Archived Story

What about Trayvon Martin’s ground?

Published 9:13am Friday, July 20, 2012

Column: Notes from Home

You are walking home from the convenience store, a bag of Skittles in the pocket of your sweatshirt, sipping iced tea and talking on your mobile. You take a shortcut through a neighborhood you haven’t been in before.

It’s quiet. Nobody is out in their yards. Curtains and blinds are drawn in the windows facing the street.

You’re so engaged with your phone call that it takes you awhile to notice a car, driving real slow, a hundred feet or so behind you. It’s a man, you think, from quick glances over your shoulder, but you can’t be sure. It’s getting to be dusk and the light is fading. You see enough in those quick glances to figure out it’s definitely not a mail truck. Or a police cruiser.

The car stops, and you hear a car door open and shut, the footsteps of someone walking up behind you. The blank faces of the houses around you are a problem now; you have no idea if anyone could hear if you called out for help or started screaming.

You walk faster, but the footsteps behind you get faster, too. Finally you stop and turn around. It’s a man, walking fast. He’s fumbling at his belt as he stares at you.

What do you do? You have seconds to decide whether this man is friend or foe, whether he means you harm or is going to walk on by.

So what do you do?

The story about Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman has been circulating for months now, ever since it came out that a white Hispanic man had shot an unarmed black teenager, and Lady Justice appeared to have shrugged her shoulders. It’s a terrible story about an unnecessary violent death.

The shooter, Zimmerman, wasn’t charged at first because Florida law allows anyone to shoot anybody anywhere if the shooter feels threatened. It’s called “standing your ground,” and it’s been promoted by supporters of conceal-and-carry gun laws. Stand your ground laws tie the “right” to live without fear to the “right” to kill anybody you feel threatened by.

But who actually had the “right” to stand his ground in this confrontation?

Everybody seems to assume it’s about Zimmerman’s right to shoot when he felt threatened. But what about Martin’s right to stand his ground? He was not a lawbreaker in that neighborhood, just a teenage boy, talking to his girlfriend on his mobile while walking to his father’s house.

In this situation, given what we’ve learned about Zimmerman, Martin was the one being threatened. And it wasn’t a mistaken perception; an armed, possibly paranoid man really was stalking him. So why isn’t this a story about Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his ground, to fight back when someone attacked him?

Probably because he’s dead. And because he’s black and male.

If Martin had been armed, had shot and killed his stalker, I don’t see him getting the kind of treatment Zimmerman got at first: cleaned up, questioned and then released. I’m not sure we’re free of prejudice when it comes to violence between people of different skin colors. Not yet.

Anyway, even setting prejudice aside, if Martin had possessed a gun that night, and if he’d fired at Zimmerman, would he have been a good enough marksman to drop his stalker with a single shot? Or would a gun battle have ensued between the two of them? How many shots might have gone wild? How many other people put in danger?

Over the past two decades, supporters of conceal-and-carry and “stand your ground” legislation have had no real opposition. They’ve gotten most of what they want from legislators, governors and judges; it’s almost easier to legally carry a concealed gun than drive a car in a few states. Although he hasn’t done much that impresses me, I’m glad Mark Dayton was in the governor’s chair this session, or “stand your ground” would have become legal in Minnesota.

Shootouts and the deaths of teenagers are probably not the results “stand your ground” supporters expect or want — or at least I hope that’s true. But terrible stories about unnecessary violent deaths are the price we all pay for their right to shoot first and ask questions later.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea.