Standing One’s Ground?

The horrific and unjustified killing of Trayvon Martin has naturally touched off a lot of discussion of whether the killing was racially motivated, with comments ranging from ‘but Zimmerman is Hispanic!’ to ‘the audio sounds like “f… c..n” to me.’ There’s a good summary of the case and the protests in the Guardian, here.

Not to downplay this debate about motivations, it seems to me that the real, structural racism can be found in Florida’s “stand your ground” law. In case you missed it, here’s a quick summary. In most states (but fewer all the time!), you can only plead that you killed someone in self-defense if you could not have safely run away. In Florida, though – and, I hear, in 22 other states – you have no obligation to try to escape. Instead, you can “stand your ground,” and kill your assailant, even if you could easily have escaped.

The problems with this are obvious – and gruesomely illustrated by Martin’s death. The law puts life-and-death decisions in the hands of people who may not have the capacity to make such decisions wisely. In this case, the most favorable interpretation of Zimmerman’s actions is that he made a mistake and thought he was in danger when he was not.

That’s way too favorable, by the way. The story seems to be that Zimmerman chased Martin in his car, than got out, confronted him, and shot him dead. That doesn’t qualify even as standing his ground.

The more general issue is – why are such laws being passed? The only reason I can imagine is what Stuart Hall called a “moral panic.” (See his book Policing the Crisis.) In this case, the belief – fundamentally racist, but deeply embedded in American culture – that we are besieged by a hoard of violent black criminals creates uncritical public support for the feeling that we ought to be able to shoot someone who threatens us. Of course, it also makes nutcases like Zimmerman feel threatened because a black kid is wearing a hoodie.

Of course Zimmerman should be charged, and the local authorities failure to charge him should be investigated. Beyond that, though, it’s time to repeal these “stand your ground” laws.