Like so many, we are deeply sad that 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a Florida high school student, was shot by 28-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman. Sad for a young life cut short. Sad for his family and friends. We cannot help asking questions and seeking answers about what might have made a difference – and might help to prevent this from happening again.
We can wish that this tragedy would be about something other than race, but what if things had been the other way around? Suppose that Trayvon had followed Zimmerman and then ended up in a fight that led to Zimmerman getting killed? Suppose that Trayvon had claimed it was self-defense? What would law enforcement officials have believed and done?
Why did Zimmerman believe that Trayvon was a threat? What is the impact on young black men and boys when their parents have to warn them that they are more likely than others to be seen as dangerous.
Trayvon was walking home from the store in the gated community where he was staying with his father. What do we need to change so people who are minding their own business can drive and walk in our communities without being distrusted for no reason except their color? This sad story has understandably renewed many Americans’ concerns about racism.
Does the claim of “self-defense” and the “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida truly provide enough justification for law enforcement officials to let someone who shot and killed an unarmed teen simply leave and go home with his gun? Why has it taken a month-long national outcry to get authorities to launch a full investigation so that justice can be served? Why does an innocent boy have to be killed before authorities question laws that put unqualified people into positions of perceived power for which they have no training or accountability?
There are conflicting stories about exactly what happened. What seems clear according to the recording of the 911 call is that George Zimmerman told the operator that he thought Trayvon was suspicious because, he was “walking around as if he is up to no good.” He also said, “These assholes, they always get away.”
The 911 operator asked Zimmerman if he was following Martin and, when he said he was, said emphatically, “We don’t need you to do that.” Sadly, whatever else might have followed, Zimmerman did follow Trayvon, which led to the conflict that resulted in Zimmerman shooting his gun.
How can tragedies like this be avoided? Laws must be changed to ensure boundaries that do not allow a claim of “self-defense” to become a justification for killing someone after provoking a conflict. Education needs to be done about how our assumptions about race can be disrespectful and unfair without making anyone safer.
And individuals need skills. Because conflicts can so easily escalate into violence, effective personal safety training prepares people to make the safest choices. For example, at Kidpower, we coach people of all ages, genders, and races to practice:
- using target denial and leaving instead of getting into fights over property or insults or for revenge.
- projecting an attitude of respect, awareness, and confidence when confronted, no matter how one feels inside;
- recognizing and managing emotional triggers, rather than being ruled by them.
Nothing can bring Trayvon back. His death leaves us with hard questions. Finding answers that protect other young people regardless of their color will help to give meaning to his life.