By Rick Outzen, Jessica Forbes and Sarah McCartan
On a hot, sticky Saturday afternoon, a small crowd of families and teenagers gathered in the south Palafox Street parking lot of New World Landing. Around them people were parking and walking in baseball gear toward the Pensacola Bayfront Stadium to watch their Blue Wahoos play the Huntsville, Ala. Stars.
The crowd in the parking lot was different than the baseball fans. They carried handmade signs:
“Justice for Trayvon”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere – MLK”
“Stop the violence”
“Repeal Stand Your Ground”
“We are Trayvon Martin”
Many of the teenagers wore hoodies, like Trayvon Martin did the night he was killed by George Zimmerman. In the crowd, which gradually grew to nearly 300 people, were several P.A.I.N.—Parents Against Injustice & Negligence—mothers, who had lost children to street violence (Independent News, “A Mother’s Pain,” Jan. 3). They wanted to show support for this peace walk.
Ever since Martin, a 17-year-old African American high school student, was fatally shot by Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch coordinator, on the night of Feb. 26, 2012, inside a gated community in Sanford, Fla., the incident has been highly charged. Family members and national civil rights figures decried racial profiling and blamed Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which some felt allowed Zimmerman to shoot the unarmed teenager with immunity. On the political right, Zimmerman, who was employed as an insurance underwriter at the time of the shooting, was portrayed as a victim of the evil liberal media and the poster child for the Second Amendment and gun rights advocates.
When the trial began on June 24, many conservative pundits warned of race riots if Zimmerman was found not guilty. The right leaning Washington Times ran a poll— “Will there be riots in Florida if George Zimmerman receives a not-guilty verdict by a jury of his peers?” Three out of four of the respondents answered yes.
On the eve of the verdict, Florida Governor Rick Scott’s office issued a brief statement of concern over possible violence.
“Our office is in contact with law enforcement throughout Florida to ensure they have the resources needed to keep Floridians safe,” said Melissa Sellers, Scott’s communications director.
So when the jury of six women found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter, Nina Robinson, a 14-year-old Pine Forest High School freshman, wanted to prove those fear mongers wrong. She sought to hold what she considered to be a “peace walk” for Trayvon, here in her home community to mirror the national rallies organized by Rev. Al Sharpton’s National Action Network taking place around the country.
This slight-framed, quiet girl and her friends had no experience in organizing such an event, but her idea gained momentum via social media channels and drew widespread attendance of families, activists and non-activists alike, and youth—a lot of them. The walk from New World Landing up Palafox Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza was the largest rally of its kind in Northwest Florida held on Saturday, July 20.
“I wanted to have a voice and have people really care,” said Robinson. “We can make a difference and the walk shows that grown-up people can do it, and that youth can do it too.”
In the wake of the Zimmerman verdict, the lingering question for Robinson and her friends, as well as other average citizens who care about justice and civil rights, is—what else can be done to ensure similar shootings don’t happen?
And further, will the federal government step in? Will Trayvon Martin’s family file a lawsuit in civil court against Zimmerman? Will the Florida Legislature amend or repeal its “stand your ground” law?
Justice for Trayvon
In addition to Robinson’s local peace walk, more than a hundred “Justice for Trayvon” rallies were held nationwide on July 20. Community leaders, celebrities, and regular citizens joined side-by-side to remember Trayvon Martin and to press for federal civil rights charges to be brought against Zimmerman, as well as standing against the “stand your ground” state laws that were heavily mentioned in regards to this case.
“Today it was my son. Tomorrow it might be yours,” voiced Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton at the New York rally.
“This could be any one of our children. Our mission now is to make sure that this doesn’t happen to your child,” said Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, at a similar rally in Miami.
A day prior to the rally, President Obama spoke out in regard to his initial message that Trayvon could have been his own son—personalizing it a step further.
“When Trayvon Martin was first shot, I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is: Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago,” said the president.
Obama talked about the challenges facing African-American boys in this country. “African-American young men are disproportionately involved in the criminal justice system; they’re disproportionately both victims and perpetrators of violence.”
He also pointed out that statistically somebody like Trayvon Martin was more likely to be shot by a peer than by someone else. However, he also voiced the frustration in the African-American community that “if a white male teen was involved in the same kind of scenario, that, from top to bottom, both the outcome and the aftermath might have been different.”
Earlier in the week, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out at the NAACP Annual Convention in Orlando. He told the audience that the Justice Department has an ongoing investigation into the shooting death of Trayvon Martin and is considering all available information to determine what action to take.
“Independent of the legal determination that will be made,” said Holder. “I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly and openly about the complicated and emotionally-charged issues that this case has raised.”
He said, “It’s time for the nation to commit to a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality so we can meet division and confusion with understanding, with compassion and ultimately with truth, however hard that is.”
