On the rainy night of Sunday, Feb. 26, 17-year-old Trayvon Martin walked to a convenience store in Sanford, Fla. On his way home, with his Skittles and iced tea, the African-American teenager was shot and killed. The gunman, George Zimmerman, didn’t run. He claimed that he killed the young man in self-defense. The Sanford Police agreed and let him go. Since then, witnesses have come forward, 911 emergency calls have been released, and outrage over the killing has gone global.
Trayvon Martin lived in Miami. He was visiting his father in Sanford, near Orlando, staying in the gated community known as The Retreat at Twin Lakes, where Zimmerman volunteered with the Neighborhood Watch program. The Miami Herald reported that Zimmerman was a “habitual caller” to the police, making 46 calls since January 2011. He was out on his rounds as a self-appointed watchman, packing his concealed 9 mm pistol, when he called 911: “We’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there’s a real suspicious guy ... this guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.”
Later in the call, Zimmerman exclaims, “OK. These a—holes always get away. ... [Expletive], he’s running.”
Sounds of Zimmerman moving follow, along with a controversial utterance from Zimmerman, under his breath, considered by many to be “[Expletive] coons.” The sound of his running prompted the 911 operator to ask, “Are you following him?” Zimmerman replied, “Yeah,” to which the dispatcher said, “OK, we don’t need you to do that.”
One of the attorneys representing the Martin family, Jasmine Rand, told me: “The term ‘coon’ on the audiotape ... is a very obvious racial slur against African-Americans. We also heard the neighbors come forward and say, ‘Yeah, in this particular neighborhood, we look for young black males to be committing criminal activity.’ And that’s exactly what George Zimmerman did that night. He found a young black male that he did not recognize, assumed that he did not belong there, and he targeted him.”
Another 911 call that has been released is from a woman who hears someone crying for help, then a gunshot.
Eyewitnesses Mary Cutcher and Selma Mora Lamilla both heard the cries, which police say could have been from Zimmerman, thus supporting his claim, even though he had a gun and outweighed Trayvon Martin by 80 pounds.
Cutcher said at a press conference: “I feel it was not self-defense, because I heard the crying. And if it was Zimmerman that was crying, Zimmerman would have continued crying after the shot went off. The only thing I saw that night—I heard the crying. We were in the kitchen. I heard the crying. It was a little boy. As soon as the gun went off, the crying stopped. Therefore, it tells me it was not Zimmerman crying.”
Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has defended his department’s decision not to arrest Zimmerman. They bagged Martin’s body and took it away, labeling him a “John Doe,” even though they had his cellphone, which anyone, let alone law enforcement with a shooting victim, could have used to easily identify a person. They tested Martin’s corpse for drugs and alcohol. Zimmerman was not tested. Neighbors say that Zimmerman loaded things into a U-Haul truck and left the area.
So, while the police and State Attorney Norm Wolfinger have defended their inaction, a democratic demand for justice has ricocheted around the country, prompting a U.S. Justice Department investigation and leading Wolfinger to promise to convene a grand jury. The Rev. Glenn Dames, pastor of St. James AME Church in nearby Titusville, has called Martin’s death “a modern-day lynching.” His demand for the immediate arrest of Zimmerman was echoed by the organizers of the “Million Hoodie March” in New York City, named after the often racially stereotyped sweatshirt Martin was wearing in the rain when he was shot.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People has called for the removal of Sanford Police Chief Lee. NAACP President Ben Jealous, recounting a mass meeting in a Sanford-area church Tuesday night, quoted a local resident who stood up and said, “‘If you kill a dog in this town, you’d be in jail the next day.’ Trayvon Martin was killed four weeks ago, and his killer is still walking the streets.”
With his gun.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.