Op Ed

Takedown: Stand Your Ground

You know what happens when an unarmed kid gets shot and killed, and his killer is not even detained? Apparently, the media constructs a fairy tale to get people to hate the shooter and feel sorry for the dead kid. That media. Always constructing narratives.

So when this popped up on my newsfeed:

Martin and Zimmerman
Get it? The real problem is not that a kid is dead, the real problem is the media.

I knew it needed to be taken down.

In the weeks since Martin’s death, the Internet has been full of facts and rumors about what happened, Zimmerman called Martin a “coon,” Martin tried to take Zimmerman’s gun, Zimmerman tracked Martin down, Martin was the instigator, Zimmerman was the instigator, racism, reverse racism, hoodies, the 911 call definitively shows one side, the 911 call was doctored, the 911 call definitively shows another side. Trayvon Martin was a sweet-faced 17-year-old boy armed with Skittles, Trayvon Martin was a thug who was threatening the neighborhood. Zimmerman is a racist who shot Martin for being black, Zimmerman is a member of a minority race who was always helping everybody.

I. Do. Not. Give. A. Shit.

I mean, I do. I know that it is important that we talk about the fact that a young black man in a hoodie is threatening just for existing. It is vital that out of the ashes of this horrible tragedy arises communication, analysis of race relations in America, progression towards a just and right society. No matter who you are or what you believe, there must be dialogue on this issue if we are to move forward.


Because of the politicization of the matter – because conservatives have been quick to defend Zimmerman and liberals have been quick to call him a racist murderer, and both sides have backed up their beliefs with the facts and rumors listed above, something critical has been lost in the general he-said-he-said clash.

Let’s imagine that race has nothing to do with the shooting. I personally believe that it did, that it had a lot to do with it, but there are those who think that it did not; let’s take it out of the equation for a second. The crapdate above comes from the idea that Zimmerman has been portrayed by the media as a criminal, and Martin has been portrayed as a cherub, and more recent pictures of both show a very different picture. The “more recent” image of Martin is not of Martin at all, and has been debunked and recanted, but that did not stop it from going viral. Even if it were accurate, it doesn’t matter.

At the crux of this matter is that a person with a gun fatally shot an unarmed person. And then was let go, without an investigation. Because in Florida, that is permitted. Anybody is allowed by law to kill somebody if “[h]e or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony.”

So as long as you reasonably believe that you are going to get hurt, or that the person is about to commit a forcible felony, you can just go ahead and kill them. A forcible felony is “treason; murder; manslaughter; sexual battery; carjacking; home-invasion robbery; robbery; burglary; arson; kidnapping; aggravated assault; aggravated battery; aggravated stalking; aircraft piracy; unlawful throwing, placing, or discharging of a destructive device or bomb; and any other felony which involves the use or threat of physical force or violence against any individual.”

The fact that this can be interpreted to include just about everything (“But officer, I was sure that he was about to commit treason!”) is troubling. It is far worse than troubling, though. Reasonable belief, according to the law, “must be based on “specific and articulable facts”¦ taken together with rational inferences from those facts.”

Let’s say you are a supervisor in a transportation company. Now, obviously you want to make sure that your drivers aren’t under the influence of alcohol, and you have the right to exercise reasonable suspicion in order to verify if your drivers are drinking or not. After completing a two hour training. From the DOT website: “Each employer shall ensure that all persons designated to supervise drivers receive at least 60 minutes of training on alcohol misuse and receive at least an additional 60 minutes of training on controlled substances use. The training will be used by the supervisors to determine whether reasonable suspicion exists to require a driver to undergo testing under §382.307. The training shall include the physical, behavioral, speech, and performance indicators of probable alcohol misuse and use of controlled substances. Recurrent training for supervisory personnel is not required.”

Let me repeat this: in normal life, if you are going to exercise “reasonable suspicion” under the law, you need to be trained. You cannot accuse somebody of misusing alcohol without training. And yet this law is expecting civilians to be able to kill without any training beyond life experience. The fact that “reasonable belief” can be used to justify murder as long as a reasonable person would believe that a crime was imminent is horrifying. This is not asking an expert in human psychology to make such deductions – instead, it is looking at the average person, and saying, “Would you expect that guy to commit a crime, given these circumstances?”

I said I would take race out of it, and I intend to, at least when it comes to Zimmerman and Martin. Surely we can all agree, though, that this type of law is a godsend for racists. Let’s imagine John Smith, who grew up bullied by people from, let’s say, Australia. He can reasonably believe that people from Australia are violent, and this is based on facts that are relevant to him. Having received no training, it is possible that he has not been contradicted, or had those beliefs challenged. When he hears an Australian accent, he shoots to kill. He reasonably believed that the Australian man was going to do him harm, based on “specific and articulable facts,” (that all the bullies in his childhood were Australian), “taken together with rational inferences from those facts,” (it is rational to infer, therefore, that Australians are violent, if that is the only interaction there is to go off of). This is kind of silly, because a jury of his peers would hopefully not think that his beliefs were reasonable, although, arguably, other people in his position might feel the same way. However, imagine now that John Smith lives in an environment wherein there is already institutionalized racism and bigotry against Australians, and the jury members, having also received no training, think that he has acted not only rationally, but wisely.

