Dominion of New York

The 411

March 27, 2012

With a Stranger Stalking, What Were Trayvon Martin’s Options?

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Written by: Michael Starkey
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Trayvon Martin


esterday, Sanford police put their cards on the table and explained why they haven’t arrested George Zimmerman.  To recap, Zimmerman claimed self defense, saying he followed Trayvon Martin; they got in an argument; Trayvon struck him first and wouldn’t stop; so Zimmerman shot him. There are serious reasons to doubt Zimmerman’s account — such as the witnesses who dispute it — but even if its true, it is not a defense for murder.

The same facts framed differently lead me to conclude that Zimmerman should be arrested and prosecuted. Zimmerman pursued Trayvon. Trayvon felt threatened and defended himself (i.e. “stood his ground”), and because Trayvon was successful for a short time in defending himself, Zimmerman shot him dead.  Several questions arise here: Who does Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law apply to?  Who should feel more threatened — an unarmed teenager chased by a strange adult or an armed adult questioned by a youth who he just chased?

Martin did many of the things Miami-Dade County’s parks department recommends children do when they encounter adult strangers. The police, Zimmerman, and the prosecutor may want to read those.

The tips recommend:

“If a stranger comes toward you, step backwards, turn around and run away.” — Martin initially attempted to escape from Zimmerman’s advances, based on Zimmerman’s own phone call.

“What should you do if a stranger tries to grab you?  You can yell for help!  You can kick, scratch, or bite!  You can run away as fast as you can.” — In other words, Martin should defend himself, and he can do so with physical force.

“Never talk to a stranger.” — Martin refused to answer Zimmerman’s questions.  Sure, Martin spoke to Zimmerman, but he wasn’t obligated to answer his questions.

I oppose the “Stand Your Ground”/”Shoot First, Ask Questions Later” law that police believe exculpates Zimmerman.  But the police and Zimmerman can’t have it both ways.  If they want to apply the law, apply it to the person who rightfully felt threatened.  Apply it to the person who was chased.  Apply it to the person who was unarmed.  Don’t twist it the other way around.  And if you remove that absurd law from the conversation, then there’s definitely no defense for getting out of your car, stalking, and then killing an unarmed teen.

Trayvon Martin may not have done the textbook best job at protecting himself from harm. And whether he was a “child” or not may be open to debate since government agencies and websites differ on how somebody age 17 should be categorized.  But considering the circumstances — rainy, getting dark, stranger following him with a gun — his actions were reasonable and well within his rights.  They certainly didn’t warrant his death.

To summarize Zimmerman’s own defense, Zimmerman initiated a confrontation by chasing a youth, the youth defended himself, and Zimmerman shot him dead.  Looks like grounds for an arrest.  And if you ask me, it’s grounds for a conviction, too.

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About the Author

Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey
Michael Starkey is an engineer 9-5, but in his spare time he writes about music and cultural history. His work includes "'Mercy, Mercy Me, The Ecology': Environmental Themes in Black Music" and "Hidden from Sight: African Americans and the Wilderness", presented at the annual conference of American Society of Environmental History, in 2006 and 2007 respectively. He is currently working on a book based on his master's thesis, "Wilderness, Race, and African Americans: An Environmental History from Slavery to Jim Crow." Michael lives and work in New York, NY. He currently resides in East Harlem with his wife and splits his work time between offices in Queens and Manhattan. He enjoys bicycling, listening to music, and playing soccer.


Official portrait from his tenure as US Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.