As I wrote about last night, George Zimmerman has been declared innocent, despite admitting that he pursued, shot, and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. As you can tell from what I posted at the time, I was pretty pissed off about that ruling. And today, it has become clear that this sentiment is pretty widespread.
This CBS News report, and numerous other news sources, have reported on protest rallies taking place all across the United States. There are even rallies in solidarity with Trayvon Martin taking place in other countries all across the world today. The NAACP has created an online petition to call upon the US Department of Justice to bring charges of civil rights violations against Zimmerman for his racial profiling of Trayvon Martin. There are various conflicting reports of how many signatures the petition has received so far, but it was at least 100,000, and perhaps as many as 450,000. It’s hard to know for certain, however, as traffic to the petition page was so heavy that it crashed the NAACP’s servers on Saturday night, and again today (Sunday). MoveOn.org created a mirror petition of their own during the initial collapse of the NAACP site, and apparently their servers were strained to the breaking point as well. But as of this writing, though the NAACP website is still down, MoveOn.org is back up, so if you support a federal re-opening of the Zimmerman case on civil rights grounds, check that out.
However, getting Zimmerman convicted of civil rights violations, while it might bring some peace of mind to those who feel he should at least be convicted of something, is nowhere near good enough. Given this precedent, it is clear that “Stand Your Ground” laws like Florida’s, which allow citizens to legally use lethal force against one another even in public places when they feel their lives are threatened, are a threat to minority communities in every state where they apply. I’m allowed to shoot you dead if I’m afraid of you? That’s ridiculous. It’s one thing to have a “Castle” law, which authorizes citizens to use lethal force in their home to defend themselves against someone who breaks in, but when you’re talking about confrontations in public, there should be a duty to retreat. In other words, if you’re afraid of someone, get away from them. You know, just like the 911 operator told Zimmerman to. And if you pursue someone you’re afraid might mean you harm, and start a fight with them, then you don’t get to claim self-defense. You instigated the incident. But in states like Florida, “Stand Your Ground” laws remove this duty to retreat, as long as the shooter is in a place they have a legal right to be.
I want justice for Trayvon Martin, just like millions of other Americans. But far more important than getting Zimmerman convicted is repealing the laws that allowed him to be declared innocent. Yes, Trayvon’s death was a tragedy, and Zimmerman’s acquittal was a travesty. But if we want to keep it from happening again, the most important step is not a continued investigation of this particular case, but a total overhaul of the heinous laws that allowed this to happen in the first place. Nothing we do can bring Trayvon Martin back to life. But if we act now to rid the country of “Stand Your Ground” laws, then we can make sure that Trayvon is remembered not as the first victim in a long list, but as the last. As the one whose death galvanized people into action and marked a genuine turning point.