Following George Zimmerman’s acquittal a week ago Saturday in Florida, dozens of vigils and demonstrations were held across the nation. Another round was expected this weekend in more than 100 cities. Discussions of controversial elements of the case, including self-defense, vigilantism, race and gun laws, dominated news and talk shows all week.
The debate continues because many Americans of all races and backgrounds understandably feel in various ways that justice was not served. Seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin’s face, surrounded by a hood like the one he was wearing the night Zimmerman shot and killed him, has become a symbol of deeply ingrained, pervasive problems in American culture.
At gatherings around the country, including one that attracted several hundred people to downtown Minneapolis, young boys wore hoodies and carried signs that read “Am I Next?’’ The vigils and protests express shared anger, frustration and heartbreak.
Though the jury did its job, given Florida laws and its instructions from the court, we share the uneasiness about this case. There are a variety of ways to hold someone accountable for causing the death of another person — whether it was intentional or accidental. So it is important that the federal Department of Justice and the Martin family fully explore options for wrongful death and civil-rights actions against Zimmerman.
Continued investigation is merited. Even if Zimmerman were to be exonerated again, it would be reassuring to know the system exhausted every avenue to pursue some level of accountability in this tragedy.
Further independent investigations should also continue in the local case of Terrance Franklin, a young African-American man who in May was shot and killed by Minneapolis police in an Uptown basement. Two officers in the confrontation also were shot. Though the circumstances of the Franklin and Martin cases were very different, both resulted in the death of a youth of color.
Sadly, most of the major cities where demonstrations are taking place have their own Trayvon or Terrance stories — situations where it is unclear why young men of color end up dead, raising questions about the fairness of law enforcement and our justice system.
Martin’s death also sheds light on so-called “stand your ground’’ and concealed-carry gun laws. The eight-year-old stand-your-ground law in Florida, versions of which are in force in more than 20 other states, is wrong. It extends a person’s broad legal right to use deadly force against threats in his home to anywhere and anytime he perceives himself in danger.
These types of laws encourage vigilante behavior, and that’s why this Editorial Board has opposed them. When Zimmerman chose to arm himself and follow Martin, he set the stage for a lethal confrontation.
Allowing increasing numbers of people to carry weapons is not the answer to improving public safety, but concealed carry is now public policy in all 50 states, Minnesota included. Fortunately, though, this state rejected a proposed stand-your-ground law last year. Minnesotans have Gov. Mark Dayton to thank for vetoing that misguided proposal.
Finally, the Zimmerman case has sparked heated debate about whether race was a factor in Martin’s death. One juror who has spoken about the trial said that race was not a consideration and even the court required that only profiling and not “racial profiling’’ could be discussed during the trial.
But race is indeed a factor when it comes to deciding who is “suspicious’’ enough to follow. That’s not based only on feelings or anecdotes from people of color who have experienced it. Scholarly studies and journalistic investigations have confirmed again and again that racial bias exists in this country and infects almost every system — from housing and employment to law enforcement and the courts.
In fact, significant racial disparities have been proven in areas ranging from stop-and-frisk and vehicle searches to criminal sentencing. Recent examination of local law enforcement data submitted to the FBI showed that blacks are far less likely to be found justified in using deadly force in a firearm-related death.
The truth is, young men of color do have reason to worry about how they’ll be perceived — even if they are doing nothing wrong.
Hopefully, the Martin tragedy will spark honest discussions and meaningful actions to address America’s continuing racial issues.