Sunday, July 14, 2013

Self-Defense: The Death of Trayvon Martin

The verdict is in: George Zimmerman was found not guilty last night for the death of Trayvon Martin, a  Black teen who Zimmerman, a neighborhood watchman,  admitted he shot one rainy February 2012 night in a gated Florida community as Trayvon walked from a local 7-11 back to the townhome he was staying in with his father. Trayvon had turned 17 only three weeks before. Even though Zimmerman got out of his vehicle to find Trayvon after he took off running through the complex, his defense centered around self-defense, claiming that Trayvon confronted then sucker-punched him, broke his nose and slammed his head onto the concrete, causing him to fear for his life and shoot Trayvon through the heart.

For the record, I think it's a shame that a young man is dead and his shooter will not be held responsible for that. But, as thinking about how poorly the case was tried from an evidence perspective makes me horribly upset (really, the prosecution did a pathetically piss-poor job), I'm doing my best to understand this tragedy from a self-defense perspective.

When I teach self-defense workshops, I take my students through the basic tenants for staying out of the fray - awareness, avoidance, de-escalation and a noisy escape - each based on the assumption that the tenant before it was ineffective or simply not enough. When detailing and describing them to my female students, I always remember an adage I leaned from one of my senseis when I was just a white belt:
Avoid before block.
Block before injure.
Injure before maim.
Maim before kill.
Kill before die.
For all life is precious. 

In other words, there are steps you must take to not only keep from ending up needing to defend yourself, but also to stay out of the nonsense for as long as possible - and that is exactly how I explain those four tenants to my workshop participants.

Based on the reports Zimmerman gave Sanford police during his initial interviews, he was certainly aware that Trayvon was in his neighborhood, looking "suspicious" by walking slowly, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and actually turning to look toward Zimmerman when he seemingly became aware that he was being followed by a strange man in an SUV. But because Zimmerman said he got out of the car to find the "suspect" when Trayvon ran and disappeared, there isn't much in the way to suggest that Zimmerman's goal was avoidance. 

Zimmerman also told police that he thought Trayvon doubled back to confront him (according to Trayvon's friend, Rachel Jeantel, with whom he was on the phone with while walking, she heard Trayvon say "Get off!" moments before the phone went dead). Zimmerman did not tell Trayvon he was a community watchman, nor did he ask Trayvon if he was lost or needed assistance. If he made any other attempts to verbally de-escalate the situation, he did not mention them to the police. Zimmerman claims he was unable to escape because Trayvon knocked him to the ground, straddled him and slammed his head on the sidewalk concrete repeatedly (although Trayvon's body was found in the grass at least 20-ft. away from the sidewalk and at least one eye-witness reported seeing  Zimmerman on top of Trayvon shortly after the shooting - but I digress). Folks living nearby who called 911 to report the disturbance said they heard someone screaming for help and in one recorded call, screams that stop immediately after the single gunshot rang out can be heard in the background. Forensic experts and family members of Trayvon and Zimmerman all disagreed on which of the two could be heard screaming. 

As far as Trayvon goes, he apparently was aware that he was being followed because his friend, Rachel, testified that he told her that he was. She said she told him to run and he did. Whether Trayvon came to Zimmerman or Zimmerman approached him is not clear (Zimmerman's account via videotaped interview from the scene two days after the shooting was inconsistent to say the least), but Zimmerman said that Trayvon asked him why he was following him. A physical confrontation followed and although forensic evidence showed no blood or other DNA of Zimmerman's on Trayvon's hands or clothing at all, Trayvon was shot at virtually point-blank range.

So what went wrong? Many say Trayvon should have just run home after he initially got away from Zimmerman. I don't happen to be totally sure that he didn't try as the evidence doesn't (or can't, since the only person who could have told about that part is unable to share it) show that he could have gotten turned around in the dark or decided to just lay low until the threat disappeared. 

But for me, the real question is this: If Trayvon had an obligation to get away, why didn't Zimmerman as well? How come he wasn't expected to "just go home"? Making Trayvon the one at fault because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time strikes me as so wrong on so many levels. That any Black teen should be thought suspicious for simply walking home is the real tragedy. Or at least, it should be.

Of course a guilty verdict yesterday would not have brought Trayvon back. It would not have ended his parents' pain, stopped Black moms like me from sudden urges to give our sons safety instructions for walking down neighborhood streets, and it certainly wouldn't have washed away comparisons of this tragedy to those of Emmett Till, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo, Rodney King, Eleanor Bumpurs and so many others, but it might have demonstrated to the world that you can't just shoot an unarmed Black kid through the heart and walk away scott-free. 

I hope there won't ever be a next time, but because I remember that it was 46 days after Trayvon's death before Zimmerman was even arrested, I'm of the mindset that there unfortunately may be. 

And when there is, I'll pray that it won't take so long to try to hold the person who pulled the trigger accountable. I'll pray that insane laws suggesting that being able to legally meet perceived threats with deadly force is forever banned in every US state and territory.

Until then, I'll pray that people start to "get it" and understand that deciding whether or not someone is a threat should not simply default to prejudices and erroneous assumptions about skin color. 

What are your feelings about the shooting, the trial and the verdict? Do they leave you with the same feelings of sadness and disgust as they do me? Please feel free to disagree with what I've outlined - just be aware of how you express that disagreement as I reserve the right to refuse to delete any comments that are blatantly disrespectful or argumentative. 

This is a very sensitive subject for me. Thanks for your understanding...


  1. This is a line-for-line, perfect representation of my thoughts on this matter, save for one thing. The gun. The gun is the only reason that someone died that night. Maybe Zimmerman doesn't have a gun and isn't emboldened to confront a stranger. Maybe he does follow until Trayvon takes off, and he breaks off pursuit. Maybe Zimmerman still chases him and Martin faces him, hits him a couple of times and runs. Maybe Zimmerman has a taser instead of a gun and we aren't even talking about this. But once that gun became part of the equation, it is very easy to envision that both of them believed that they were in a life-or-death, "Him or me?" situation, and that is when one of them was bound to die.

  2. Bravo Felicia. I hope that the publicity of this case (including such insightful commentary such as yours) greatly reduces the chance of this ever happening again. Thus Trayvon will not have died in vain.

    Trayvon could have been my son. He could have been me. The color of Trayvon's or my skin doesn’t alter this simple truth. Everyone needs to realise it. Maybe, in your own small way, you have helped others to realise it.

  3. This is a very well-thought-out presentation, Felicia. I only wish the Prosecution had been so precise and all-encompassing in its case. I also echo Kamil; if Mr. Zimmerman had not had a gun, obviously, this would likely have been a very, very different scenario. My heart breaks for Treyvon's family. My heart aches for the way we, "civilized human beings," continue to treat one another.

  4. See, the issue for me isn't so much the gun (although not having it would have made the ending of the tragic tale a bit different); the crux of the matter is that Trayvon was seen as a menacing suspect simply for walking home. It wasn't his demeanor or his actions that got him pegged by Zimmerman - just the fact that he WAS. Why is it so easy to see a Black kid in a hoodie as dangerous? Why was the assumption that he was up to no good? Why is it that when Trayvon fought this unknown stranger back, he instantly became the aggressor? Call it profiling or whatever you want, but that is the main problem here - and the proof of that can be summed up in one simple sentence: How would this scenario have played out if Trayvon was a female being followed by a stranger in an SUV who decided to give chase on foot?


  5. Thank you Felicia. I completely agree with you.


  6. I think that it is a shame that today in 2013 not 1960 any one can kill any black person they want and get a pat on the back from the police department and don't have to even have a reason why .If they are black kill them and get rewarded.