Shades of 1966! Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teen shot and killed by a white Neighborhood Watch member in Lee County, Florida, will have his shooting probed by the US DOJ and the FBI. They have opened a civil rights investigation as of today.
The sense of dÃ©jÃ vu is powerful in this case. An unarmed black teen is accosted by a white man with a gun, shot and killed. The man claims self-defense, on the basis that they were fighting and the teen bloodied his nose. The police show up, take the shooter’s statement, interview a few ‘witnesses,’ who give conflicting reports, and declare the shooter innocent of wrongdoing. The shooter is released and the local community becomes angered at this cavalier treatment of the death of a child, and demands that the shooter be arrested. The sheriff refuses, citing unspecified evidence that is “consistent with the shooter’s story.”
At this point, the story hits not only the national news, but the social networks on the internet. More than 435,000 people sign a Change.org internet petition demanding a ‘real’ investigation. The uproar grows, because almost no one can see any necessity for the shooting. There were several decision points at which the shooter could have short-circuited the entire event and waited for police to arrive. Then come the feds.
Although the federal government has no direct jurisdiction over a local crime of shooting, even murder, they are charged with enforcing the federal Civil Rights Act. In the 1960s, white men were routinely released by sheriffs, police, judges and juries for murders of blacks in front of witnesses.
The FBI used violation of the victims’ civil rights as the striking point from which to wedge open a case and obtain justice, however limited, for the victims. It looks like they have to do it again, because there’s no evidence that the shooter, one George Zimmerman, had any reason or excuse for his actions that night. However, under Florida’s “Stand your ground” law, if no one directly contradicts a shooter’s self-defense claim, it is very difficult to bring charges. In this case, if no charges are brought–murder, manslaughter or even wrongful death–there is little doubt that a case for violation of Trayvon Martin’s civil rights can be made. And civil rights violations charges are not constrained by state or local law.