Trayvon Martin’s Killing: Was the Motive Self-Defense or Racism?

George Zimmerman claims he was defending himself when he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. The Sanford, Fla., police department is now accused of protecting a man many say was overzealous.

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Reuters; Orange County Sheriff's Office

At left, Trayvon Martin in an undated photo provided by the Martin family. At right, a 2005 photo of George Zimmerman.

Only two people know for sure what happened in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., on the night of Feb. 26: Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old high schooler, and George Zimmerman, 28, at whose hands Martin died of a gunshot wound to the chest.

But because Zimmerman — at least for now — remains a free man, justice has been called for in the racially charged case, in which an unarmed black teenager was shot by a white neighborhood patrol volunteer. He claims he was defending himself, but others say he was overzealous and lethally reckless.

Martin was in the gated community with his father as they visited the home of family friends. He had gone to a nearby 7-11 for snacks and was on his way back to the house when he was spotted by Zimmerman, who called police to report a “real suspicious guy.” He told the dispatcher that Martin “looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” He described Martin as having his hand on his waistband, carrying an object, and coming towards him. “And he’s a black male…Something’s wrong with him…These a**holes, they always get away.”

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Despite being told by the dispatcher not to chase him, Zimmerman went after Martin. According to several 911 calls from the neighborhood, the two wrestled and screams for help went out from one of the two. Then after a single shot, Martin lay on the ground, dead. The object in his hands were a bag of Skittles and an iced tea.

When police came to the scene, Zimmerman dropped his weapon and told them he shot Martin in self defense. He has not been charged. Sanford police did not press charges against Zimmerman, telling the teen’s family that he had a “squeaky clean” record. He is a licensed gun owner studying criminal justice.

But the Miami Herald reported Zimmerman had called police 46 times between Jan 1 and the night of the shooting, and that his particular focus on his patrol watch was black males. He had also once been arrested for battery on a police officer as he interfered with a friend being arrested. However, others say Zimmerman was a conscientious volunteer who warned neighbors in the community about suspicious characters roaming about after several burglaries had taken place. Some of the residents have said that he is responsible for thwarting several crimes.

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Since the incident, a controversy has ensued over whether the Sanford Police Department is protecting Zimmerman, as Martin’s family’s lawyers are charging, or whether he acted appropriately under Florida’s concealed carry gun laws and through the state’s “stand your ground” laws, which allow residents to use deadly force against a threat without trying to retreat. What is known is that Zimmerman was not tested for alcohol or drugs, customary police procedure after a shooting. Moreover, several witnesses have come forward saying Martin could be heard on the 911 tapes screaming for help.

FBI officials have been asked to investigate the incident and say they are “monitoring the matter.” On Monday, a rally took place demanding justice in front of Seminole County Courthouse, one of several protest held across Florida since Martin’s death. Several more are being planned. Angry nationwide reaction has come down on Sanford’s police department, which has a history of racial incidents, for not charging Zimmerman.

Martin’s family is angered, not only over his death, but also over police inaction toward Zimmerman. They feel the killing was racially motivated. “He committed no crime,” said Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton. My son wasn’t doing anything but walking on the sidewalk, and I just don’t understand why this situation got out of control.”

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The original version of this story used the word “murder” which has judicial dimensions. We have substituted the word “killing” for the death of Trayvon Martin.