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Dick and Trayvon ... Connect the Dots

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Posted on Jul 5, 2013
AP/David Goldman

Jajuan Kelley wears a Skittles wrapper over his mouth during a rally in memory of Trayvon Martin in Atlanta.

By Judy Balaban

This is a fitting moment to recall that 15 months ago, on the weekend of March 22, 2012, all print, radio and TV news was dominated by two seemingly disconnected stories. One concerned the former vice president of the United States, Dick Cheney, a 71-year-old white man who had just been given a brand new heart to replace his faulty one, recovering in a superbly equipped hospital room just outside of our nation’s capital. The other was about a 17-year-old black boy named Trayvon Martin whose healthy heart had been made to stop beating as he walked home in a gated Florida community, under a light rain, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and carrying a bag of Skittles and a bottle of iced tea. The stories were not disconnected. And the facts linking the one to the other, for some of us, constituted a textbook example of what might be labeled tragic irony.

Now, in June 2013, the trial of George Zimmerman, the man who shot and killed Martin, has begun in Florida. Cheney never knew the defendant or the boy Zimmerman admitted to killing and he will be nowhere near that trial. Still, it’s the ideal time to trace the dots connecting him to it, to the defendant’s original claim of innocence and the concept on which it was based, and to the story of a boy’s life being truncated suddenly, violently and unnecessarily.

Martin had actually been shot dead nearly a month before most of us ever heard of him. His death had been covered by the local news in Sanford, Fla., where he was staying with his divorced father and his father’s fiancee, and in the Miami Gardens area where he had been living with his mother. But it wasn’t until the weekend of March 22, when Cheney got his new heart, that the national news turned our attention to Martin’s death, to the circumstances surrounding it, to the lack of an arrest and the immediate “Stand Your Ground” claim of innocence, and to the near-immediate release of the man who had, admittedly, ended the boy’s life. Let’s recall what we were told at that time.

Martin had left the home where he was staying in order to walk to the local 7-Eleven to buy himself a drink and a snack. He was neither wearing nor carrying any sort of weapon. He was just an average 17-year-old boy, strolling home in a light rain, wearing only his hooded sweatshirt for protection. If 28-year-old George Zimmerman had not been out on the same night, driving around in his car and looking for a problem, none of us would have ever heard of him or of Trayvon Martin.

You may think I am slanting this story by stating that Zimmerman was out “looking for a problem” that night. But that is exactly what his own best judgment, not instructions from his neighbors or the police, had told him to do, and what he was admittedly doing. Zimmerman, whom we are told had gone out to run an errand, was the volunteer coordinator of a local neighborhood watch association. My stepson once started a neighborhood watch on our street and nearly two decades later, when a rash of burglaries broke out in our hillside area, another such group was formed again. So I have heard two generations of policemen address neighborhood watch meetings and relate to members individually, by phone and in person, about what is advisable and useful to do and what is neither expected nor wanted and could prove to be dangerous. At no time did I ever hear a policeman tell watch members to drive around alone in their cars at night to patrol their local streets, to follow people who looked suspicious to them for no apparent reason, and then to leave their cars in order to confront a person whom they alone had, without cause, identified as a possible suspect of an uncommitted crime. So there is no other way to accurately describe what Zimmerman was doing than to say that he was looking for a problem. And sure enough, when he spotted a black teenager walking down the street in a hoodie, he was sure he had found one. The teenager was carrying Skittles and iced tea. Zimmerman was carrying a gun.

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The details originally released told us Zimmerman had called the police from his car to report that a suspicious-looking teenager wearing a hoodie was walking down the street. When asked, he told the police that the boy was black, and during the call he noted, “these assholes always get away.” Zimmerman had been told by the police not to follow the boy and not to get out of his car to confront him, but instead disregarded police instructions, followed the boy, parked his car, got out of it, come face to face with Martin (there are conflicting stories as to how that happened) and—when a scuffle of some kind took place—took out his gun and shot the boy to death. When the police came, perhaps men that Zimmerman knew since he was such a devoted, one might say zealous, neighborhood watch member, he admitted to shooting the teen and killing him. Some sort of perfunctory questioning had taken place in the hours immediately after Martin’s death. Citing a specific Florida statute, Zimmerman had instantly claimed self-defense, and—within five hours—the police had closed the case, immunized Zimmerman and sent him home, a free man. At that time, both the police and Zimmerman were relying on the strength of a Florida law, enacted in 2005 and called “Stand Your Ground.” It was the basis of Zimmerman’s original claim of innocence, as well as the police decision to release him with no further ado. That’s where Dick Cheney comes in.


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