Protests over the death of Trayvon Martin. Photo credit: David Shankbone, http://flic.kr/p/bEZRZ4
Outrage over the killing of black teenager Trayvon Martin continues to grow, sparking marches and rallies across the US. Martin, 17, was shot by George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic, in Florida in February. Due to the state’s ‘stand your ground’ self-defence law, Zimmerman has avoided arrest to date by claiming he felt under threat by the unarmed teenager, who was returning to his father’s fiancee’s house after buying sweets at a local shop.
With civil rights campaigners, members of Congress and celebrities calling for action, the Florida chief of police has temporarily stepped down and the Department of Justice has opened a federal investigation into the case.
The shooting has also sparked a political row, after Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich branded the reaction of President Barack Obama “disgraceful”. Obama said promised a full investigation and said: “If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Former Speaker of the House Gingrich accused the president of misrepresenting the case, reported The Guardian: “Is the president suggesting that if it had been a white who’d been shot, that would be OK, because it wouldn’t look like him?.. When things go wrong to an American, it is sad for all Americans. Trying to turn it into a racial issue is fundamentally wrong.”
Blame the hoodie? The hooded sweatshirt, worn by Martin on the night of his death, has become a symbol of the protests: in New York, demonstrators marched through the city wearing hooded sweatshirts as part of the Million Hoodie March in memory of the teenager, while protestors at other events around the country have also worn the garment as a show of solidarity. Talkshow host Geraldo Rivera sparked fury when he blamed Martin’s attire for the killing: “I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” At Gawker, Louis Peitzman suggested that the meaning behind Rivera’s words is “do not act in a way other people might find threatening” – and argued that this is impossible. “Ignorant people are irrationally threatened by so much of the world around them; it would be impossible to go through life conforming to some sort of neutral, non-threatening ideal,” Peitzman wrote.
The Washington Post published a history of the hoodie in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death: “The hooded sweatshirt was commercialized in the 1930s by Champion, the American sportswear company, to protect workingmen from the elements.”
Zimmerman not a racist? A black friend of Zimmerman and his family has stepped forward to defend the 28-year-old in the face of mounting criticism. “I’m a black male and all that I know is that George has never given me any reason whatsoever to believe he has anything against people of color,” Joe Oliver told Reuters, revealing that Zimmerman felt extreme remorse over the killing. “As a black man, Oliver said minorities are often unfairly treated, but he believed Zimmerman was simply doing his job as a neighborhood watch volunteer by growing suspicious over an unfamiliar person walking through a neighborhood that had suffered some break-ins,” Daniel Trotta reported for Reuters. Oliver also said that new evidence would emerge to support Zimmerman’s claim that he was “not the aggressor”.
American gun culture has come under scrutiny after George Zimmerman shot and killed the unarmed teenager with a legally licensed concealed weapon. “Gun buyers swamped retailers nationwide last year, prompting a record 16.4 million instant criminal background checks of potential owners, up 14.2 percent from 2010, according to FBI figures,” reported Bill Briggs for MSNBC.
Neighbourhood Watch. Zimmerman was the volunteer co-ordinator for a local neighbourhood watch group, but his actions were contrary to the rules, according to a New York Times report. Wendy Dorival, who helped set up the group, told the paper that she had made clear to Zimmerman and other volunteers that “members of a neighborhood watch ‘are not supposed to confront anyone’” and that “using a gun in the neighborhood watch role would be out of the question”. Dorival defended the basic philosophy of neighbourhood watch, which she said is to strengthen communities and reduce crime, not to encourage vigilantes.
“We want to see Zimmerman in court with handcuffs behind his back, charged with the death of this young man, Trayvon Martin!” said civil rights campaigner Rev. Al Sharpton at a rally in Florida, reported The Chicago Tribune.
Racial issue? David Horsey pointed out in The Los Angeles Times that Martin’s mother told a New York rally that her son’s death was not a matter of “white and black” but of “right and “wrong”. Horsey said Sybrina Fulton’s remarks were “generous” but that “it’s hard to believe Trayvon Martin would be dead today if he had been just a white kid on his way home in the rain”. According to Horsey, “George Zimmerman was an overzealous block watch volunteer carrying a gun. Zimmerman may have been carrying something else around with him: an attitude about black kids and where they belonged.”