Last week, a Florida Jury acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African American high school student.
On the fateful night of February 26, 2012, Trayvon was gunned down by Zimmerman, as he was walking through Zimmerman’s gated neighborhood. As a member of the “neighborhood watch,” an armed Zimmerman called 911 after spotting Trayvon in his neighborhood. Although he was told by the 911 operator to not pursue the child, he did, nonetheless. What happened next, we will never know, but what we do know for sure is that moments later, the 911 operator heard screams and then a gunshot. The result: The 17-year-old boy was shot and killed.
How is it that Zimmerman could be instructed not to pursue Trayvon (who was unarmed by the way) by a 911 operator, yet continue to follow him, shoot and kill him, and then walk off Scott free? Zimmerman was free from any charges for a number of weeks, until the people and the civil rights community took their protests to the streets. After six weeks of unrest and a media frenzy, including commentary by the president himself, Zimmerman was finally charged with the murder of Trayvon.
Why was the prosecutor so reluctant to charge Zimmerman with the clear-cut murder of a child? The answer lies in Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” statute. Under Florida law, a person may lawfully use deadly force to protect themselves against a perceived threat of harm, without facing the repercussions of a criminal conviction, as “Stand Your Ground” provides absolute immunity.
Zimmerman did just this, he shot and killed an unarmed teenager and stood his ground, after chasing him down, because he looked “suspicious” and “black” in his hooded sweater. But what ground was he standing on exactly? The sinking ground of a nation obsessed with firearms; a perversion of the Second Amendment; a concaving ground that has failed our youth, time and time again.
Too many African American youths and children of color have died under similar circumstances; too many children have been victims of hate, victims of fear, and victims of our fractured system. As a civilized society, we have a duty to protect our youth and pave the road for their future. However, if we cannot overcome legislative initiatives, such as “Stand Your Ground,” or “No Duty to Retreat,” then what have we taught our children? Our children inherit from us what we leave behind, and learn from what we show them, while we are around. As long as these statutes keep trumping the right to life, then we have only taught our youth one lesson, which is every man for himself, and don’t wear a hoodie. Shame on us.
As a civil rights advocate, I am aware that there is no right more fundamental than the right to live. For this reason, I pledge to protect our youth and stand with my brothers and sisters to work toward the end of “Stand your Ground” in states around the county. For this, I stand on a different ground; one that is moral, equitable and just. However, I wonder if Zimmerman, numerous state legislatures and a number of over-zealous gun owners can say the same? Shame on us. We have collectively failed you Trayvon and countless other youths. We continue to let reckless individuals stand their ground, as we bury their victims in the ground. Shame.
I call on the Justice Department, with the power to prosecute Zimmerman under the Federal Hate Crime Statue, to show some courage and stand against this unlawful murder and call it what it is: A hate crime and an ugly marriage between bigotry and gun ownership. Shame on us.
— Nabih Ayad is a local civil rights attorney and the chairman of the Arab American Civil Rights League (ACRL).