WASHINGTON, D.C. – February 26th marked the one-year anniversary of the night Trayvon Martin was tragically shot and killed in Sanford, Florida as he walked from a local 7-Eleven to his stepmother’s townhouse. The Lawyers’ Committee continues to express its sincere condolences and support to Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton on the loss of their son. Martin had the great misfortune of encountering self-appointed neighborhood vigilante George Zimmerman that night. While Martin carried a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea, Zimmerman carried a 9-millimeter gun and a misplaced sense of that he was the arbiter of justice, despite not having a badge and against the instruction of a 911 dispatcher. In Zimmerman’s words, Martin "looks black," "suspicious," and was "up to no good." It took 45 days after Martin’s death before the Sanford police arrested Zimmerman, who alleged he acted in self-defense. Zimmerman’s trial is set for June 10th.
One cannot help but wonder if the heartbreaking events that unfolded exactly one year ago today would have turned out differently had Trayvon Martin been White. Would Zimmerman still think he was "up to no good?" Would Zimmerman still leave his car and pursue him on foot if Martin’s skin color was different? Would it still take the Sanford Police 45 days before they arrested Zimmerman? If Martin was White, would his family be celebrating his 18th birthday instead of mourning his death anniversary? And most importantly, if Zimmerman had not been emboldened by possessing a gun, would he have waited for the police as instructed and averted this tragedy?
The sad reality is that there exists a clear and unfortunate connection between race and gun violence in this country, and if you are African American, you are far more likely to be a victim of gun violence in America, whether the shooter is Black or White. Since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut, the national conversation on the relationship between gun control and gun violence has been reinvigorated and we hope that real action will finally occur in Congress and across the nation to effectively address this issue in every community. Consider this, there have been over 2,280 deaths because of gun violence in this country since Newtown. Black children and teens are inopportunely included in this correlation. For instance, the Children’s Defense Fund’s Protect Children, Not Guns 2012 reports that in 2008 and 2009, Black children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths, but were only 15 percent of the total child population. Moreover, gun homicide was the leading cause of death among Black teens between the ages of 15 and 19.
For too many Black families, these staggering statistics are not just numbers but ingrained into their everyday lives. For instance, Hadiya Pendleton, a 15-year-old honor student, was fatally shot in Hyde Park just days after she returned from participating in President Obama’s inaugural parade.
In Prince George’s County, Maryland, six high schools students have died of gun violence this academic school year, five of these students were African American and the sixth was Hispanic.
A shooting in Chicago last month took the lives of seven people and injured six others. Ronnie Chambers was among those killed on January 26, 2013; he was the youngest son of Shirley Chambers, who had already lost three other children in three separate shootings. In 2000, Ms. Chambers presciently told the Chicago Tribune after she lost her third child, "I only have one child left, and I’m afraid that [the killings] won’t stop until he’s gone too."
In another case, seventeen-year old Jordan Russell Davis was killed on November 23, 2012 by 45-year old Michael David Dunn for playing loud music in Jacksonville, Florida. Dunn pulled up next to Davis and his three friends outside a convenience store. While Dunn’s girlfriend went inside to get food, Dunn, agitated by the loud music coming from the SUV, demanded the African American teens to turn down their music.
The teens refused. Dunn shot at least eight times at the SUV while the teens frantically tried to reverse; two of these bullets fatally hit Davis. Dunn alleges that the he felt threaten by the Black teens and claims the teens flashed a shotgun at him. The Jacksonville sheriff did not find any guns on the SUV, to which Dunn’s attorney Robin Lemonidis retorted, "How hard did they look?" She claims Dunn had no intention to kill and, like Zimmerman, alleges that his actions were in self-defense.
Lemonidis may employ Florida’s controversial "stand your ground" law that was made infamous when Martin was gunned down, although Zimmerman’s defense has decided against invoking the "stand your ground" law and will now allege a traditional self-defense claim. 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. Florida was the first state to pass such a law in 2005 and now more than 20 states have "stand your ground laws" that potentially increase violence and wrongful deaths based on misunderstandings, miscommunication, and racial and ethnic prejudices. They can 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 and erase accountability.
Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara R. Arnwine stated, "As Black History Month comes to a close, let us take a moment to reflect on how the mix of gun violence and racial profiling creates a deadly combination that takes the lives of too many children of color and hits African American communities harder than most. Inaction is not an option."
The Lawyers’ Committee agrees that there needs to be meaningful dialogue about the causes of gun violence, so that tragedies like the death of Trayvon Martin, Hadiya Pendleton and all of the victims, stop occurring. As the nation mourns the loss of too many innocent lives, we should be mindful that proposed legislation and policies address the issue of gun violence and gun homicide in our country thoughtfully and effectively and avoid knee-jerk and ineffective recommendations, such as placing more officers in schools. The Lawyers’ Committee commends actions that tackle gun control and gun violence broadly and effectively so that our classrooms, homes, and inner cities are safer than the day before.