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Subhash: Is the “stand your ground” debate helping or hurting justice for Trayvon?

trayvonIt almost hurts me to write anything about Trayvon Martin.  Since he was killed, there has been a massive outcry amongst almost anyone with a beating heart.  As I was preparing for my radio show dedicated to Trayvon’s murder, what struck me about this case is that virtually every person I talked to, White, Black, Brown, liberal or conservative, gun owner or not, is outraged at Trayvon’s murder and the actions/inactions of the Sanford Police Department and local prosecutors.  It hurts even more to criticize people I respect who I feel are making a huge mistake putting Florida’s “stand your ground,”“shoot first” or “self-defense” law (depending on your perspective) on the same trial as Trayvon’s killer George Zimmerman and the cops who failed to do the right thing.  In the end, I think the insistence on making this as much about “stand your ground” as it is about Trayvon, the man that murdered him and the police that didn’t do their job is hurting the case.
 
If you don’t know by now, 17-year-old Miami native Trayvon Martin was visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, a small town north of Orlando.  Volunteer neighborhood watchman, George Zimmerman called the police, follows Trayvon against the advice of a 911 dispatcher,  confronts him and shoots him to death with his legally owned 9 mm pistol.  The cops come and don’t arrest Zimmerman, calling the killing a justifiable homicide.
 
It is not easy to say that people I look up to (and not because I am short) may be hurting Trayvon’s case, and I don’t think it is intentional in any way.  That doesn’t stop my belief that entangling Trayvon’s murder with “stand your ground” is counterproductive. For example, one of my favorite broadcast journalists, Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, spent ten minutes of her Tuesday program talking with guests that labeled attempts to repeal “stand your ground,” “Trayvon’s reversal.”  One of my favorite state senators, Oscar Braynon (D-Miami Gardens) is calling for hearings on “stand your ground,” telling the Miami Herald that "this is a perfect case of where it goes awry.” Mother Jones, a magazine I read often, ran an article yesterday referring to it as “the law protecting Trayvon Martin’s killer.” Josh Horwitz of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, an organization I once featured on my show, did an entire analysis of the bill in a Huffington Post article claiming that the law is “arming Zimmerman’s” defense.  Even a Facebook friend of mine declared on my wall yesterday that Zimmerman was “within the limits of the law.” I could literally go on for pages.
 
There are many, many, things wrong with this all of this.  For starters, accepting that “stand your ground” is the reason Zimmerman is not in jail requires us to believe that Zimmerman was actually defending himself and that the cops who responded to the case actually did their job and were just following the law.  It also means not believing Trayvon’s family lawyer,  Jasmine Rand, who insisted on the exact same Democracy Now program mentioned above that there is more than enough evidence for cops to arrest George Zimmerman and for prosecutors to prosecute him, if only people in power would do their jobs.  Furthermore, almost every person talking about Trayvon’s murder and “stand your ground” in the same breath are either not reading the law, misreading it or reading the wrong parts of it.  In the end, insinuating in any way that Zimmerman, the cops or the prosecutors simply acted within the limits of the law and that the law is the primary problem in this case, not only creates reasonable doubt in the court of public opinion where there should be none, it unnecessarily turns a clear cut case of right vs. wrong, illegal vs. legal, and murder into an unhelpful ideological and culture war that doesn’t benefit Trayvon, his family or justice.
 
If you look at the mountain of evidence in the case, from the 911 tapes where a dispatcher tells Zimmerman to not follow Trayvon into the neighborhood, to the conversation between Trayvon and his girlfriend where he fears he is being followed by someone, to the eyewitnesses in the case who told Anderson Cooper that right after hearing Zimmerman (who outweighed Trayvon by 100 pounds) shoot Trayvon, they saw Zimmerman on top of him,  the idea that Zimmerman was using deadly force to prevent imminent death, great bodily harm or a forcible felony (as the law requires) quickly falls apart. 
 
If people who are much smarter than me would just read the law in its entirety, and not just the parts they like or dislike, they would see that Florida’s “Justifiable Use of Force” statutes (it is not called “stand your ground,” “shoot to kill,”or “yippie ki yay, I’m a cowboy”) include a section (776.041) that few people (even those defending the law) mention which explicitly prohibits a shooter from using self defense as an excuse, when they are the ones provoking the use of force.  In fact, in those cases, the law requires exactly what Senator Braynon and Josh Horwitz want, that people provoking a confrontation must try to escape it, and not just shoot first. 
 
