Merlene Davis: Neighborhood vigilantes are a new worry for parents

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 21, 2012 

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    A transcript of several 911 calls surrounding the Trayvon Martin shooting can be found at: News.blogs.cnn.com/2012/03/20/911-calls-paint-picture-of-chaos-after-florida-teen-is-shot/.

I've written before about how seeing a police car in my rearview mirror gives me chills even though I know I haven't done anything to warrant special attention.

I come from an era when innocence wasn't a shield against being stopped, questioned or even roughed up by police if your skin was of a darker hue.

When I wrote that, readers told me to stop living in the past, to let go of history and enjoy this new day.

They seemed to be right. My daughter lived through the normal slights and prejudices most black people endure in Lexington and she survived.

But when my two sons reached an age when their desire for independence was stronger than their common sense, my worries returned.

I wondered what would happen if they drove too fast or played the music in their cars too loud or had friends hanging out of their car windows celebrating a victory in sports? Some young boys can get away with those seemingly youthful actions. Some cannot.

Nowadays, parents have a new source of worry in neighborhood vigilantes who carry guns. To think my 17-year-old son could have been shot and killed because he walked through a community where an armed man thought he shouldn't be, boggles my mind.

And then to have the police department believe that the much larger armed man climbed out of the safety of his truck, confronted and shot my son because he felt threatened, is beyond belief.

But that is the scenario that unfolded on Feb. 26 in a gated community in Sanford, Fla., when Trayvon Martin, 17, was walking back to his father's fiancee's house from a convenience store. Carrying a can of tea and a bag of Skittles, Martin was talking with his girlfriend through an earpiece.

Neighborhood Watch volunteer George Zimmerman, 28, called 911 to report a suspicious character, namely Martin. "Hey, we've had some break-ins in my neighborhood, and there's a real suspicious guy," he told police. "This guy looks like he's up to no good, or he's on drugs or something."

When asked, Zimmerman told the dispatcher that Martin was wearing a dark hoodie, jeans or sweatpants and white shoes. That is the type of attire my boys loved when they were that age and obviously lots of boys still dress like that.

"He's walking around staring at the houses," he said to the officer. "Now he's just staring at me."

Later, Zimmerman said, "Now he's coming toward me. He has his hands in his waistband. He is a black male. Something's wrong with him. Yep. He's coming to check me out. He's got something in his hands. I don't know what his deal is. Send officers over here."

Then Zimmerman told the dispatcher that Martin was running. The dispatcher tells the watch volunteer not to pursue him. According to reports, Martin was telling his girlfriend that someone was following him. She told him to run.

If Martin was running away, what kind of threat was that to Zimmerman?

On later 911 calls from residents, a voice can be heard screaming for help followed by a gunshot.

One caller said, "I didn't see 'cause it was too dark, and I just heard people screaming 'help me, help me.' And this person shot him! He was like wrestling with him, you know what I mean, on the ground, from what I can see it was very dark. The man didn't try to run away or anything. I don't want to be a witness or anything. I'm scared. Oh, my God, a young boy, I can't imagine, I haven't seen anyone killed. This is a nice neighborhood. Oh, my God, I'm too scared to live here."

In the police report, one officer stated that Zimmerman's back appeared wet and he was covered in grass. He said Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and the back of the head. According to the report, Zimmerman said, "I was yelling for someone to help me, but no one would help me."

In 2005, Florida passed the stand-your-ground law, which permits using deadly force when you feel threatened; you don't have to try to retreat first as with the laws of most states.

During the first five years of the law, claims of justifiable homicides tripled, from 30 to 100, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

The law is muddying the waters in the Martin case. Did Zimmerman feel threatened by a black teenager walking through his neighborhood? If he can prove he was, he will be a free man.

Fortunately, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division and the FBI stepped in to investigate this Florida shooting. A grand jury will be convened in April.

I don't know what will come of this, but at least it seems Martin's death is no longer considered insignificant.

Walking through a neighborhood should never be a death sentence. Parents should never rush to a hospital or to a morgue and learn their son was killed because he was running from someone he thought was following him.

The bigger question now, though, is, with so many people angry with Zimmerman and his actions, what will happen if someone feels threatened by him?

We have far too much fear and far too little understanding in this country.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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