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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

A call for justice for Trayvon Martin

Published: April 5, 2012
Section: Featured, Features

More than a month since the Feb. 26 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by 28-year-old George Zimmerman in Sanford, Fla., many questions remain. These questions vary from the complex legal ones concerning “hate crime” and the efficacy of “stand your ground” laws, to the more mundane question of simply what happened. There are also concerns about media coverage. During the past week, members of the Brandeis community united under the simple and inclusive messages of honoring Martin and fostering an open dialogue. Events ranged from a discussion and candle-lighting ceremony on Thursday night to a Peace Vigil and a “Hoodies Up” March on Friday. The events were sponsored by the Brandeis Black Student Organization, MLK and Friends, Women of Color Alliance, Men of Color Alliance and the Queer People of Color Coalition.

Maya Grant ’13, president of the Brandeis Black Student Organization, spoke positively about the weekend’s events. Specifically, she appreciated the wide variety of the turnout.

“I was really excited to see a lot of different faces … It made me feel supported on this campus.” She went on to praise the openness of the events. “[There was] an opportunity for everyone to speak openly and freely about how they felt and I felt that that’s exactly what the community needed.”

When speaking about the events, President Lawrence had similar sentiments, saying that it was a “great opportunity” for the campus to “come together,” and try to deal with the complex issues involved, including the “intersection of race and law.”

Grant went on to praise the events for their cathartic nature, in allowing individuals to let out their feelings.

“A lot of people felt frustration and anger … not really understanding why this was happening in America.” By Grant’s estimate, the Peace Vigil attracted approximately 25 students, and the “Hoodies Up” march from the Peace Circle to the Louis Brandeis Statue included nearly 100 students.

While everyone seems to be in agreement that the death of Trayvon Martin was a tragedy that should not have occurred, debates open up over other issues connected to the incident.

One of the major issues concerns whether or not the killing of Trayvon Martin can be considered a “hate crime.” Lawrence spoke to that, citing the difficulty to determine “beyond a reasonable doubt” that something constitutes “hate crime,” and suggesting that we do not have enough information at this point. He did present, however, two ways in which the crime could be prosecuted with the racial aspect attached to it. George Zimmerman could be charged with manslaughter with the “hate crime” aspect in the status of a “lesser-included offense.” In this case, Zimmerman would actually be prosecuted for two separate crimes. Zimmerman could also be simply charged with manslaughter, and if the court were to determine that the crime was racially charged, the penalty could be increased.

To Grant, it seems clear that race could be considered as a major aspect of the crime.

When asked what standard to apply when determining whether or not something can be deemed a hate crime, Grant responded that “in trying to determine whether race was involved, [one needs to consider] if he knew the race before pursuing the victim. I have listened to the tapes and it’s clear that Zimmerman said that he was either black or Latino.”

She also admitted, however, that this is a more complex case than most.

“I think there are some hate crimes that are overt hate crimes … And then there are those that have to do with suspicion and stereotypes and stigma.” According to Grant, these types of incidences are on the line “between true hate crimes and just a misunderstanding.”

During a Piers Morgan interview with Robert Zimmerman, George Zimmerman’s older brother, Robert, made the argument that George’s actions were in self-defense.

“He prevented his firearm from being taken from him and used against him and that’s called saving your life,” Robert Zimmerman said. Zimmerman’s argument rests on the premise that he was being attacked by Martin and acted in self-defense. Robert Zimmerman also argues that “you return force with force when somebody assaults you.”

Lawrence discussed self-defense, including both the factual definitions of self-defense, as well as his personal opinions. He said the acceptability of taking physical action in self-defense rests on two major premises. The action must be necessary and it furthermore must be proportional. By this logic, if one can avoid taking an action, even if they have been assaulted, that is generally seen as the better of the two options. In most cases, there is a duty among people assaulted to retreat. By this principle, were George Zimmerman attacked, if it were possible for him to escape Trayvon Martin without using his firearm, he would be required to do so. George Zimmerman’s case rests on the “stand your ground” law, however, which essentially states that one is not obligated to retreat. If attacked, then a person is fully within their rights to attack back.

President Lawrence feels that “‘stand your ground’ laws are dangerous for the reasons [seen in this case]” and he explained that it is a risky standard to start condoning private use of force between citizens.

Grant, upon hearing Robert Zimmerman’s claim that one can still feel threatened when being attacked even if the assailant is unarmed and they are armed, found it to be “a completely bogus argument,” arguing along the lines of Lawrence that it would be best to walk away.

The issue remains of the hoodie though. The march on Friday being themed as a “Hoodies Up” march, one has to consider what role this played, and when it is OK for someone to be profiled based on what they are wearing.

Grant, when asked if Trayvon would have been treated differently were he wearing a suit and tie, responded that she felt he certainly would have been. “I think that the hoodie definitely played into the stereotype and the fear that Zimmerman had.” She also made it clear, however, that it is understandable to be nervous based on clothing on a “rainy night.” “I would think anyone would look kind of suspicious wearing a hoodie and walking by themselves.”

Lawrence was less willing to make judgments of this sort, but when asked about profiling based on clothing in general, made clear that there is a distinction between the police and George Zimmerman. He explained that the police are “trained to determine reasonable suspicion.” This could include what clothes a person is wearing, and this would justify the police in stopping and questioning someone. He, however, does not feel comfortable allowing volunteers such as George Zimmerman to take on this role.

With regards to the media, Lawrence believes that far more facts are needed before judgments can be made. To him, while it is good that the media is pressing society to investigate more deeply than would have been done without all the attention, the media is hastily making judgments on the case that simply cannot be made yet.