TOPICS > Politics

Trayvon Martin Case Sparks New Protests, Debate Over Race, Guns, Law

March 22, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Thousands of people rallied Thursday in Florida, demanding justice for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager shot last month in a gated community. Jeffrey Brown explores the many issues raised by the case with The Atlantic's Ta-Nehisi Coates, The Daily's Reihan Salam, author Donna Britt and Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The shooting death of a black youth in Florida sent out new shockwaves today. They reverberated from protesters to police, as the public outrage grew, along with demands for action.

People at Atlanta-area churches boarded buses in the early morning hours for the long drive to Sanford in Central Florida. They were among thousands expected at a rally tonight, demanding justice for the killing of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager.

MAN: We are trying to find justice. I am Trayvon Martin. We are all Trayvon Martin.

JEFFREY BROWN: Civil rights leader Al Sharpton originally planned the rally for a 400-seat church, but organizers moved to a local park to accommodate the expected crowd. It was all evidence of how anger over the Martin killing has spread.

The 17-year-old was visiting family in this gated community last month when he walked to a nearby store. He was followed by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, who reported someone — quote — “suspicious” in a hooded sweatshirt. Zimmerman admits shooting Martin, but says he acted in self-defense. He told police he had given up the chase when the teen attacked him. To date, Zimmerman has not been charged.

PROTESTERS: No justice, no peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: That decision has fueled the protests, but Sanford police cited Florida’s so-called stand your ground law, allowing deadly force by civilians in some circumstances.

In a statement last night, police Chief Bill Lee defended the investigation, saying, “Officers were prohibited from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”

But also last night, the city commission voted no confidence in its police chief.

MAN: I would ask the chief to step down at this point.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, today, the chief did just that.

BILL LEE, Sanford, Fla., police chief: It is apparent that my involvement in the matter is overshadowing the process. Therefore, I have come to the decision that I must temporarily remove myself from the position as police chief for the city of Sanford.

JEFFREY BROWN: Meanwhile, an online campaign for action has gained momentum. A Facebook page, Justice for Trayvon Martin and a Web site, I Am Trayvon Martin, encourage readers to submit photos of themselves in hooded sweatshirts, with the question, “Do I look suspicious?”

Another Facebook page organized the Million Hoodies March for Trayvon Martin in New York City last night.

PROTESTERS: We are Trayvon Martin! We are Trayvon Martin!

JEFFREY BROWN: The website Change.org is offering an online petition demanding Zimmerman’s arrest. So far, it has well over one million signatures. And now two investigations are under way. A state grand jury convenes next month.

And Trayvon Martin’s family met today with U.S. Justice Department officials, who’ve begun a probe of possible civil rights violations. They spoke this afternoon at the rally site in Sanford.

TRACY MARTIN, Father of Trayvon Martin: This is a temporary step-down of Bill Lee. It means nothing. We want an arrest. We want a conviction, and we want justice for the murder of our son.

JEFFREY BROWN: It was unclear how long the state and federal investigations would take to reach their conclusions.

And for more on the issues that have sparked a national conversation, we turn to Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, Reihan Salam, a columnist for The Daily, a newspaper for the iPad, and lead writer of The Agenda blog at National Review Online. Donna Britt is the author of the book “Brothers & Me,” which is in part about the shooting death of her brother by police in Gary, Ind. She’s a former syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. And Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley is a Republican legislator who co-authored that state’s so-called Stand Your Ground law. He joins us from Orlando.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, I will start with you.

There’s been a lot of calls for the police chief to step down. He’s done that at least temporarily now. What’s your reaction?

TA-NEHISI COATES, The Atlantic: I think it’s a good first step. I think over the long term we will have to see how much it actually means for the investigation.

I think what’s important is that people were not simply calling for him to step down just because there has not been an arrest. People were calling for him to step down because they were vastly — and, in my opinion, legitimately — displeased with how this investigation took place.

It was just a very shoddy job. And I think this is about the absolute least that could be done so far.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dennis Baxley, what’s your reaction to today’s latest development?

DENNIS BAXLEY (R), Florida state representative: Well, I think something had to happen in response to the outrage that’s occurred.

