Questions in teen's shooting need to go deeper

Published March 27, 2012

By now nearly everyone has heard about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.

We've consumed the media coverage because we know that the unfolding story is deeper and more powerful than the tragic death of an unarmed 17-year-old high school student. It is a tragedy at the intersection of racial stereotypes, the integrity of the police and America's gun culture.

Clearly, it is about the death of Trayvon Martin and how, after the avalanche of public outrage over the inept response by local police, leaders far and wide (including the ACLU) succeeded in prompting a more thorough outside investigation.

But now that the U.S. Justice Department, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and other law enforcement agencies are involved, we should avoid the temptation to see the investigation and whatever results from the criminal justice system as the end of the discussion. As great a tragedy as it is already, it would be made worse by glossing over the underlying issues that are seizing national attention.

America has a race problem. It is profoundly sad that it takes a shooting death to get Americans to talk about it or acknowledge it. Racial stereotypes and biases infect much of life in America from education to employment, access to health care and housing, and a justice system that incarcerates black Americans at a far greater rate than others.

How Americans see one another matters. It mattered that George Zimmerman saw a young black man in his neighborhood, and then called police to say he saw someone "suspicious." Too often, being young and black is enough to be stopped by police. It's also enough to be seen as "suspicious" by someone on neighborhood watch.

We should also acknowledge that police are not immune from negligence, incompetence or even outright bias. No law enforcement agency is. Innocent people are arrested and convicted and some who are guilty escape justice. It used to be common in Florida that crimes with undeniable racial motives were swept under the rug or overlooked while families and communities waited in vain for justice.

It matters that Sanford police reportedly deviated from standard practice the night of the shooting. That is one reason why the involvement of the FBI and the FDLE was necessary.

Another issue that speaks out for our attention is Florida's gun culture.

Florida lawmakers have pushed the bounds of responsible gun ownership beyond recognition. Debates are now about prohibiting doctors from asking parents if there are guns in the home with children, recognizing a "right" to bring guns to work and school, and the right to "stand your ground." Public policies have helped create a culture in which gun owners feel emboldened to shoot first and not ask questions at all.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

It matters because a self-appointed neighborhood watchman feels it's appropriate to use a gun while following someone in his neighborhood.

Investigators are going over the facts about what happened in Sanford on Feb. 26. The criminal justice system will address whatever it does or does not find.

One reason why our concern should not end with an arrest or prosecution is that we need to be prepared for the possibility that the criminal justice system will not yield justice — or an inadequate justice that outrages all sides. Recall the acquittal of the men who killed Emmett Till in Mississippi or Arthur McDuffie in Miami, or the acquittal of the four officers who killed Amadou Diallo in New York by firing 41 bullets, or the acquittal of the officers who brutally beat Rodney King in Los Angeles.

Americans who are watching the Trayvon story need to do more than watch the actual detectives working the case. We all need to work just as hard to ask the tough questions about what underlies this tragedy.

And if we want the truth and justice for all the parties in this case, we should demand honest answers — and we should demand it of ourselves as well.

We need to use the Trayvon Martin tragedy to restart the conversation about race in America, as well as problems with local police and our nation's culture of guns.

That discussion must at least start by acknowledging that struggles with these issues, but especially race, taint so much of American life and culture.

As tragic as it is to lose a young person to a senseless shooting, it would be a more profound tragedy if we wait for the next Trayvon Martin to ask these questions again.

Howard Simon is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.