Civil rights groups commemorated the slaying a year ago of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose shooting death sparked a national campaign that highlighted issues of racial profiling, the inequity and questionable application of Stand Your Ground laws, devaluation of Black victims by law enforcement and the prevalence of gun violence.

One year ago, Feb. 26, Trayvon Martin was walking from a convenience store to his stepmother’s townhouse in Sanford, Fla., when a self-appointed neighbourhood watchman George Zimmerman gunned him down. The shooting shined a national spotlight on Florida’s 2005 “stand your ground” law, which justifies the use of force in self-defense, without retreat, when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat. But civil rights groups have decried the law, saying it could potentially increase violence and wrongful deaths based on misunderstandings, miscommunication, and racial and ethnic prejudices.

“While Martin carried a bag of Skittles and a can of ice tea, Zimmerman carried a 9-millimeter gun and a misplaced sense that he was the arbiter of justice, despite not having a badge and against the specific instruction of a 911 dispatcher. In Zimmerman’s words, Martin ‘looks Black,’ ‘suspicious,’ and was ‘up to no good,” the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said in a statement.

It later added, “These laws have contributed to an atmosphere of vigilante justice in our society, and when combined with an individual’s racial prejudices, create tragic results and erase accountability.”

Since the shooting, the NAACP has pursued a campaign against such laws. But, it has also pointed the finger at law enforcement’s unfair treatment of Black victims, as in Martin’s case: Zimmerman wasn’t arrested until 44 days after the African-American teen’s death, and even then, was only charged with second-degree murder. His trial is set for June 10.

“One year ago today, a man tracked down an innocent boy and killed him in cold blood the local police leadership compounded the tragedy by letting the killer go free,” said NAACP President and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous in a statement Feb. 26. “Thanks to the courageous determination of his parents and millions of outraged Americans, Trayvon Martin’s killer is now facing murder charges, and the local police chief has been replaced.”

Added Roslyn M. Brock, chairman of the NAACP National Board of Directors: “Today serves as a tragic reminder that more must be done to protect our young Black men. The NAACP is honoring Trayvon Martin’s memory by working in communities across the nation to bring an end to both the culture that encourages racial profiling and stereotyping of our Black youth and laws that permit a person to claim self-defense after pursuing and killing an innocent teenager.”

Part of the solution must involve reform of the nation’s gun laws to increase safety among the nation’s children, the Lawyers’ Committee said, especially since Black youth, like Trayvon, are disproportionately affected by gun violence.

For example, according to Protect Children, Not Guns 2012 , a Children’s Defense Fund’s report in 2008 and 2009, Black children and teens accounted for 45 percent of all child and teen gun deaths, but were only 15 percent of the total child population. Moreover, gun homicide was the leading cause of death among Black teens between the ages of 15 and 19.

“As Black History Month comes to a close, let us take a moment to reflect on how the mix of gun violence and racial profiling creates a deadly combination that takes the lives of too many children of color and hits African American communities harder than most,” said Lawyers’ Committee President and Executive Director Barbara R. Arnwine in a statement. “Inaction is not an option.”


Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO