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‘Stand Your Ground’ – The Exercise of the Law

March 25, 2012

The title of this essay refers to the propensity of many of us to act as if trials are conducted in the press, and as if we have the information necessary, as a case develops, to jump to conclusions and then to take action accordingly.  The killing of a 17 year-old black teenager, Treyvon Martin, by a Neighborhood Watch captain, George Zimmerman, is one such example.  Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground‘ law, a variant of the ‘Castle Doctrine,’ is on trial here, too, as the shooter remains at large and un-charged because his actions allegedly fall under the purview of this law.  (It is hard to imagine that confronting a minor on the street and then invoking self-defense in any presumptive ensuing scuffle could be justified, but again, we do not conduct trials in the press, and only the grand jury, plus a few others, will have access to all of the relevant evidence, witness testimony, et cetera, necessary to to decide whether to prefer charges against Zimmerman.)

It is clear that many who urge action now do not know what the law says.  It may also be the case that the law did not apply in this case, and that Zimmerman’s actions are not justified by it.  The danger here is that more than one innocent life may be unnecessarily lost, as emotionalism, exploited by the sensationalist and agent provocateurs among us, may lead to violence, perhaps widespread and difficult to control.  The ‘long, hot summers’ of 1967-8 may return, with the tinderbox of economic depression, alienation, poverty, debt, decade-long war and the memories of past injustice having made fertile ground into which this seed of vengeance falls.

It is urgently incumbent upon the authorities, in a situation like this, to act swiftly and to render a clear, easily understood message as to why the shooter is charged, or not.  To allow a situation like this to simmer, hoping that it goes away, is a strategy of capitulation to chance, misplaced hope, and the actions of outsiders.  It invites the trouble that it seeks to avoid.

  1. While your premise is correct in that the eventual legal resolution to this case will come in the courts and not the press, it is important to note that the immediate response by those public officials in Sanford is to look at this issue from that of a public administration perspective. Perception is everything at all levels of government. The most common perception is that the public administration of this town is full of incompetent racist officials who allow the authority of a community activist–Zimmerman, in his role as neighborhood watch captain— to usurp their own while hiding behind a controversial law. Whether or not a portion or all of this statement is true is immaterial; this is their reality as thrust upon them by the majority of those in the press. I agree with the idea that those in this small town’s administration need to come up with a clear and concise reason as to why Zimmerman was not charged, and for the most part they have. However, it is incredibly irresponsible of them to not have a unified public response to the racial aspect of this case. A black teenager being shot dead by a white( Hispanic?) adult while walking home from the store, is going to catch the interest of those outside of this community. When the decision was made not to detain Mr. Zimmerman, for whatever reason, a plan should have been put in place to deal with the poltical fallout from the racial aspect of this case. Could they have predicted that the story would have made national headlines with the speed at which it did? Probably not. But once it was clear that this story was not going away, it was incumbent on the adminsitration to form a task force and assign a person, or a group of persons, to the job of managing the press. I do not know if this has been done as of yet, but this would be the most important first step in dealing with what might turn out to be a long process.

    • We live in an age where Twitter and other social media make everything a potential national or international issue. Having grown up a few blocks from 8 Mile Road – the ‘Berlin Wall’ separating Detroit from its’ then mostly-white suburbs, and having gone to school in a district that refused to bus for the purpose of desegregation (at a loss of funding for doing so, as I recall), I am perhaps more aware than most of how easily these things can spiral out of control, become the tool of outsiders, et cetera. Nonetheless, it is incumbent for every public official to recognize that they could be next, and to have a mind-set, if not a plan, for dealing with the consequences of the unplanned ‘incident.’
      This is actually an old problem; I was reading Eisenhower’s ‘Crusade in Europe’ recently and he remarked, in reference to the ‘Patton slap’ incident, that they lived in an age where a story like that might be telegraphed back to America within an hour of occurring, and that story broke in 1943.
      Your comments are very much on-target and I appreciate your sharing them.

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