He called for an examination of such laws as “stand your ground” that he asserted senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and profess to fix something that was never broken.
Stand Your Ground
Florida’s “stand your ground” law eliminated the long-standing duty of a person to first attempt to retreat from a situation before using deadly force, and it also expanded the right to defend oneself using deadly force outside of one’s home to “any other place where he or she has a right to be,” as long as that person is not engaged in a crime at the time. Since Florida passed the law in 2005, over 20 other states have passed similar legislation.
Though Zimmerman’s attorney did not use the law in his defense, “stand your ground” was cited countless times in discussions and analysis of the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Circuit Judge Debra Nelson’s instructions to the Zimmerman jury included the statement that he had no duty to retreat as per Florida’s “stand your ground” law.
On CNN’s “State of the Union,” Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called for review of “stand your ground” laws, including his own state’s version, in light of the Martin shooting.
“The ‘stand your ground’ law may be something that may need to be reviewed by the Florida legislature or any other legislature that has passed such legislation,” McCain said during the July 21 broadcast.
While fellow Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas has argued that Holder’s call for a review of “stand your ground” laws furthered what he asserted was the Obama administration’s agenda against Second Amendment rights, McCain, who lost to Obama in the 2008 presidential election, disagreed.
“Isn’t it time for America to come together?” McCain asked. “I’d rather have a message of coming together and discussing these issues rather than condemning.”
In Florida, Governor Rick Scott has shown little appetite for repealing “stand your ground.” Last year, he appointed a task force, which included Okaloosa County Sheriff Larry Ashley, to review the law in wake of Martin’s shooting. Its final report offered only minor changes.
Since July 15, two days after the Zimmerman verdict, protesters, calling themselves “Dream Defenders,” have occupied the Florida Capitol. The group wants Scott to call a special session to debate and change the state’s “stand your ground” law. The governor has steadfastly refused. Instead he called for a statewide “Day of Prayer for Unity in Florida.”
“We have a great state with wonderful, resilient people that rise to meet any challenge,” Scott told the protestors. “While emotions run high during this time of grieving, it is even more important that we join together to strengthen and support one another.”
State Sen. Greg Evers (R-Baker), who sponsored the House version of the bill, said that he didn’t view the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case as having anything to do with “stand your ground” laws. As far as possible legislative ramifications as a result of the case, he said we’d just have to wait and see what kind of legislation was introduced next session.
“He didn’t even claim ‘Stand Your Ground,’” said Evers. “I don’t know why everyone keeps connecting the two.”
One Florida lawmaker looking to repeal or amend “stand your ground” is State Rep. Clovis Watson Jr. (D-Alachua). He told The Gainesville Sun that he doesn’t see it as a gun rights issue. Rather “stand your ground” creates an opportunity for violence for people not trained in handling volatile situations.
“I believe in self defense,” Watson, who worked more than 20 years in law enforcement, told the Gainesville, Fla. daily newspaper. “I will defend myself and my family in clear, imminent danger, but the ‘stand your ground’ law just takes it a step further.”
The American Bar Association has launched a task force to assess the utility and necessity of “stand your ground” and report on “the potential effects these laws may have on public safety, individual liberties and the criminal justice system.”
“The task force has been holding hearings across the country since early this year to examine ‘stand your ground’ from a legal perspective and ask tough questions about the consequences of these laws for public safety,” says Laurel G. Bellows, president of the American Bar Association.
Three hearings have been held in Dallas, Chicago and Philadelphia, with a fourth scheduled for San Francisco this month. That testimony combined with other data and analysis will ultimately lead to a full report and policy recommendations.
Mike Papantonio, president of the National Trial Lawyers Association and partner in the Pensacola law firm Levin, Papantonio, Thomas, Mitchell, Rafferty & Proctor, isn’t optimistic that the Florida Legislature will change or repeal “stand your ground.”
“If you had a rational legislature and governor, something might happen,” he said. “The legislation is not going to change. The chance of them doing anything is almost zero.”
Challenges of a Civil Trial
While lawmakers and civil rights activists ponder what do next, Trayvon Martin’s family is considering filing a wrongful death lawsuit against George Zimmerman in civil court. Such a suit was filed against O. J. Simpson, who had been acquitted in the deaths of his ex-wife, Nicole, and her friend Ron Goldman, by Goldman’s family. The jury found Simpson liable for the wrongful death of Goldman and awarded $33.5 million in compensatory and punitive damages to his family.
“Stand your ground” makes it much more difficult for Martin’s family in a civil suit against Zimmerman, even though his attorneys did not use the law as part of his defense in his criminal trial. If Martin’s family sues him, Zimmerman would be entitled to a hearing at which he would be given a chance to show that he used deadly force only because he was in reasonable fear of death or serious injury.