I think, first of all, we simply want to express empathy and condolences to this family who is hurting. And from this point forward, I think we can have a lot of confidence in what we will learn from the grand jury.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donna Britt, the killing happened a month ago and one of the reasons it seems to have become a national issue is something you wrote about a long time ago called the talk that a black mother has with a young son. Explain that.

DONNA BRITT, author, “Brothers & Me”: My oldest son had just turned 12 and I knew that he was shifting from being adorable and sweet and cute into something that could be perceived as threatening and frightening to people who had no idea who he really was.

And so at that point no one called it the talk. I just knew that we had to sit down and discuss what was proper for him to stay safe and what was not, what kind of behavior might get him hurt and what kind might keep him safe.

JEFFREY BROWN: You see that clearly playing into the issues of what’s happened?

DONNA BRITT: Very much, although I don’t know what this child could have done to be safe, except not be black.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reihan Salam, why do you think it’s become such a national issue?

REIHAN SALAM, National Review: Well, I think it’s absolutely fascinating.

When you think about how there has been an outpouring of grief not just in this town of Sanford, Florida, but throughout the country, and the fact that there was a real near spontaneous eruption, you had a huge number of people who were so passionate about this incident that they came out including, Ta-Nehisi, I believe, in New York City last night.

And this partly reflects the fact that you have new organizing energy in this country on a wide range of issues. And it’s partly because, as Donna suggests, this is part of a larger American story. And part of what I find so encouraging is that folks like Dennis Baxley and the governor of Florida have themselves said that, wait a second, we need to rethink this law, we need to revisit this.

So in a way, I think that there are some — look, the shooting is a profound tragedy and, you know, there’s still a lot more we need to learn, but I do find it somewhat encouraging that this conversation hasn’t been totally polarized, at least not yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ta-Nehisi Coates, pick up on that. There’s a larger American story. You started to talk about that earlier. Is there sort of potentially beneficial so far, or not at this point?

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, no, I think I would agree with Reihan that thus far it hasn’t been politicized.

I think a significant part of this is, like Donna, a lot of us in the African-American community have had friends, relatives who’ve experienced some sort of negative encounter, some of them lethal, with the police. I have a friend from Howard University, where I went to school, who’s like that.

I think the difference is you have an actual child. You have a 17-year-old kid. I think at a base level everybody can relate to sending their child out to the store for a bag of Skittles, an Arizona Iced Tea hoping to enjoy the afternoon, watching the All-Star Game with his parents, with his father who is there present in his life.

Donna alluded earlier to the talk. And, as she said, there’s very little that he could have done differently from what we know thus far. I think a lot of us can empathize with being afraid with seeing somebody following you in a truck, coming out to pursue you in a truck against the dispatcher’s instructions.

And when you put yourself in Trayvon’s shoes, being 17 years old, I know there’s very little that I could imagine myself doing different.

JEFFREY BROWN: And this case, of course, did not involve a police shooting, but you’re putting it into a larger context.

TA-NEHISI COATES: No, it did not. Right. Right. Right.

And I think, just to pick up on that, it was a neighborhood watch person who I believe the national neighborhood watch organization is saying it wasn’t even registered with them. So you’re just talking about somebody just claiming authority over a place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Dennis Baxley, much of the attention of course has focused on this Stand Your Ground law, which you helped to write. Does it call into question the law? Certainly, in many people’s mind, it has. What do you think?

DENNIS BAXLEY: Well, most of the critics have not actually probably read the statute, unfortunately, and some have.

I don’t think it does. Personally, I know my intent with the legislation was simply to empower law-abiding citizens to be able to stop violent things from happening. And since ’05 to 2012, we have seen a significant reduction in violent crime in Florida.

And what I have learned from it is that if you empower people to stop bad things from happening, they will and they do and they have.

JEFFREY BROWN: Excuse me.

DENNIS BAXLEY: This kind of — this kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute, because there’s nothing in that statute that authorizes anybody to pursue and confront people on the street.

And we all know that would accelerate in circumstances. I also have questions about why a crime watch individual would be carrying a firearm in that role, because that, again, is an accelerator for that environment. But the main thing, I don’t want people to attack this statute, which I think has saved thousands of people’s lives.

I want us to look at the underlying issue. And I think we’re starting to see there are bigger issues here about the stereotyping and the tension, the emotional tension. And, of course, we’re all very emotional about a child losing their life in such a needless way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Donna Britt, your thoughts on the law?

