Trayvon Martin, a high school student from Miami, Fla., was shot and killed on Feb. 26 by neighborhood watch coordinator George Zimmerman in a Sanford, Fla. suburb. Sociology professor Victor Rios discusses the incident and ongoing investigations with the Daily Nexus.
Martin, a 17-year-old African American, was walking home when Zimmerman dialed 911 and began following him after observing Martin conduct himself in what he considered a “suspicious” manner.
Zimmerman ultimately engaged in a violent altercation with the unarmed teenager that resulted in Zimmerman shooting Martin with his 9mm semi-automatic pistol. Although local authorities initially decided his claim to self-defense was valid, the Justice Department announced on March 19 it would further investigate the case; on Monday, State Attorney Angela Corey said her office, rather than a grand jury, will issue the final verdict.
According to Rios, the released 911 call demonstrated dispatchers advising Zimmerman not to pursue Martin. Surveillance footage of Zimmerman entering the Sanford Police Station created speculation that racial profiling played a significant role in the incident.
“It’s gained national attention because it became the right circumstance at the right time,” Rios said. “It was the uniqueness of the case — this was a neighborhood watch guy who hunted down an African American kid and I think the media, early on, decided to make this about race.”
Florida’s 2005 “Stand Your Ground” law allows individuals to use deadly force without first attempting to retreat in cases of self-defense in public settings.
Rios said the law grants a substantial amount of sanctioned power in ordinary citizens’ hands and could legally justify Zimmerman’s actions.
“That ‘Stand Your Ground’ law should actually be called a ‘Kill-at-Will’ law because, essentially, what it does is provide everyday citizens with … the right to decide whether a person is threatening their life, and it can be very abstract what that means,” Rios said. “It’s shoot first, kill at will. It’s a ridiculous law because it allows people to take justice into their own hands and it ties the state’s hands up so that they can’t arrest people like Zimmerman.”
Rios, who wrote a New York Times opinion piece titled “Gunfire as Conflict Resolution” in opposition to the legislation, said Florida’s murder rates increased after the law’s passage.
The law also provides a loophole for gang members to justify murder, according to Rios.
“It’s important to reflect on what we’re creating,” Rios said. “On the one hand, yeah, we want individual rights [but] … it gives a sense of empowerment to people who might already have a tendency to be violent and leads them in the wrong direction.”
Additionally, Rios said the incident highlights the unjust shootings involving trained law enforcement officers.
“I’m thinking here of Oscar Grant in Oakland, California [in] 2009 — shot in the back while handcuffed,” Rios said. “In the state of California, you have at least two dozen kids like Trayvon Martin that end up getting killed by police [every] year and we don’t really do anything about it, because the idea is that the police are justified in shooting these individuals. Sometimes they are, but many times they’re not.”
Rios will deliver the Harold J. Plous Award Lecture next Wednesday, April 18 at 4 p.m. in Corwin Pavilion. His “State Failure and Group Dynamics: Processes of Crime and Desistance Among Marginalized Youths” talk is free and open to the public.