Trayvon Martin would be 27 this year had he not been gunned down on Feb. 26, 2012, just a few weeks after his 17th birthday. Martin, who was unarmed, was shot and killed by a self-appointed “neighborhood watchman” who notoriously disregarded a 911 dispatcher’s instructions not to pursue the “suspicious” teen.
It’s been 10 years since Martin’s death. In the intervening years, numerous unarmed Black people have been killed by armed citizens as well as the police. Sometimes the killers are charged and prosecuted for their actions, resulting in a handful of convictions. Most recently, when Gregory and Travis McMichael and William Bryan were found guilty for murdering Ahmaud Arbery, the media celebrated their convictions as signs of racial progress. “Guilty Verdict for Ahmaud Arbery’s Killers Is a Welcome Sign of Progress,” read one headline in the Undefeated. When, a few months later, a jury found the McMichaels guilty of a federal hate crime, confirming that racial animus motivated the killing, the media cheered again. “Civil Rights Leaders Called the Verdict a Victory for Racial Justice,” according to the New York Times
While it may be tempting to believe—because of a few favorable outcomes in court—that the country has made significant progress in preventing and prosecuting these kinds of senseless killings, the truth is much more bleak. The legal and ethical foundations of racial injustice and violence are as intractable as ever. In fact, the legal proceedings surrounding Arbery’s murder revealed a startling, ever-shifting legal landscape that encourages armed assailants to invoke “self-defense” as a means to absolve their lethal aggression. Often, their white supremacist motives are camouflaged by appeals to public safety, threats of rising crime, and personal vulnerability.
It is no coincidence then, following the rise of the Movement for Black Lives after Martin’s killing a decade ago, that more states have adopted or expanded “stand your ground” laws, which extend the boundaries of justifiable self-defense from the home to any public place. Proponents say these laws help to keep us all safer. But in reality, they have had the opposite effect.
George Zimmerman’s acquittal on the charge of Martin’s murder in 2013 revealed one such pathway through which acts of vigilante violence could be justified as innocent, or even virtuous. Originally passed in 2005, Florida’s “stand your ground” law served as a model for 23 other states, including Georgia, by the time Martin was killed. Although it was not directly cited in court, the law facilitated Zimmerman’s exoneration by making it nearly impossible to prosecute someone who claimed to have been “in fear for his life” during a lethal encounter, even if he provoked it.
In courtrooms where the defendant is the only living witness, the invocation of “reasonable fear”—fear that appears reasonable to the jury—effectively reverses the roles of victim and perpetrator, often ensuring white or white-passing defendants a seamless journey out of legal trouble (Zimmerman is Latino; his light skinned appearance proved exonerating). Research illuminates the law’s racial disparities. According to a 2013 study by the Urban Institute, “homicides with a white perpetrator and a black victim are ten times more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a black perpetrator and a white victim.” In states where stand your ground laws exist, the racial gap is much starker: “Cases with white perpetrator and a black victim are 281 percent more likely to be ruled justified than cases with a white perpetrator and white victim.”
The very movement aimed at addressing these disparities has been met by an increase in white supremacist violence. Following Zimmerman’s exoneration, activists and organizers rallied around the phrase Black Lives Matter. The Movement for Black Lives condemns the pernicious ideas that led to Martin and Arbery’s executions: that Black people do not have a right to move freely in public and that their deaths are unworthy of legal justice. Key to the movement is the artful and insistent occupation of public space, the persistent shaming of a nation that continues to treat Black and brown people as threatening and disposable. As the movement gained momentum, the laws governing self-defense continued to expand, inviting more citizens into the fold of armed vigilantism.
As momentum and public support for racial justice grew, states moved to amend the legal terms of self-defense in ways that authorized white aggression while further obfuscating the law’s racial biases.
Take, for example, a 2017 law in Florida that flipped the burden of proof in self-defense cases from the defense to prosecution. Other states, like Alabama and Kentucky, have used similar tactics to determine which party is at fault. The change required the prosecution to prove that a defendant who used deadly force behaved unreasonably, a tall order if the only other witness is dead. This shift—combined with a defendant’s Fifth Amendment right to remain silent—can make homicide cases impossible to prove, especially when a white defendant has killed a nonwhite person.
We saw these dynamics play out in the case of Gardner Fraser, a white man who killed his former lover, Dominic Broadus, in 2018. Fraser disappeared Broadus’ cellphone, making it difficult to prove that he was not “in fear for his life” when he shot the unarmed Black man at close range. Under Florida law, a single judge can grant “a defendant unilateral immunity, thus preventing a jury from ever hearing the case or assessing the evidence,” adding yet another high hurdle to justice. Fraser was never charged for the killing. He was charged and convicted of tampering with evidence, for which he was sentenced to one year in jail.
