The opinion I’m about to give is probably a controversial one, but I’ve been giving the Trayvon Martin case a lot of thought since the “not guilty” verdict that has caused international outrage, and I am somewhat bemused by the extremely one-sided picture being painted by the majority of people.
I must start by clarifying one thing. I vehemently disagree with America’s gun laws. I don’t think civilians should be allowed to own guns. I don’t think that having guns in homes and on streets is sensible, safe, or beneficial. I also believe that no one has the right to take another person’s life, and that allowing people to own guns means that this happens even more easily than in countries where guns are banned.
However, I accept that my views on gun ownership are not shared by a large percentage of Americans, and as it’s a separate issue, I’m setting it to the side for the purpose of this article. People can legally own and carry guns in the USA, and they can use them in self defence. It’s not a crime, regardless of my own personal beliefs.
So, leaving that aside, here’s what I don’t understand. Why has the Martin/Zimmerman case become a race issue? For anyone not familiar with it, here’s (my understanding of) what happened.
A community in the States started a neighbourhood watch scheme after suffering from a spate of break-ins and burglaries. A man named George Zimmerman was put in charge of it. He seems to be a regular citizen, no criminal record, well respected. He called 911 to report suspicious behaviour from an unknown man who was wandering around in the rain, “looking at all the houses”. He mentioned that the guy looked as if he could be on drugs, and asked for the police to come. Then the man started to run, and he followed him. There are varied reports from neighbours about what happened next, but it seems as if there was a confrontation, a physical fight, and yells of help from Zimmerman, who then withdrew his gun and shot the man – later calling it self defence.
The unknown man was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old who was staying with relatives in the area. The gunshot killed him. Zimmerman has now been found not guilty of murder.
Had I read this story, reported like this, I would have been saddened and then probably added it to my list of “examples of why guns are bad”. I would then just as quickly have forgotten about it, because, sadly, this kind of story is not at all unusual. People are shot and killed with alarming regularity. The shooters often walk free, too, because the law protects them. I hate it, but there it is.
However, this particular victim was 17 years old, making him a child in legal terms. He was also black.
Because of this, the story is largely being presented like this: Zimmerman racially profiled and stalked an unarmed child, then killed him, simply because he was black.
I really do not understand this. Nothing that is public knowledge about Zimmerman indicates that he’s a racist, or that his concerns were even remotely related to Martin’s skin colour. He only mentioned once that Martin was black, because he was asked directly by the 911 operator. He had made numerous previous calls relating to intruders or strangers who appeared to be behaving suspiciously, so there’s no reason to jump to the conclusion that he singled out this one person based on his skin colour.
What if it had not been Martin, but a white man? There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that Zimmerman would not have responded in the same way. And would this be all over the media, with the public up in arms because the shooter (who is hispanic) stalked and killed a child simply because he was white? Of course it wouldn’t. The media would – as they should be doing here – report on what is known and/or alleged to have happened. A neighbourhood watch leader reported an unknown individual behaving unusually. There was a confrontation, the facts surrounding which are unclear. Eyewitness reports and Zimmerman’s injuries suggest that he was on his back, being beaten and shouting for help, with Martin on top of him when he pulled out his gun and fatally shot him. A jury found him not guilty of murder as he acted in self defence.
Again, I don’t believe in shooting as a form of self-defence – but legally it’s allowed in the US. That, together with the amount of “reasonable doubt” and lack of evidence, means that the verdict returned by the jury was the correct one. You cannot send someone to prison for using a weapon in self defence when laws are in place giving them the right to do so.
I don’t doubt that those jumping on the bandwagon with this probably have good, genuine intentions. Racism and racial profiling are very real issues which need to be addressed, and of course I’m not disputing that. But that isn’t what this case is about – and if anything, turning it into a race issue is doing more harm than good, by putting unnecessary labels on people in a murder/self-defence case where there’s absolutely no evidence that race was a factor. There was no reason to make it one. Calling Martin a child is evocative – and inaccurate. He was 17, well built, and 6’3″. At 17 years old, many people are parents, living alone, or working. He was not a child.
He was young, and it is tragic that he died, and I’m not by any means trying to say that I think he deserved it (I don’t) or that there’s not a possibility that he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time (there is). But I am baffled by how people are calling this a murder of an innocent child, which happened purely because he was black. The facts that we know about the case do not even hint at the possibility that race was a factor.
We don’t know what happened. We weren’t there. Maybe Zimmerman provoked Martin, maybe Martin provoked Zimmerman. But we don’t know. That’s reasonable doubt. The only thing the jury could do was acquit.
The race of either party is completely irrelevant.
So why has it become the sole focus?