The following is an op-ed written for the “God and the New York Times” class at Wake Forest University’s School of Divinity, in response to the tragic case of the shooting death of Trayvon Martin.
The Foolish Death of Trayvon Martin
By JIMMY GAWNE
February 26th, 2012, was a day of great consternation in Florida. A storm system had swept down and across the state, sending the town of Daytona Beach into chaos as its signature season-opening NASCAR Sprint Cup race was delayed, delayed further, and finally postponed until the following day.
Lost in the hullabaloo surrounding Daytona Beach was a tragedy that unfolded not even fifty miles away. Trayvon Martin, a seventeen year-old resident of Miami, had been at the home of his father’s fiancée, in Sanford, Florida, watching the NBA All-Star Game. At halftime, he had left the home, and headed to a nearby 7-Eleven, where he purchased a can of ice tea and a bag of Skittles. Snacks in hand for the second half of the game, he headed back through the gated community where the townhome was located.
Meanwhile, neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, patrolling in his vehicle, spotted Mr. Martin. For reasons that Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been able to articulate, he felt that Mr. Martin was “suspicious”. He called the Sanford Police Department, informing them that he was going to pursue Mr. Martin and confront him – actions that the police dispatcher ASSURED him were entirely unnecessary.
Moments later, Mr. Martin lay dead on the sidewalk, the literal smoking gun in Mr. Zimmerman’s hand.
In the following month, blame has been bandied about to far-flung corners of the state and the situation. Who shall we blame for the death of Mr. Martin? Why shall we blame them? Is Mr. Zimmerman at fault?
At first blush, it is easy to cast this as a racial issue. We have here Mr. Martin, a young African-American man, walking through a gated neighborhood wearing a hoodie. Mr. Zimmerman, a white man of Latino descent, sees him, confronts him, and shoots him. Racial overtones immediately cloud the situation, and while it would come as no surprise to anybody if racist motivations played a part in the situation, it seems that that is not the ultimate culprit.
After that, we might choose to blame the unholy partnership of the National Rifle Association and the Florida State Legislature. After all, it was the state legislature that pushed through the “Stand Your Ground” bill that allowed Mr. Zimmerman to claim that his shooting was in self-defense and therefore justified – and indeed, has helped him thus far evade arrest or charges. It was then-Governor Jeb Bush who signed the bill into law. It was the National Rifle Association who lobbied relentlessly for passage of the bill, in spite of vocal opposition from every law enforcement agency in the state of Florida.
Realistically, however, blame for this situation belongs far and wide – blame that can be placed squarely on the shoulders of epidemic foolishness that pervades this country and stretches back to the eighteenth century. The blame can first be assigned to the foolishness of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, for writing the Second Amendment in such a way that it would allow the use of weapons that didn’t even exist in their time.
The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of the people of the state of Florida, for being so wrapped up in the Daytona 500 – in Daytona Beach – and the NBA All-Star Game – in Orlando – that not only were they oblivious to the shooting, but the death of Trayvon Martin didn’t even really become NEWS for three weeks after his death.
The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of the National Rifle Association, for so whole-heartedly backing this bill, not just in Florida, but in several other states as well. The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of the Florida State Legislature and Governor Bush for ignoring their own police officers when enacting the bill. The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of those same police officers, for not threatening action – i.e., union strikes – if the bill were passed into law.
The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of pigheaded neo-conservatives, for insisting that the Founding Fathers clearly wanted everybody to be able to have a gun and use it whenever they wanted, and to the foolishness of spineless liberals, who don’t seem to have the gumption to stand up for what they believe in. The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of George Zimmerman, for thinking that he had the right to pursue an individual, exit his car, and gun that individual down on a city street.
The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights pioneers, who had a dream that they could actually make this country someplace where everybody could live equally and without fear. The blame can be assigned to the foolishness of Trayvon Martin, who believed in that dream and had enough faith in humanity to believe that he could walk from 7-Eleven, through a safe neighborhood, to his father’s fiancée’s house, armed with nothing more deadly than a bag of Skittles.
Most of all, the blame belongs to each and every American. We were foolish enough to think that the government would protect us and the legal system would bring justice. And because of our foolishness, Trayvon Martin is dead and George Zimmerman is still a free man.