In 2005, Florida’s Stand Your Ground law was created to give average community members a way to protect themselves if they thought their lives were in danger, shielding them from legal repercussions. In 2012, it was used as a dubious defense by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin.
A year earlier, Zimmerman had called in to report a “suspicious person” in the Sanford neighborhood and then disregarded orders to remain in his vehicle — not exactly the self-protection envisioned when Stand Your Ground was enacted.
Feb. 5 should have been Martin’s 23rd birthday, but three weeks later his loved ones instead will be marking the sixth anniversary of his senseless and unwarranted death. In that time, Stand Your Ground laws have come to consistently be used to give an easy out for people who have made a snap judgment to shoot another person because of the unfathomable notion that black is dangerous. While Zimmerman won acquittal by clinging to Stand Your Ground, a black woman named Marissa Alexander spent almost six years in prison for firing a warning shot near her abusive husband.
It seems Stand Your Ground means one thing when the shooter is white and another thing entirely when the shooter is black.
This racially skewed law has been controversial since it was introduced, and even more so in the wake of Martin’s horrific death. Proponents of the law are now trying to extend its protections to Florida police officers — a move that would grant trained and armed officers who are already protected under the law another means by which they can wipe their hands clean of the blood of the black and brown Americans they have shot.
Martin had his whole life ahead of him when Zimmerman ended an innocent teenager’s life. Like too many assailants, Zimmerman was shielded by the curtain of racism that continually prevails in our so-called justice system. He was acquitted based on the argument that Marvin posed a threat simply because he was a black teen from whom Zimmerman needed to protect himself. To make matters worse, an amendment to the Stand Your Ground law last year made it even easier for killers to walk free, shifting the burden of proof from the defendant to the prosecutor.
Year after year, critics of Stand Your Ground have encouraged lawmakers to repeal the law, deeming it a low-risk license to kill that turns the definition of self-defense on its head to “shoot first, think later.” A study conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association showed an “abrupt and sustained” increase in state homicides since 2005, when the law was enacted. Though it’s hard to draw a direct correlation, it can’t be a coincidence that homicides rose after this get-out-of-jail-free card became the law.
Yet again, Stand Your Ground faces legislative review, as state Rep. Shevrin Jones, a Broward County Democrat, has filed a bill to repeal the law.
I encourage Floridians to provide an active voice in pushing House Bill 6073 forward, calling their state legislators and expressing that they will no longer stand for such a blatant cover-up for murder. Let them know that we have not forgotten Trayvon Martin and the egregious absence of justice in his case.
Though repealing the Stand Your Ground law will not bring Martin back, it can set a new standard of decency and compassion in how we treat one another. It can help protect the next generation of Trayvons, so they can celebrate more birthdays than he was allowed in a life cut needlessly short.
Ben Crump, who represented Trayvon Martin’s family, is a nationally known civil rights attorney and advocate.