Do you see the problem?

In a perfect world, all people would act rationally and there would be no racism and the law would be carried out in extremely rare instances when somebody was in clear danger. In a perfect world, though, nobody would ever be in danger, so there would be no such law. This world is far from perfect. There are all sorts of rational people who add to the rhetoric that black people are violent, or people who listen to rap are violent, or people who flip off a camera are violent, or teenagers are violent, or people in hoodies are violent. George Zimmerman may well be a racist fuck. But if he is a racist fuck, that just means that he was following the law. The law does not demand that your belief be rational according to the norms of a perfect world. It demands that you exercise reasonable suspicion according to the world in which we live. George Zimmerman might be the problem here, and in this particular tragedy, and in this particular instance, it is easy to focus on him. But the underlying problem is the law, and unless it is examined carefully, there will be more George Zimmermans killing more Trayvon Martins.

Which brings me to the second glaring problem with Stand Your Ground laws: due process. In the United States, you cannot convict someone of a crime without due process of the law. The death penalty exists in some states, but because of our constitutionally guaranteed rights, it takes many years between a conviction and an execution. Even after a criminal has been convicted of a horrendous crime, it typically takes at least a decade to ensure that they did, indeed, commit the crime and death is, indeed, a fitting punishment. Zimmerman, and anybody else who uses this legislation to justify their actions, got to decide in a split second that somebody who had not committed a crime but might soon should die.

Under this law, you can kill a person who has done absolutely nothing wrong, if you have reason to believe they will commit a crime. Even if your belief stems from the fact that they are black.

In Florida, the average amount of time between offense and execution for those who have been convicted of a crime and been sentenced to death is 14.12 years. The average amount of time between offense and execution for those who have done nothing wrong but might is somewhere between -1 and -infinite seconds.

How is it possible that this law exists? Why are people spending so much time decrying a mandate to have health insurance when there are laws that allow people to murder other people because of a suspicion? How does this not violate the 14th Amendment?

And finally, third in a three-part argument: immunity. What the everloving fuck. No, seriously. What the fuck.

A person who can “reasonably” claim self-defense cannot be prosecuted and cannot be detained. How do you determine if they can reasonably claim self-defense? The officer has to believe that there is probable cause that he wasn’t acting in self-defense. So in a criminal court, Martin would have had to have been convicted beyond a shadow of a doubt, and then sentenced to death, and then had a decade to plead his case. If he had done anything wrong. Instead, he either had just started doing something wrong (a possible fist fight), or he had done nothing wrong other than looking “suspicious,” and one stranger got to use his reasoning to decide if Martin should have died, and another stranger got to use his reasoning to decide whether Zimmerman’s reasoning was questionable. Instead of having protection for all, this law strips every possible protection from the person who has been killed.

Zimmerman can’t be detained. Because he claims he was standing his ground. He therefore can’t be questioned or prosecuted, to determine what happened. Maybe Zimmerman was a victim, and was completely acting in self-defense, and did absolutely nothing wrong. He should be able to defend himself under oath, in court. Maybe he was a racist killer, who did everything wrong, hunted down an innocent boy and shot him dead. He should be required to defend himself under oath, in court. But because immunity is involved in this law, neither can happen.

If I were a racist killer, you bet your ass I’d move to Florida.

The conversations surrounding this tragedy have focused on race, and whether hoodies make you violent, and whether it’s okay to shoot a teenager because he dresses like a criminal or has a Facebook picture where he’s flipping the bird, and whether the right is trying to politicize a tragedy or the left is trying to politicize a tragedy. While these conversations are important, they have become completely unproductive, with both sides digging in their heels and talking around each other.

Meanwhile, the institutionalized injustice slips under the radar, and sets Florida up for this same situation to happen again, and again, and again. This law sanctions racism, strengthens racism, and allows racists to kill with no fear of repercussions. Zimmerman may or may not be a monster – the investigation will hopefully tell us more. Regardless, this law develops a system wherein such crimes are inevitable, because it encourages people to use their judgment to decide if somebody should die. We all have biases and faulty judgments. The law in Florida validates those faulty judgments and elevates them to a status where they are completely irreproachable.

