Friday, March 23, 2012

Trayvon Martin: Assessing Stand Your Ground

It was a mugging that could have been prevented.

As a twenty something college student in Philadelphia the subway was my main mode of transportation. One night, as I stepped onto the platform I noticed two women waiting for the next train. They were seated on a bench having a conversation with each other: a conversation which stopped as I approached.

Each woman pulled her purse closer to her body as they watched me walk by. Clearly the presence of a young black male posed a danger to them and their belongings. I was tempted to say something, wanting to assure the two of my lack of interest in them or in their personal property, but decided to mind my own business as I walked to the other end of the platform. To be honest I understood being a bit cautious while out in public late at night. Besides, I was used to women holding their purses a little tighter or locking their car doors when they notice me nearby.

Not long after I passed I heard one of the women scream. I turned to see what had happened only to have a white man trip and fall at my feet. As they say, it all happened so fast. He quickly sprang up, dashing towards the exit before I could process what had just happened. Only after he hit the turnstile did I realize he was carrying a purse. I am not sure how or why but he had successfully robbed the two women who just moments ago were so concerned about my presence.

They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. These women did just that, assuming they could tell a dangerous person by his skin color only to get robbed by one of their own. Not that I find amusement in the misfortune of others, but I find it hard not to chuckle when I remember the night I was mistaken for a possible thief.

Granted we do not know all of the details of the tragic story of Trayvon Martin nor should we try the alleged shooter in public. My problem is with the “stand your ground law,” variations of which are on the books in 23 states including the one in which I live. These laws allow people to defend themselves against threat, using deadly force if necessary. This kind of protection was generally seen as a right if one was attacked inside their home. The stand your ground law extends this protection to situations in public where a person believes there is a danger to life and limb.

At first glimpse this law sounds like a good idea. In real life application we must ask at what point does the law no longer apply? Had this law been in place at the time would those women have been justified had one pulled a weapon and shot me that night on a cold Philly subway platform? After all they felt threatened by the black man passing them as they sat vulnerable waiting for their train.

Was Trayvon Martin guilty of something more than walking while black? Left up to local authorities we would never know the answer, their application of the stand your ground law giving justification for not bringing the case to court. Self-defense was always an acceptable defense, the accused having the opportunity to stand before a jury of his/her peers who would decide based on the facts of the case if the use of force was justified. Now we know that in some states one can avoid a trial simply by saying they felt threatened. Does this allow for better protection of person and property or is it a declaration of open season on anyone we can say poses a threat?

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