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.)