Trayvon Martin’s death is a tragedy. Unless the law is changed, nobody in Florida is safe, especially those who have a skin color that is associated with violence, or those who are of the right age to be in a gang, or those who wear loose clothing. But really, nobody is safe. Zimmerman may not be a racist monster, but every last one of us knows somebody who sees the picture above of a black teenager flipping off a camera and thinks “criminal.” Those people currently have the legal right to gun down black people in Florida, because their judgment tells them that they are under threat. As do people who think that teenagers are violent, or men are violent, or women are violent, or Russians are violent, or politicians are violent. If somebody holds unreasonable biases based on facts that are relevant to them, and they can infer reasonable suspicion from those facts, they have the right to kill whomever they want. And not fear prosecution.

In the end, if Zimmerman is racist, he is protected by the law. If he is not racist, and was really acting in self-defense, there are thousands of racists that can and probably will use this same law to justify their own acts of violence. We need to talk about race, and we need to talk about violence. But we will not make any progress in America with regards to race or violence while such laws are on the books. Stand your ground must be repealed.

By Susan

I am old and wise. Perhaps more old than wise, but once you're old, you don't give a shit about details anymore.

25 replies on “Takedown: Stand Your Ground”

One of my good friends is a police officer here in Illinois, and I purposely did not raise this topic with her.  I love her to death, but I know her views are a little more conservative then mine.

She brought it up.

While I certainly don’t agree with everything she said (she believes that Martin was threatening, I do not), she stressed that what Zimmerman did was protected by a ridiculous law.

At the crux of this matter is that a person with a gun fatally shot an unarmed person. And then was let go, without an investigation. Because in Florida, that is permitted.

I was heartened to know that even though she believes that the media is overplaying Martin’s vicitmization and thinks that the rallies in support of him are crap (that made me angry when she said it), she does agree that what Zimmerman did was wrong and that he should not be protected by the law, even though he evidently is.

Zimmerman is not a victim.  He was tailing Martin, confronted Martin (possibly with the gun) against the 911 operator’s wishes, Martin may have thrown/tried to throw a punch in a scuffle that ensued, Zimmerman shot him, and Martin died.  I do not see how the stand your ground law applies when Zimmerman was the one who brought the situation to that point.  And Zimmerman had a history of hassling minorities who lived in the neighborhood under the guise of being a neighborhood watch captain, which is why race plays a key in this case.

OK, so Martin had been suspended from school for getting caught doing stupid things.  He clearly seemed to have learned his lesson and wanted to go to college and be productive.

Has there been any digging into Zimmerman’s background like this?  Probably not, and there is a lot more on him than young Trayvon Martin.  And Zimmerman’s accusations/charges/arrests seem to establish a pattern of behavior.  But no one is looking at that, are they?


From what I can see – people are.  But there just isn’t any information about what happened after the 911 call, before the death.  It is conceivable that Zimmerman got out of the car to talk to Martin, to ask him what was up, and Martin for whatever reason punched him and wrestled him to the ground, and went for the gun.  NOT LIKELY.  But conceivable.  There are two people that know what happened, and one of them is dead.

The background stuff, in my opinion, is just noise.  Terrible noise, but noise.

What really, really gets me is that even if everything that Zimmerman says is true, IT IS STILL SO VERY WRONG FOR HIM TO HAVE SHOT AND KILLED MARTIN.

I did some digging on this last night after I posted and looked further into Zimmerman’s background.  It seems he has a pattern of behavior that is very concerning, but he has never been formally charged for it.  No doubt some of this has to do with a certain amount of white priveilege, but it may also have to do with how much clout his dad may have had.

The mom of one of my college friends was a criminal defense attorney here in the post-Soviet Wild East. One of the stories heard from that friend that still gives me chills involved a man who was on trial for murdering his wife and young stepdaughter. The catch was, the guy had already killed someone twice before – but in both cases, got away by claiming self-defense (which is by no means an easy feat over here, I don’t have any information on how exactly he pulled that). The moral of this anecdote is that supposed self-defense cases where the (supposed) attacker ends up a bit too dead to present their own version of events, should always, always be treated with suspicion. It is not that easy to kill a person without some actual determination to do so. With the exception of (bad) luck – and forensics can probably tell the difference.

Around here, using self-defense is only legal up to the point of stopping the attack. It’s not the most popular solution, for the obvious reason of most people not being able to foretell just how reasonably they would behave in an extreme situation like this, but even so, it’s much saner than “seems dangerous, oh well, better shoot away”. (Needless to say that laws and cases like this are one of the major reasons why even the former Soviet Union sees the US as a deeply scary place.)

A person who can “reasonably” claim self-defense cannot be prosecuted and cannot be detained.

This is the part that boggles my mind. I can see having laws to clarify self defense for the purpose of not having to go through the full trial process after an investigation has led to the conclusion that a person acted in self defense, but a law that keeps someone from being detained or prosecuted based on a claim? What the what? How does that even work?

