If all politics is ultimately local, every news story eventually has personal resonance, and the life of Trayvon Martin — with all the long-needed attention paid to Florida’s NRA-drafted Stand Your Ground law — has brought back memories of the unpunished death of my 80-year-old father, who was fatally injured in a fight with a neighbor.
My Dad had been raised rough in Anacostia, an era in Washington D.C. when working-class people normally kept chickens in their yard, and joined the Navy at age 15. Until his retirement, he ran the now-gone Miami Shipyards. Throughout much of his life, he remained a powerful, strong man, but at 80, he was heavy, afflicted with a variety of ailments, and relatively weak.
His death in the Florida Gulf Coast retirement town of Punta Gorda was unheralded, and unlike Trayvon Martin’s final moments in Sanford, his passing is not likely to change the course of American history. But my Dad’s grim end, like countless other anonymous victims of Stand Your Ground — more than 20 states, despite the abuses of the law, have some form of that law — does speak to the absurdity of a law with a sinister knack for letting everyone off the hook, something no American really needs.
Stand Your Ground meant that the Punta Gorda police didn’t have to work too hard investigating the fight that led to my father’s death, and the police in Sanford could wait 44 days before arresting George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Stand Your Ground allowed one juror at the Zimmerman trial to knock off early and think about a book deal; another juror, B29, declared on Good Morning America that “George Zimmerman got away with murder,” but Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, of course, gave her no choice. And last week on Miami Beach, at a National Bar Association event, Stand Your Ground gave Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, even more reason to mourn, “The thing about this law is I just think it assisted the person who killed my son to get away with murder.”
Since there were no real witnesses, no one will ever know precisely what happened between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman, but even with witnesses — as was the case with my Dad’s last fight — it’s always difficult to figure out precisely what happened.
My Dad’s last moments began in everyday banality. On April 19, 2009, he was returning home from a food shopping expedition: he lived in an anywhere-Florida housing development, awash in concrete manatee-shaped mailboxes and not much different than the Sanford development where Trayvon Martin died. At the exact moment my Dad pulled into his driveway, his wife happened to be arguing with their then 75-year-old neighbor, who lived directly across the street. Everyone had been friends at one point, but there’d been tiffs at homeowners’ association meetings and bad blood. The neighbor, according to one report, objected to my Dad’s wife playing with their pet Shih Tzu on the front lawn, and yelled something about leash laws. My Dad’s wife yelled something unfortunate back at the neighbor.
My Dad lumbered into the street, insisting that the neighbor change his tone. The second my Dad got out of his car and took a step in the direction of his neighbor, he became the initial aggressor, a legal fine point that somehow didn’t intrude on George Zimmerman’s case. (Florida statute 776.041, the “use of force by aggressor” statue, was not included in the jury instructions, another instance of Zimmerman’s attorneys besting the prosecution.)
Under the Stand Your Ground law, my Dad’s neighbor had no duty to retreat and could “meet force with force.” Rather than go back into his house, the neighbor left his front lawn and walked into the street: two angry, old, white men squared off, living out their own version of High Noon. And then my father fell back, hitting his head on the concrete street. The scope of the head wounds were relatively minor, but later on, during the trial of George Zimmerman, Dr. Vincent Di Maio’s testimony about fatal intracranial bleeding being possible with even slight head wounds struck a chord.
Foolishly, my Dad opted to waive charges against his neighbor at the hospital, signing his name in a scrawl that resembled the signature of a five-year-old: the effects of the intracranial bleeding had already set in.
The next day, the neighbor filed a “Petition for Injunction for Protection Against Repeat Violence,” though my Dad would never leave the hospital and died six weeks after the fight; no apologies were ever extended by my Dad’s neighbor. (My Dad had retired to Punta Gorda to be with what he considered decent small-town folk, but this is the new America, where even the so-called “Greatest Generation” no longer feels compelled to do the right thing.)
Shortly after the fight, I left my home in Miami and traveled to Punta Gorda; my sister came down from her home in Alexandria, Va. After going to the hospital, we went to the local police department. They were nice enough, but the police more or less shrugged and said something to the effect of, “Haven’t you heard about the Stand Your Ground law? There’s nothing we can do.”