DONNA BRITT: I haven’t read the law, and so I can’t comment to that.

I just know that this person felt empowered to behave this way. And as long as human beings are as flawed as they are, they will behave in flawed ways. This person who — this self-appointed sort of vigilante went after a kid who — and thank God he looks like a kid. He looks like someone who is young and vulnerable and who matters. And it’s part of the reason people have responded so much.

But there are countless people whose names you don’t know. My brother was killed by police under very disturbing and incomprehensible circumstances 30 years ago. And there was no outpouring of emotion or of attention. And so, you know, looking at this law, looking at anything that would help empower someone to behave the way this man did, it’s important to do that and not to pretend that things like this aren’t going to happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reihan Salam, do you want to weigh in on the Florida law? And it’s been picked up in many other states, of course.

REIHAN SALAM: Indeed. I’m sympathetic to what both Donna and Dennis Baxley have said, because I think that, you know, the law itself was really designed to protect people who are the victims of crime.

And sadly the victims of crime are disproportionately people who come from minority backgrounds, who are oftentimes ignored by the law, who oftentimes are found on the wrong side of law when they really were defending themselves.

Now, the problem on the other hand, as Baxley had said, is that, look, we do have this pervasive stereotype about young black men, which is something that really escalate some of these situations and really does poison the atmosphere. The problem is that the law itself, it’s not clear that the law is the reason for that.

The law is something that perhaps we can revisit. Perhaps there are some things that we might change in the law to clarify the law. But the real problem is, I would argue, this much more pervasive cultural problem in which there is this deep distrust toward a huge number of Americans who, through no fault of their own, are oftentimes the object of suspicion.

TA-NEHISI COATES: Well, if I could just really, really quickly make just a quick comment on the law. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay.

TA-NEHISI COATES: . . . because I think this is really important.

There was a case this week that was thrown out by a judge where a gentleman found somebody stealing a radio out of his truck. He came down and stopped the person, chased the guy down, and then stabbed him to death. Now, I think we can all empathize with the notion of wanting to defend ourselves from crime.

My great concern is that there’s been a number of cases besides Trayvon Martin where prosecutors, cops are very concerned about this law and the broad way in which it’s being implemented. If you have a number of cases like that, it seems to me it calls into question how the law was written.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Dennis Baxley, do you want to come back at what you have just heard?

DENNIS BAXLEY: Yes.

I think the challenge for me is to try to protect this statute that I think actually preserves life and empowers people to take charge of their own lives, all kinds of people who are in situations to be attacked. And I don’t want to lose that or dilute that in the process.

I think we may need other kinds of legislation, like defining what crime watch people can do. But I can tell you that, in this statute, there’s nothing that authorizes people to pursue and confront. And that’s why I have been very concerned about it.

I think it gives a lot of responsibility on the part of the individual and a lot of empowerment to say, you make that decision. You have a few seconds to respond when you believe your life is in peril. And at that point, you are authorized to make a decision to use force, including deadly force if necessary, to protect you and your family.

We live in a violent age, and a lot of it has to do with something we don’t really acknowledge anymore, and that’s the broad substance abuse problem, drug abuse. And we all know addicted people will sacrifice themselves, their family, and anyone else to that addiction.

JEFFREY BROWN: Okay.

DENNIS BAXLEY: And that’s an environment that’s part of this culture, even if you decriminalized it. The use of these things and the addiction is part of this dangerous environment.

And then, through all the media, we have seen an elevated level of violence. It used to be a wrestling or a pushing or a fistfight. Now the types of things that they have seen in media over the time of their childhood, people are more destructive and complete in terms of the kinds of conflicts that you see. And that does make it more dangerous for everyone.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Okay.

Brief last word, Donna Britt? What do you want to see happen next?

DONNA BRITT: When people — he’s talking about violence and about fear. And that’s exactly the kind of talk that makes people more fearful and makes them more hair-trigger and, to me, encourages the kind of thoughtless, cruel overreaction that happened in Florida.

And the larger question is the — is what motivates us to behave in the ways that we behave.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Donna Britt, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Reihan Salam, and Florida state Rep. Dennis Baxley, thank you, all four, very much.