If he won his “stand your ground” hearing, Zimmerman would not only get the civil suit thrown out, but, under the law, the Martin family would have to pay him attorneys’ fees, expenses and compensation for any loss of income resulting from the proceedings.
Even if the Martin family’s suit prevailed in the hearing, some doubt that there will be few assets for the family to levy should they win the civil case. There are too many ways for Zimmerman to protect an income from future book or movie deals, according to Pensacola attorney Mike Papantonio, who is also the former assistant state attorney.
“This is not a money making case,” he told the Independent News. “They have to go into this because the cultural issues are so important and it will continue bringing to light ‘stand your ground.’”
For this civil case, Papantonio urged going into it colorblind—something that he suggested was lost amidst the criminal case. He believes that “stand your ground” can be attacked without bringing the race issue into the courtroom.
“The race card just inflames potential jurors—especially in a conservative environment, like Sanford which is such a knee-jerk conservative community,” he said. “If you take race out of it—there is a higher chance of winning.”
He recommended bringing up the pertinent questions that he believes were overlooked by the prosecutors, such as did Zimmerman put himself in a situation where the ending was inevitable?
“They should have looked at Zimmerman putting himself into that situation [when he was warned not to do so], and take the race issue out of it,” said Papantonio.
“‘Stand your ground’ says that simply you have to retreat,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean you can put yourself in or seek out a dangerous situation.”
Papantonio felt those trying the case against Zimmerman needed to face “stand your ground” head on. They should have started off with attacking the “stand your ground” law. He cited a famous trial lawyer Louis Nizer who said, “Always say out loud the bad things the jury is thinking about your case. State the bad things first and dress them up.”
Papantonio lamented that the only version heard of what happened on that fateful Feb. 26, 2012 night was Zimmerman’s.
As he said, “No one tells a dead man’s story.”
Youth Cry Out
What does the death of Trayvon Martin and the outcome of the case mean both to, and for, the youth of our nation now that what feels like a precedent has been set, making it in the eyes of many, okay to murder an unarmed black teen, and yet remain in accordance with the laws of the land—at least the land of Florida?
Nina Robinson, her friends and their parents have been pondering that question since their July 20 rally. The overarching feeling walking away from the rally for adults and youth alike was simple yet distinct—having a voice.
Pensacola native and mother, Jamequa Davis, attended the rally with her sons.
“People walked away from the rally with a different aspect about life,” she said. “We were there together, with one voice. We are all Trayvon Martin.”
Like many, Davis feels that an injustice occurred with the death of Martin, and would like to see the “stand your ground” law demolished.
“What George Zimmerman did to Trayvon was cruel,” shared Davis’ son Shawn, age 11.
When asked if he felt that he had a voice to make a change, Shawn replied, “Yes,” agreeing that talking to his friends and other youth about what happened to Trayvon is important in seeing that it doesn’t happen again—closer to home.
Kiera, age 14, attended the rally with her mother, Clorissti Mitchell.
“I was glad a lot of people came out to support,” said Kiera. “We thought that what happened to Trayvon was unfair.”
Like Shawn, Kiera feels she too has a voice—and that unified events “like the walks,” will help in raising awareness and “letting people know what happened.”
“The walk showed me that youth can come together. If we all come together we have a voice,” she said.
For both youth and their parents involved, this rally is not merely a onetime event, but rather a stepping off point, from which they will continue to mobilize the youth to rally for change.
“We have to come together as parents—like we did on that walk,” said Davis. “We’re doing this as one voice—for one reason.”
“Part of our problem is we really don’t empower our youth,” said Mitchell. “Their eyes and their hearts are open. We have to use this as a teaching moment.”
Mitchell is using this moment—and taking it far beyond. She is currently working to organize a series of youth-directed forums targeted at gaining collective involvement and enthusiasm for youth to serve as change agents. The inaugural youth forum is set for 3 p.m. on Saturday, August 24 at the Cobb Resource Center. For more information about the forum call 736-4086.
This kickoff session will be a time for youth, 25 and under, to come together for a rant session, to discuss issues they are facing or witnessing in the community, issues that will then be addressed in upcoming sessions. This, and future forums, will include engaging, fun activities and educational components.
Although beginning on a local level with the intent of integrating the youth further into the politics of and programs within our own community, Mitchell hopes to take things further, and is in the process of planning a trip to Tallahassee to participate in the sit-ins.
“We want ‘stand your ground’ to be repealed or revised,” she said. “There are strengths in numbers but we have to go beyond Pensacola.”
On July 24, Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s father, spoke at a Capitol Hill forum sponsored by the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys.
“We’ve taken that negative energy [from his son’s death] and we’re trying to turn it into a positive,” said the father. “What we can do tomorrow—as a nation, as a people—to stop someone else’s child from being killed is certainly a positive.”