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  • Introduction—Lynching and Its Legacies:Racial Dynamics of Discipline and Punishment in American Culture
  • Chris Vanderwees (bio) and Andrew Connolly (bio)

You know, when Trayvon Martin was first shot I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago. And when you think about why, in the African American community at least, there's a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away.


On the evening of 26 February 2012, in Sanford, Florida, George Zimmerman, a neighbourhood watch volunteer, confronted seventeenyear-old African American Trayvon Martin and questioned him for what he reported to police as "suspicious behaviour." The two individuals engaged in an altercation that would conclude with Zimmerman fatally shooting Martin, who was unarmed, in the chest. Police took Zimmerman into custody, questioned him for several hours, treated him for minor injuries, and determined that there was no evidence to disprove his claims of self-defence. Under Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, no arrest could be made. These laws effectively permit civilians to use deadly force without retreating against perceived threats. Since Florida's induction of Stand Your Ground in 2005, similar laws have been enacted across twenty-three states. Sometimes referred to as the "shoot first laws," Stand Your Ground makes it incredibly difficult for prosecutors to file cases for murder when defendants claim self-defence. Katheryn Russell-Brown maintains that these laws give "police officers the [End Page 1] final authority to decide whether a shooting was justified or unjustified—a determination typically left to the court system"; this troublingly "allows police officers to act as proxies for judges and juries" (123). In many cases, police officers also take on the role of executioner. Elizabeth B. Megale argues that Florida's legislature fundamentally redefined the terms of self-defence and deadly force with Stand Your Ground, because

the law decriminalizes homicide and other violent acts by declaring certain actors innocent and therefore not culpable for their violent behavior. A shooter need not justify plausibly defensible actions anymore because violent acts are not guilty acts—the legality of the violent act is automatically established through the immunity shield. Florida's statutory scheme has decriminalized certain categories of violence entirely. Homicide and other violent acts are no longer justifiable; they are legal in many circumstances.


News of the circumstances of Martin's death and Zimmerman's subsequent release from custody as a result of Stand Your Ground sparked protests in more than 100 cities. Marches, rallies, and petitions spread across the United States in Martin's name, generating 2 intense media debates on the intersections between racial profiling, self-defence laws, and the second amendment. The global activist movement Black Lives Matter emerged through these protests and has since become a loud voice against police brutality and racial inequality within the American justice system. Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after Governor Rick Scott appointed a special prosecutor's investigation in a trial that received widespread media attention. The trial would ultimately conclude with an acquittal, as the court found no evidence to refute his claims of self-defence under Florida's laws.

At the end of his Washington Post editorial on Zimmerman's killing of Trayvon Martin in 2012, Jonathan Capehart said the incident reminded him of a conversation he had with his mother before his first day at a predominantly white school. She told him to be mindful of his behaviour: do not talk back to police, do not run in public, and avoid the appearance of suspicion. "All this might seem paranoid," writes Capehart: "After all, I was taught these things almost 20 years after Jim Crow by African Americans who experienced its soul-crushing force first hand . . . So much has changed for the better since then. But then comes along a Trayvon Martin to remind us that the burden of suspicion is still ours [i.e., black [End Page 2] males] to bear. And...


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