had seen someone he regarded as a suspicious individual.

“He’s coming to check me out … he’s got something in his hands.” “Are you following him?” the operator asks. “Yes.” “We don’t need you to do that…” she says. Zimmerman carries on and adds: “These —— (expletive) always get away.” A few minutes later, audible on a second 911 call, Zimmermann shot Trayvon Martin dead with a bullet to the chest. The fatal shot can clearly be heard on the taped call, as can someone shouting help.

According to one witness, the two men were seen wrestling on the ground. So much of this case is not clear. Did Trayvon threaten Zimmerman? Or was he just scared to be pursued by a white man armed with a 9mm pistol? Both men may have felt threatened by each other but only one of them was carrying a gun and used it. The homicide of a 17-year-old should keep the courts busy with a whole raft of questions that need to be addressed.

But the most astonishing thing about the killing of Trayvon Martin is that Zimmerman has not been arrested, charged by the authorities or even questioned under oath. In fact the police have moved him to a different location “for his own safety”. The reason? Under Florida law statute 776 013, you are permitted to “stand your ground”, while feeling threatened and use force to defend yourself.

In this case some say the law is protecting a suspected vigilante. It is outrageous and it has captivated much of America. Once again the issue of race and racial inequality has surfaced, a subject that haunts America to this day, three years after a black President moved into the White House.

The internet, cable TV and newspapers have been bristling with reaction to this case. The vast majority agree on one point. Had the shooter been black and the victim white, an African-American youth would now be in police custody facing manslaughter and possibly murder charges.

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