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Rightly or wrongly, people frequently criticize Al Sharpton for being too willing to exploit racial controversy. Yet that may be precisely what he’s doing now, following a controversial shooting in Florida, where Hispanic neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman shot black youth Trayvon Martin, allegedly out of self-defense.
Zimmerman has not been arrested because of Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” laws, which state that as long as someone is on their own property, if they have a reasonable suspicion that their life is in danger, they are allowed to use deadly force, even if doing so requires them to pursue their attacker. Under Florida law, therefore, Zimmerman did nothing wrong, assuming Trayvon Martin actually aggressed against him.
Naturally enough, the fact that Zimmerman is himself a racial minority has done nothing to assuage accusations that he shot young Martin out of subconscious racism, making this possibly a hate crime. Moreover, the fact that Zimmerman hasn’t been arrested has also been seized on as evidence of racism. While not outright making the accusation, Sharpton certainly went for the outrage angle. Mediaite picks up the story:
“I can’t for the life of me understand how they can justify not making an arrest!” Sharpton exclaimed. “Arrest does not mean conviction, but there is probable cause here even with this law that we would question. This is a national outrage to many of us.”[…]
“There was nothing threatening that we have seen in any of this from your son and for this young man to be dead, and this man to pursue him, he’s not a policeman, we don’t even know if your son know who he was, or what he was, or if your son felt threatened. To turn around and make him the victim is something that we cannot sit by and allow to happen. We have to stand with your family.”
“And to call Mr. Zimmerman the victim is a slap in the face to me and my family,” Martin opined. “It’s a slap in the face to our community.”
Which “community” Martin is talking about isn’t immediately obvious, but see if you can figure it out watching the video:
The audio of Zimmerman’s call to 911 has been released to the public. You can listen to it here. If nothing else, the audio weakens the racism charge, as it shows that Zimmerman was already suspicious of the teen before he could tell what race he was. He complains about the Florida justice system in the call, claiming “These (beep) always get away.” The dispatcher still tells him, “We don’t need you to [follow him].” Zimmerman apparently did pursue the teen anyway. There had reportedly been suspicious activity in the neighborhood.
In a second call, one of Zimmerman’s neighbors says ‘the guy’s yelling help,’ without identifying which person is yelling. In the third call, a high pitched wail can be heard from away from the phone, followed by gunshots, which cut off the yelling. The fourth call doesn’t add any new information.
The US Department of Justice’s Civil Rights unit has gotten involved at this point, as has the FBI. George Zimmerman also reportedly had a habit of “calling in everything.” In other words, this story looks increasingly like it may have been the work of an overzealous vigilante, though still probably not an illegal act. In this, it is similar to another racially charged case known as People v. Goetz, from the 1990’s. In it, a man who was approached by four black young people, one of whom demanded five dollars, and shot all of them with a revolver. Goetz was cleared of all charges (charges which included attempted murder) except for illegally carrying a firearm. Whether Zimmerman will be similarly cleared is another story.
We’re also learning more about Trayvon Martin. According to reporters he had been suspended from school. The International Business Times says Martin’s suspension was due to last for 10 days. But what exactly was he suspended for in the first place? Sources sympathetic to Martin say he was suspended for “excessive tardiness.” However, a quick review of both the local policies for Martin’s school, the Dr. Michael M. Krop Senior High School, and of the Miami-Dade school district’s district-wide policies, raise some doubts. According to Miami-Dade policy, in order to get a suspension of 10 days, Martin would have had to either commit “repeated, serious or habitual” acts of the following:
• Confrontation with a staff member
• Defiance of school personnel
• Distribution of items or materials that are inappropriate
for an educational setting*
• Failure to comply with previously prescribed corrective
• False accusation
• Fighting (minor)
• Harassment (non-sexual or isolated)
• Instigative behavior
• Leaving school grounds without permission
• Joining clubs or groups not approved by the School Board
• Petty theft (under $300.00)
• Use of profane or provocative language directed at someone
• Prohibited sales on school grounds (other than
• Possession and/or use of tobacco products
• Vandalism (minor)
Or even occasional offenses from the following:
• Assault/Threat against a non-staff member
• Breaking and Entering/Burglary
• Bullying (repeated harassment)*
• Disruption on campus/Disorderly conduct
• Fighting (serious)
• Harassment (Civil Rights)**
• Hazing (misdemeanor)
• Possession or use of alcohol and/or controlled
• Possession of simulated weapons
• Sexual harassment**
• Vandalism (major)
Or of the following:
• Grand theft (over $300.00)
• Hate crime
• Hazing (felony)
• Motor vehicle theft
• Other major crimes/incidents
• Sale and/or distribution of alcohol and/or controlled substances
• Sex offenses (other) (including possession and/or
distribution of obscene or lewd materials)
Or possibly even of the following, each of which carries a minimum suspension of ten days:
• Aggravated assault
• Aggravated battery against a non-staff member
• Armed robbery
• Assault/Threat against M-DCPS employees or persons
conducting official business
• Battery or Aggravated battery against M-DCPS employees
or persons conducting official business*
• Making a false report/threat against the school*
• Sexual battery
• Possession, use, sale, or distribution of firearms, explosives,
destructive devices, and other weapons.
But whatever the reason, it’s a case that you’ll probably be hearing more about in the future.
This story has been updated for clarity.