On my show yesterday, Tampa Gun Shop owner and firearms instructor Vic Grechniw, who teaches the same classes that Zimmerman was required to take before getting his Concealed Weapons Permit, not only insists that he sees nothing justifiable in Zimmerman’s actions, he states that he doesn’t know any firearms instructors that would.  The irony of the whole situation is that he believes if you read Florida’s law in its entirety, there was one person that had the right to “stand his ground” against a perceived “imminent” threat, and that person was Trayvon Martin. 
 
But he is not alone,  the Republican lawmakers that crafted Florida’s specific “stand your ground” provisions don’t get why Zimmerman hasn’t been charged yet.  A former Miami Dade prosecutor told the Herald that if Zimmerman was asked to back off (which a 911 dispatcher did), then “he’s not covered by the law.”  Miami criminal defense attorney Marcus Tan told me on my show that if the cops did their jobs, there was more than enough to make an arrest.  By constantly invoking existing Florida law as the primary barrier, some of my friends speaking out for Trayvon while saying that the cops acted within the current law, seem to be the only ones that disagree.
 
If anything, after reading the entire Justifiable Use of Force statute, what troubled me most wasn’t its newer “stand your ground” provisions, but its older provisions (776.05) giving law enforcement officers (as opposed to wannabe cops) a whole lot of leeway to use “any force”(including lethal force) in a wide variety of situations.  Is this the law used to let crooked Miami Beach Cop Adam Tavss off the hook for two questionable shootings in one week two years ago right before he was arrested for growing drugs in his basement?  If so, should the people newly interested in “stand your ground” be interested in reviewing all of it?
 
The reason all of this is important is twofold.  As a practical matter, if this case does go to trial, in criminal court or civil court, it will not be in my old home New York, Washington DC, or California.  It will be in Florida, and likely require a jury of Floridians.  The jury pool may very well consist of people that own guns, have concealed weapons permits, agree with “stand your ground,” but still think murdering a young boy is a GOD-awful thing to do.  The more this is about issues that invoke a culture war and a shooter that acted within “the limits of the law,”and not a clear case of unlawful murder of a young boy and incompetent cops that didn’t make a proper arrest, the more it muddies the minds of people that may serve on a jury.
 
But perhaps more importantly, it is patently unfair to expect Trayvon’s family,  anyone mourning Trayvon’s murder,  hashtagging his name on twitter or saying a prayer for his family to recount, research, or recite the long history of race relations, self defense laws, gun ownership or anything else in order to achieve justice for Trayvon.  If this is a race issue, a gun issue, or a culture war issue, it is  because a man murdered a young boy and the specific cops in the case neither followed the law nor did their job.  Can we all stand our ground, together, on that fact?
 
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Subhash Kateel

Subhash Kateel has been organizing immigrant communities for over twelve years. He was the initiator of the detention and deportation workfor  Desis Rising Up and Moving and of co-Founder of Families For Freedom, a multi-ethnic network of immigrants facing and fighting deportation in 2002. He was also an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition helping to develop community responses to ICE raids, detentions and deportations.  Besides facilitating some of the most sought after know your rights trainings in the South East, he helped lead the We Are Florida! campaign that successfully stopped an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill from passing in the Florida legislature.  He is now the co-host of Let's Talk About It!, a current events talk radio program.  He has called many places home, including Saginaw, Michigan, Brooklyn, New York and now Miami Florida.

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About the Author

  • Subhash Kateel has been organizing immigrant communities for over twelve years. He was the initiator of the detention and deportation workfor  Desis Rising Up and Moving and of co-Founder of Families For Freedom, a multi-ethnic network of immigrants facing and fighting deportation in 2002. He was also an organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition helping to develop community responses to ICE raids, detentions and deportations.  Besides facilitating some of the most sought after know your rights trainings in the South East, he helped lead the We Are Florida! campaign that successfully stopped an Arizona-style anti-immigrant bill from passing in the Florida legislature.  He is now the co-host of Let's Talk About It!, a current events talk radio program.  He has called many places home, including Saginaw, Michigan, Brooklyn, New York and now Miami Florida.

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