The shooting death of an unarmed African-American boy, Trayvon Martin (17), by a white neighbourhood-watch volunteer last month, has inflamed racial tensions in the U.S. State of Florida, with the parents of the slain teenager asking why, three weeks after the incident, police have failed to arrest or even bring charges against the shooter.
On the night of February 26 Martin was visiting his father in Sanford when he left the house to purchase some candy and drinks from a nearby convenience store. While returning home he was observed by George Zimmerman (28), who was said to have been “patrolling the area in his car and who called 911 to report what he described as a ‘real suspicious guy'”.
The tapes of the emergency services call by Mr. Zimmerman were made available last week after the Martin family launched legal action to have them released. According to reports the audio indicates that Mr. Zimmerman chased Martin despite the 911 operator advising him against doing so.
As per reports on the transcript of the call, Mr. Zimmerman was heard saying: “Hey, we've had some break-ins in my neighbourhood and there's a real suspicious guy ... This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something.”
Mr. Zimmerman goes on to tell the operator that Martin was approaching him. “Now he's coming towards me. He's got his hand in his waistband. And he's a black male … Something's wrong with him. Yup, he's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is … These [expletive], they always get away.”
When Mr. Zimmerman then reported that Martin was running and that he was pursuing him the operator cautioned Zimmerman: “OK, we don't need you to do that.” Neighbours who also made 911 calls at the time then reported a loud gunshot. When police arrived on the scene Martin lay sprawled by the roadside, dead, with a gunshot wound in his chest. Contrary to any suggestion by Mr. Zimmerman that Martin was armed, the teenager “was carrying was his cell phone, a can of iced tea and a bag of Skittles.”
With a growing number of student protest marches, on the campus of Florida A&M University and outside the Seminole County criminal justice centre, public anger has centred on allegation of racism in the ensuing police investigations.
In a possible indication that the White House has taken the matter seriously the Department of Justice announced that it had begun its own investigation into the shooting. In a statement, the DOJ said: “The Department will conduct a thorough and independent review of all the evidence and take appropriate action at the conclusion of the investigation.”
The charge of racism against the police was further fuelled by the police's initial assurances to the Martin family that they did not charge Mr. Zimmerman because he was “a criminal justice student with a ‘squeaky clean' record”. However, a review is said to have revealed that Mr. Zimmerman was “arrested in July 2005 in Orange County on charges of resisting arrest with violence and battery on a law enforcement officer”.
The incident has also raised troubling questions about the pro-gun tilt in Florida law. As in the case of nearly half of all U.S. States, Florida has what is called a “Stand Your Ground” law on guns. Under this law a person suspected of engaging in deadly violence and claiming self-defence need not have attempted to retreat or escape the danger he was facing before striking.