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Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman: Whose Ground to Stand?

On the rainy night of February 26, 2012, which of the two men had a superior claim of acting in self-defense? Who, in effect, had the right to stand his ground in the altercation that led to Martin's death?
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The burden of Southern history -- and Florida history in particular -- hovers over the trial of George Zimmerman, accused of second degree murder in the fatal shooting of the unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin: hundreds of years of slavery, white supremacist terror, segregation, and persistent racism.

But jurors will have to decide their verdict on a more narrow legal issue. On the rainy night of February 26, 2012, which of the two men had a superior claim of acting in self-defense? Who, in effect, had the right to stand his ground in the altercation that led to Martin's death?

Most of the facts are uncontested. Martin was returning from a convenience store to the gated community where his father was staying. Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch member with a pistol on his hip, was patrolling the neighborhood, which had experienced a recent rash of robberies. He reported the incident to a telephone dispatcher who told him not to continue following the teen, but he did so anyway. Martin, frightened, perhaps panicked, told his girlfriend in a final cell phone conversation that he was being stalked.

So, a jury with no African Americans must now consider who, under these circumstances, was justified in using whatever force was available?

Zimmerman's lawyer, Mark O'Mara, has made it clear that self defense will be the centerpiece of their case. But what about Trayvon Martin's fear of George Zimmerman? Until the pair scuffled, could he not reasonably have acted because he was in fear for his life? And since when are a teenager's fists considered deadly force?

In order to be considered "justifiable use of deadly force" under Florida law, Judge Debra Nelson told prospective jurors, an individual must be in fear of grievous bodily injury or death from another.

"The danger facing the defendant need not to have been actual," the judge said. "However, to justify the use of deadly force, the appearance of danger must have been so real that a reasonably cautious and prudent person under the same circumstances would have believed that the danger could be avoided only through the use of that force.

"If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense, you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether the defendant was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find the defendant not guilty," she said.

As I and others noted in the weeks following the shooting, the legacy of unpunished white violence against black men and women in the South, and particularly here in Central Florida, is a strong one.

-- 1920: Attempts by two black men to vote in the town of Ocoee led to a race riot that spread to Apopka, Orlando and Winter Springs. When the violence ended, Ocoee had been ethnically cleansed with more than 500 African American residents driven off. The town remained essentially white for the next 40 years.

-- 1923: A white mob's attack on the black community of Rosewood erased the hamlet from the map, burning it to the ground and scattering its residents forever.

-- 1947: Four African American fruit pickers in Groveland were falsely accused of raping a white teenager. Three were lynched or executed in a case that was recently the subject of a Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys and the Dawn of a New America. That same year, a white Sanford mob effectively ran Jackie Robinson, playing for a Brooklyn Dodgers' minor league team the year before he broke into the majors, out of town.

-- 1951: On Christmas Day, Harry T. Moore, executive director of the Florida NAACP and an anti-lynching activist, and his wife were blown up in their wood frame home by Klansmen, led by local law enforcement officers. Harry Moore died en route to a Sanford hospital, where his wife died nine days later, and no one was convicted of the crime.

So for local African Americans with long memories, like those gathered Monday evening at an NAACP forum at Allen Chapel African Episcopal Methodist Church, Trayvon Martin's shooting did not take place in a historical vacuum, or was it just a matter of distant history. Just five years ago, seven state prison guards and a nurse accused of beating to death a 14-year-old African American boot camp inmate -- a killing caught on videotape -- were acquitted by an all-white jury.

Zimmerman has said that Martin's "presence had made him feel threatened," writes T. D. Allman in his recent book, Finding Florida: A True History of the Sunshine State. "That was why he had followed the boy, and ultimately killed him, so the police said what they would have in 1980, 1935, 1920 -- or 1876 or 1818. It had been okay to kill him. They told Zimmerman he could go home."

Only a sustained political movement, in Sanford and around the nation and the world, pressured state officials to charge Zimmerman with second degree murder.

Days of sitting in this rectangular, paneled courtroom, sometimes directly behind the Martin family, listening to pre-trial motions and tedious jury selection, and now to opening statements, offer a certain perspective. One could almost feel Trayvon's presence as lawyers argued about how much derogatory information about the Miami teenager -- unanswered charges -- could be used to justify his killing by George Zimmerman. "What about my right to self-defense?" Trayvon might fairly ask.

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