Now, with the horrific shooting of Trayvon Martin, the Stand Your Ground law — which began in 2005 in Florida and quickly spread in some form to other states has — truly penetrated the public consciousness. Even state Sen. Dennis Baxley, who co-sponsored the passage of Stand Your Ground, finds some of the cases ridiculous: drug dealers and gang members have used the law to escape murder charges, and it has been used by everyone from an 81-year-old man to a 14-year-old kid shooting a thief attempting to steal his Jet Ski.
In Florida, some 200 known cases of the Stand Your Ground law were examined last year by the Tampa Bay Times, and a fourth of the 88 fatal cases involved “defendants and victims of different races.” Most Stand Your Ground cases, as with my father’s death, have nothing to do with race. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke against laws that “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” at the annual NAACP convention in Orlando and a civil rights investigation of Zimmerman would be a welcome thing, something to get the ball rolling in the fight against Stand Your Ground laws.
It’s a long shot, but there are plenty of other civil rights cases for good lawyers. (This September, in Port St. Joe one Walt Butler will attend a hearing regarding his request for immunity for shooting and killing Everett Gant, an African-American who knocked on the door at Butler’s home and questioned Butler’s racist remarks about children. Butler promptly shot Gant between the eyes and went back to making his dinner.)
More than four years after that bleak day when my father got into the fight that eventually killed him, I mustered out on a hot afternoon in Miami to honor one of our own, Trayvon Martin, at one of the 100 or so simultaneous “Justice for Trayvon” demonstrations, organized by the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network. The Miami rally was conducted outside the Arquitectonica-designed Wilke D. Ferguson Jr. U.S. Courthouse, a long shiny leap from Trayvon’s home in working class Miami Gardens. It was impossible not to think about what my Dad — like more than a million other Floridians, he had a concealed weapons permit for his pistol — would have thought of the rally. More likely than not, he would have been a George Zimmerman supporter, but he was a good father, too, and would have appreciated the way that Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin stayed the course in honor of their son’s memory.
The day before the “Justice for Trayvon” rally, President Barack Obama had talked about onerous self-defense laws and race in America; earlier in the week, Stevie Wonder had announced he wouldn’t play Florida until the Stand Your Ground law ends. A tourism boycott of Florida, along with a boycott of orange juice, have been proposed. Florida Gov. Rick Scott — who found time to attend a press conference announcing a Bollywood Awards ceremony in Tampa — dodged the Dream Defenders, a group of young activists who camped outside his offices and demanded a special legislative session on Stand Your Ground. He finally met with the Dream Defenders, but did not back down on the law and refused to yield to their demands.
Last week, the Dream Defenders, along with the Rev. Jesse Jackson, conducted their own Dream version of a Florida legislative session. Harry Belafonte also spoke to the group at one point. Currently, the Dream Defenders are trying to bring 32 lawmakers on board. From there, the Florida Legislature can be polled, and 96 lawmakers — three-fifths of the members — could, in theory, demand a special session on Stand Your Ground.
The Daily Show called Florida “the worst state,” and The Colbert Report went on about Florida’s lack of laws and rules. Once again, to be a Floridian is to be the butt of an eternal joke, a punch-line rightly pilloried in the media sideshow.
On stage at the “Justice for Trayvon” rally in downtown Miami , a parade of ministers and politicians blurred into one another, talking about the fight for the Trayvon Martin Civil Rights Act, until a solemn Tracy Martin — wearing a Miami Marlins cap, sneakers, and a T-shirt commemorating his dead son — walked to the podium. The crowd instantly fell silent, as a soft-spoken man pleaded for a cure to the “disease of senseless violence.”
To have a child die must be unimaginable pain, and after the rally, it was not easy to approach Tracy Martin, but he has the gentleness that sometimes comes with loss. “I don’t think we can end the Stand Your Ground law,” he said, “but maybe we can get an amendment passed.”
We talked about Stand Your Ground for a moment, and I told him I’d never even heard of the law until my Dad was injured and the Punta Gorda police brought it up. With a sad smile, Martin recalled his own bitter experience, “Until Trayvon was shot, I hadn’t heard about Stand Your Ground either. I guess we all know about it now, don’t we?”
Tom Austin is a journalist in Miami.