It gets worse. At each turn, demonstrations against the killing of unarmed Black people have been met with laws that incentivize, and legally justify, more violence. In 2020, the country erupted into protests following the devastating police execution of George Floyd. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis condemned demonstrators as “rioters” and called for their incarceration. To achieve his goal of criminalizing protesters, DeSantis subsequently introduced a bill titled “Combatting Public Disorder,” which he hailed as “the strongest anti-rioting, pro–law enforcement piece of legislation in the country.” Passed in April, the law exonerates motorists who target protesters impeding traffic, justifying vehicular violence with appeals to “reasonable fear” that mimic the tortured logic of stand your ground laws.
Several states have copied Florida’s sweeping anti-protest statute, enabling drivers to avoid prosecution when they drive into crowds of demonstrators, whom the laws characterize as threats to public safety. An Iowa law, for example, provides specific immunity for drivers who strike “disorderly” protesters who block public roadways. Some of the legislation also allows demonstrators to be charged with felonies during the commission of a “riot,” a term so broadly defined that it includes simply being present at a protest. For example, a bill pending in New Jersey would criminalize protesters as “rioters” if they “endanger the safe movement of a vehicle traveling on a public street, highway, or road.”
The fate of these laws is yet unsettled, however. Florida’s anti-riot law was blocked in the state’s northern federal district court in September, citing a violation of the First Amendment rights to assemble and to free speech, and a14th Amendment right to due process. Since the state contains three federal district courts, two of which have yet to contest it, the anti-protest law still reigns throughout most of Florida. DeSantis remains confident the ruling will be overturned on appeal.
While these and other state laws appeal to widely held notions of “public order” and “safety,” they have served to shield perpetrators of violence from prosecution. According to a national study by the Boston Globe, of the 139 instances of vehicular violence between May 25, 2020—the date of George Floyd’s killing—and Sept. 30, 2021, at least 100 protesters were injured and three were killed when struck by cars. The drivers faced charges in only 65 of those incidents, with less than half facing felony charges. Just as stand your ground laws invite armed citizens to “shoot first, ask questions later,” this “anti-rioting” legislation invites lethal aggression from drivers enraged by public demonstrations for racial justice. Under our new legal landscape, the aggrieved drivers can (and often do) avoid criminal or civil penalties by claiming that they felt threatened by “rioters” blocking traffic.
By design, the racial implications of these legal innovations aren’t readily obvious. When the Florida Legislature initially enacted stand your ground laws in 2005, the justification they used, which is still contained in the preamble, provides “no person or victim of crime should be required to surrender his or her personal safety to a criminal, nor should a person or victim be required to needlessly retreat in the face of intrusion or attack.” Despite the existing research revealing the deep race and gender inequity of stand your ground laws, states continue to adopt them based on the faulty logic that they empower “law-abiding” citizens to protect themselves.
But these appeals to public safety ring hollow. Stand your ground Laws have consistently been shown to increase the rate of homicides. In one recent study, researchers examined homicide rates in 41 states with stand your ground laws enacted between 2000 and 2016. They found, on average, an 8-to-11 percent increase in “monthly rates of homicide and firearm homicide” in states with such laws. The outcomes were worse in Southern states, including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Louisiana, “where the increased rate of killings reached 10 percent or higher.” A 2019 review of stand your ground laws by the RAND Corporation also found a correlation between these laws and increased homicide rates, noting that subsequent studies show that the laws do not actually prevent violent crime, despite politicians’ claims otherwise.
We can draw a straight line from Martin’s killing a decade ago and the rise of the movement for Black lives to widespread feelings of grievance among select citizens incentivized to take matters of justice into their own hands. In their eyes, the demand for Black lives to matter is “racist” against white people, and an assault against American values. A full decade after Martin’s untimely death, after countless protests in defense of Black lives, after continued high-profile killings of unarmed Black people with only infrequent guilty verdicts for the perpetrators, and after the proliferation of laws allegedly aimed at increasing “public safety,” we are no more safe as a nation. In fact, as Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick pointed out on the anniversary of the Jan. 6 insurrection, “2021 was a banner year for violent vigilantism.” The occasional guilty verdict is hardly a sign of racial progress, and our already tenuous grip on justice is slipping.
In the words of Sybrina Fulton, Martin’s mother, “Trayvon Martin is a symbol for other Trayvon Martins that you don’t know, that you have not said their name. … He was just a vessel that represents so many others.”