You already can only be detained a breifish period of time before charges are brought against you anyway. So if officers are detaining you, it means that they probably suspect you of a crime. If self defense is not a crime, then you will be released fairly quickly. So what does this part of the law do?

Love the article, but I do find one thing worrying.  It doesn’t seem that the problem is with the law itself (which isn’t great, but isn’t terrible) but is rather with the way the law is being applied.  In cases of true, obvious self-defense, arrest shouldn’t happen.  In cases like this, where it’s not 100% clear that the person had a REASONABLE fear of imminent death or bodily harm.  So I think the criticism of the law itself is somewhat misplaced, especially considering that there is a provision for kicking out the claims of aggressors.  The criticism should be squarely placed on Florida’s PROSECUTION system, not necessarily the legislative history.

(Sorry, sometimes the lawyer part of me comes out swinging.)

No need to be sorry – but I’m curious for you to explain more.  As soon as you use the word “reasonable,” to me, you simply allow for people to fall back on their own fallible beliefs.  And if those beliefs are racist, and if the society is racist, then the law protects and encourages racism.  No?

The legal idea of reasonable belief is supposed to be based on objective facts NOT subjective beliefs.  Objective facts being things that you can touch and feel.  Was the person actually invading your space?  Did they have a weapon?  Were they much bigger than you?  (For instance, if a 7 foot man was attacking a 4 foot 8 woman, that would be taken into consideration.)  Racist beliefs are NOT to be taken into consideration, because they’re not REASONABLE or OBJECTIVE.  Legally reasonable is (or at least should be) different from the lay meaning of reasonable.

I see what you are saying – but I don’t know if I believe that reasonable can ever be objective.  A 7 foot man attacking a 4’8″ woman seems cut and dry, but if the woman is a black belt in karate, or the man finds it morally impossible to attack a woman, etc.?

And really, how is the untrained person supposed to be able to determine that?  The law is meant for the lay person – and the lay person will be acting upon the beliefs that they find to be true.  And then interpreted by a jury of lay people, who will determine reasonability based on what they believe to be objective.

I guess I think that in a perfect world, the law works.  But the world is far from perfect, so the law as it is is unconscionable

Does the guy KNOW that the woman is a black belt?  Because that would be taken into consideration.  Does the woman KNOW that the man would never attack her, or does she interpret his exhibited behavior as threatening?  Is it night time?  Is it a not great part of town?  The untrained person makes this work every day.  Jury instructions are specially written for the untrained person.  They don’t get the law.  They get the law explained.  And then they get to take things into consideration.  They get told what they DON’T get to take into consideration.  As it happens, sometimes they still screw up.  The law isn’t perfect, but it’s what we’ve got, and it works better than feelings being thrown at each other.

Moreover, I still insist that the law is NOT unconscionable.  The application of the law is unconscionable.  This is not an all bad law.  However, it needs to be fairly and consistently applied.  And that’s not a problem with the law, it’s a problem with the prosecutorial system.

I definitely respect your opinion.  But what if the guy is 5’6 and the woman is 5’4?  What if the man is black, and to certain members of the jury, that means he is menacing?  I am not sure we are far off from what each other thinks, except I don’t believe that the law (which is, as you say, not unconscionable) can be applied fairly and consistently.  Because it is working within the bounds of our unfair and inconsistent society.

Which I think is what you are saying, anyway.

I don’t think we’re that far off either, actually. I think it’s a background of experience thing. The law is NOT being applied fairly. I dont think the law is totally bad. People fuck things up. People apply laws unfairly. (Basically, people suck most of the time.). But I think we can both agree this wasWRONG.

Also, the lawyer part of me wants everyone to understand legal standards so that we can debate laws on a level that gets shit done as a nation.

People keep talking about the “Stand Your Ground” law and I don’t think anyone should believe it’s applicable because of one undisputed fact:

Zimmerman got out of his car.

He was in his car, had called the police, was armed, and wasn’t being actively threatened. He left the car against the advice of the 911 operator. Whatever confrontation took place after that was initiated by Zimmerman. The way the law is written doesn’t give you the right to pursue a suspect, which is what he did.

But nobody knows what happened between when he got out of his car and when he killed Martin.  He may have walked up to him and said “hey, how’s it going,” and Martin punched him.  In which case, he had the right to stand his ground.  Which is absurd.

I’m really glad you did. I’ve been focused on how wrong the media has been to skew the facts so much (in both directions) that I almost missed the Stand Your Ground law stuff completely. And while I do believe in Castle laws, I think the Stand Your Ground version is playing just a bit too loosey-goosey with other people’s safety. Especially since we have other laws on the books to protect people who are defending themselves from actual harm.

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