Kentucky State University students and faculty added their voices last week to the chorus of protests that’s mounted since Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American, was fatally shot two months ago by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. Exactly how the confrontation unfolded and whether the shooting was in self-defense, as Zimmerman claimed, are the big questions to be addressed.
Official investigations are underway. Whatever they determine, no one disputes the tragedy of what occurred – a young man lost his life in an act of violence. It’s something that happens too often in too many American communities, with or without racial conflict. The fact that this case involved persons of different skin colors (Zimmerman, 28, has white and Hispanic parents) has focused attention on race relations and profiling. Martin was walking through a gated community when Zimmerman apparently became suspicious and started tailing him. The shooter said he defended himself when Martin assaulted him.
Neighborhood watch, it should be noted, is an effective crime deterrent. Law-enforcement authorities routinely advise citizens to exercise vigilance and notify police of any unusual activities in their neighborhoods. But making the leap from vigilance to vigilante justice is another matter. Neighborhood watch groups are supposed to convey their concerns to police, not take the law in their own hands.
In the Sanford incident, police tapes reveal Zimmerman communicated his unease about Martin, clad in a “hoodie,” and indicated he planned to continue tracking the teen – against a dispatcher’s advice. Should the volunteer’s claim of self-defense be substantiated, he’s still culpable for recklessly putting himself in a dangerous predicament – the kind of situation law-enforcement professionals are trained to handle.
Police initially said they could not arrest Zimmerman because there was insufficient evidence to disprove his claim of self-defense. A special prosecutor has since been appointed to consider the possibility of bringing manslaughter or murder charges.
The prosecutor needs time to complete the investigation and try to determine as accurately as possible just what occurred. But protesters are restive. They should pause a moment to reflect on the not-so-good old days when mobs of white thugs, impatient with due process and convinced of their own correctness, lynched black suspects before the justice system could get its work done.
No one realistically expects a lynching but some activists have all but tried and convicted the neighborhood watch gunman in the court of public opinion. Even President Obama weighed in, commenting that if he’d had a son, the boy would have looked like Trayvon. At least the president was more reserved than in 2009 when he declared police “acted stupidly” in arresting a black Harvard professor for disorderly conduct during a burglary investigation at the academic’s home. Obama admitted he didn’t witness the incident and couldn’t say what role, if any, race might have played.
While the homicide investigation continues in Florida, the FBI is also looking into the possibility that the slain teen’s civil rights were violated. Special Agent Dave Couvertier told the Los Angeles Times there’d be no rush to judgment. “Let all the facts come out,” he urged, “let us finish our investigation, and at that point, the nation will be better informed.”
This is good advice for anyone who really wants to get at the truth about what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman that February night.