Key #5: The NRA, White Vigilantism, and Stand Your (White) Ground
One of the persistent myths about the Zimmerman trial is the claim that Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” (SYG) laws played no role in the case. This is untrue: while Zimmerman’s defense never brought up SYG during the actual trial, they successfully lobbied to have SYG encoded into the jury instructions. As criminal law professor Alafair Burke writes, the jury instructions in the Zimmerman trial had the following three components:
1) A defendant is “justified in using deadly force if he reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself.” This means that Zimmerman’s shooting of Martin did not actually have to be necessary; Zimmerman simply had to have a reasonable belief that it was necessary. (This is typical of self-defense in other states.)
2) If Zimmerman “was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any palce where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed [as above].” This is part of the “stand your ground” aspect of Florida law, which does not require a person to exercise reasonably safe retreat options.
3) “If in your consideration of the issue of self-defense you have a reasonable doubt on the question of whether George Zimmerman was justified in the use of deadly force, you should find George Zimmerman not guilty.” In some states, defendants have to prove by some level of certainty that they acted in self-defense. In Florida, the state has the burden to disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt.
Notice how these three parts fit together to Zimmerman’s advantage. Following someone — even if because of the most horrific racial stereotypes, even while armed, even after a police dispatcher warns one not to — is not unlawful. And if jurors had any reasonable doubt about whether Martin “attacked” Zimmerman — even if he did so out of fear of a strange older man who was following him for no legitimate reason — they were instructed to acquit.
So far these instructions track fairly accurately with the text of Florida’s SYG laws. However, the Florida law also has an important “initial aggressor” exception, where SYG does not apply to someone who initially provokes the use of force. Alafair Burke describes how the defense managed to convince the judge to leave out this key exception from the jury instructions over the objections of the prosecution:
The state asked the court to instruct the jury not only about the justification of self-defense, which favored Zimmerman in the ways described above, but also about its initial aggressor limitation. […] According to the state, the jury might have concluded that Zimmerman provoked any physical response from Martin by following him. If a jury could reasonably find an instruction applicable, the instruction should be given.
The defense objected to the initial aggressor instruction. […] As a factual matter, the defense argued that no evidence indicated that Zimmerman physically initiated the confrontation. As a legal matter, the defense relied on Gibbs v. State, a 2001 decision from the Fourth Division of the Florida Court of Appeals, which held that a defendant loses the right to self-defense as an initial aggressor only if he provokes the victim’s use of force through either force or “threat of force.”
As Burke explains, the judge eventually decided with the defense in dropping the initial aggressor instruction entirely from the jury instructions. This meant that the jury had no option to consider whether Zimmerman’s initial actions could have been interpreted by Trayvon as a “threat of force” that might have justified whatever stand Trayvon took in response. Burke goes into some length about why leaving out that jury instruction was a key mistake by the judge, but the broader conversation in national media about Stand Your Ground never picked up on this key omission. To understand why, we must take a look at how Stand Your Ground justifies a culture of aggressive white vigilantism as “reasonable” ways of approaching suspected criminals.
Stand Your Ground laws connect deeply with the National Rifle Association’s lobbying efforts in several states to promote armed resistance by citizens in encounters with criminals. The language in the NRA’s lobbying efforts also reflects a broader paranoia about armed self-defense in the face of specters of racialized violent thugs. Dissident Voice writer Martha Rosenberg traces the explicit racism in the NRA’s messaging, especially in a 2007 brochure titled “Freedom in Peril” produced by the NRA: “The 27-page, high budget brochure, leaked to the press in 2007, shows an Aryan nation under siege by African-Americans and ‘illegal alien gangs’ of darker peoples and homeowners defending themselves from Helter Skelter-like apocalypse by shooting from rooftops.” Such language mirrors the logic of white supremacist groups who also advocate for armed vigilante patrols by militias looking for “trouble” in the neighborhood. For example, the Ku Klux Klan chapter in Springfield, Missouri, recently distributed flyers announcing that it was starting up a neighborhood watch program to assure residents that “You can sleep tonight knowing the Klan is awake!”
The NRA’s rhetoric has escalated recently, with their board members and leaders calling NRA supporters “fighters for freedom” and proclaiming that the NRA would wage a “culture war” in order to see their agenda succeed nationally. But here’s a thought experiment: would the NRA approve of such rhetoric if it were advocated by “dark skinned” or “Muslim” groups? For example, what if a large group of Muslim-Americans decided to hold a gun rights rally to recognize and celebrate their 2nd Amendment rights? Given that mosques in the US receive death threats from white Christian-supremacist organizations on a frequent basis, and given that most militant Christian supremacists are white males, what if Muslim-Americans decided they had a right to defend mosques by standing their ground with armed resistance against any suspected white male trespasser? When it comes to African Americans, would the NRA defend the rights of African Americans to stand their ground against threatening approaches by unidentified white men? As I have written on brofiling.com:
Indeed, the history of gun rights in America shows a stance by white leaders to systematically take away guns from minorities who were labeled as ‘militants’ if they took up arms as part of their struggle for civil rights. For example, the 2nd Amendment traces its roots partially to the demands of Southern states for Constitutional guarantees that the Federal government would not infringe on the rights of Southern white militias to arm themselves in order to suppress potential slave rebellions. Ironically, some gun rights supporters today claim that slaves would have been free if only they had been armed.
While the NRA’s main mission and messaging in the 1980s and 1990s promoted the use of guns for hunting and sportsmanship, since then their mission shifted to more explicit and ominous anti-government fear mongering that connect with right-wing politics. In fact, much of the NRA’s current talking points closely resemble the rhetoric and language used by white supremacist and white nationalist groups, once considered fringe and extreme in the 1990s but now repeated as mainstream right-wing rhetoric. The NRA’s heavily promoted vision for Stand Your Ground primarily assumes white homeowners and white citizens as the targets of non-white criminals.
Given such a backdrop for Stand Your Ground, and the cultural assumptions around who SYG was meant for, it is not surprising that Zimmerman’s actions would not be seen as those of an “initial aggressor,” and thus why the omission of the jury instruction did not raise much attention in media coverage of the trial. Indeed, the defense was then able to claim, atrociously, that even though Zimmerman was literally armed with a weapon it was actually Trayvon who was armed—with a sidewalk. Defense attorney Mark O’Mara infamously held up a slab of concrete in his closing statement to the jury, illustrating how Trayvon could use the sidewalk as a dangerous weapon to pummel Zimmerman’s head, making the sidewalk in Trayvon’s hands more threatening to Zimmerman than Zimmerman’s actual loaded gun was to Trayvon.
That such an absurd argument has since gained traction in public sentiment proves the depth of white paranoia when it comes to armed vigilante violence against black/brown men. It shows that if you are a black or brown man, Stand Your Ground doesn’t apply to you because the very ground you are standing on will be yanked out from under your feet and held up by a white lawyer who will convince a white jury that you deserve to be shot dead for posing such a threat to white society.