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On Friday President Obama said, “If i had a son, he’d look like Trayvon.” Though the President didn’t specifically mention race in his comments, race has been the discussion since the death of the Florida teenager made news. Trayvon Martin was shot and killed one month ago today by a white Hispanic man. George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, said he shot the teen in self defense. Police cited Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law as one reason they didn’t arrest him. Diane and her panel discuss the questions the killing of Trayvon Martin raises about state laws and race relations in America.
- David Ovalle reporter for the Miami Herald
- Anthony Cook Professor of Law at Georgetown, teaches courses in constitutional law, civil rights and African-American critical thought
- Isabel Wilkerson a Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns."
- Donna Britt author of "Brothers (and Me): A Memoir of Loving and Giving," journalist and former syndicated columnist for the Washington Post.
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. One month ago today, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old in Sanford, Fla., was shot and killed on his way home. It took a few weeks before the killing got national attention. It's since opened up a discussion about race in America and about the law that allowed the man who shot him to not be charged.
MS. DIANE REHMJoining me in the studio: Donna Britt, author of "Brothers (and Me) : A Memoir of Loving and Giving," Anthony Cook of the Georgetown University Law school, and, from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, Isabel Wilkerson. She's the author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." This is a very important discussion, I think, for all of us. I look forward to hearing your comments and questions. Join us by phone at 800-433-8850. Send us email to email@example.com. Join us on Facebook or Twitter. And good morning to all of you.
MS. DONNA BRITTGood morning, Diane.
PROF. ANTHONY COOKGood morning.
MS. ISABEL WILKERSONGood morning.
REHMGood to have you with us. First, joining us from Florida, David Ovalle of the Miami Herald. Good morning to you, David.
MR. DAVID OVALLEGood morning. How are you?
REHMI'm fine. Thanks. David, what is the latest that you're hearing in this case?
OVALLEWell, today should be a very interesting day up in Sanford, Fla. The -- there's going to be a march, and there will be a town hall meeting in which a lot of people are expected to attend.
OVALLEI think the pressure is only rising on the authorities to do something, but definitely is going to be a big news day later on in the afternoon. And as well as the lawyer for the gentleman who is the suspect on this case has been making the rounds on the TV shows over the weekend insisting that his client is not a racist and that this was a justifiable use of force. And that's -- you know, it's going to be a very interesting week to see how it plays out.
REHMSure. Tell us about the Stand Your Ground law in Florida.
OVALLEWell, the Stand Your Ground law in Florida was enacted in 2005, and what it -- it basically did -- it did two things: It eliminated a citizen's duty to retreat when faced with a deadly attacker. So, whereas before, if you saw someone that was coming to threaten you, you actually had to retreat until you could not retreat anymore. What it did now is it eliminated that, so it sort of gave a -- almost a preemptive, you know, ability to strike before actually even -- I mean, you have to just, you know, say that you saw something or that you believe that you were in harm.
OVALLEWhat it also did, too, is it bestowed an immunity on -- from criminal prosecution. So what that did was, in essence, it took the onus away from the jury and put it in front of a judge. So a judge now has the ability to bestow immunity on someone that is deemed to be -- you know, acting in self-defense, so a jury can still have it, but the judge will get the first crack on it under a looser standard than the beyond a reasonable doubt that is generally employed in jury trials.
REHMNow, as I understand, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush says the Stand Your Ground law he signed shouldn't protect a neighborhood watch captain. What's interesting to me is that the city manager in his statement to the public said that there was physical evidence found at the site to confirm that this does fall under the Stand Your Ground law. Tell us about that physical evidence.
OVALLEWell, Diane, I imagine there may be some details that we have not been privy to only because the investigation is still ongoing. But what I suspect that they're referring to are the grass stains on the back of the shirt of Mr. Zimmerman, which would indicate that he was on the ground getting attacked, as well as the injuries to his nose, which would indicate that there was some sort of struggle, and he was -- you know, he was being attacked.
OVALLEBut, you know, again, I guess what's going to come down to what the prosecutor will have to determine is whether this was a justifiable use of force, you know, in response to -- you know, a fist fight basically is, you know using a gun. Is that justifiable, and will that, you know, stand up in front of a jury if it comes to that?
REHMTalk about the man who is said to have shot Trayvon, Mr. Zimmerman. Tell us a little about him.
OVALLEWell, Mr. Zimmerman grew up in Virginia. He was -- he's the son of a retired military man, grew up in a very strict household in Manassas, Va. And he'd been living in the Orlando area for, you know, better part of the last decade, mostly worked as an insurance agent, but, you know, he was very, very active. He wanted to be a police officer. He said this as much in an application he did for a citizen's academy. But he had some things that probably would've made him not the ideal candidate in terms of domestic violence past.
OVALLEHe'd been arrested for battery on a law enforcement officer, a case that ultimately was dropped when he entered a pre-trial diversion program. And -- but, you know, he was very, very active. He would call police frequently, whether it was for a pothole, whether it was for an errant driver, you know, kids that he thought were loitering that looked suspicious. So this was sort of a pattern.
OVALLEAnd everyone that sort of looked at some of his pattern of behavior says, you know, this is a guy that was, in essence, sort of a cop wannabe or a frustrated cop. And I think that's really what boiled over and has led to this situation now.
REHMAnd over the weekend, the lawyer who claims to be working for Mr. Zimmerman said he would use self-defense laws and not Stand Your Ground laws. What was your reaction?
OVALLEWell, I didn't quite understand that because the Stand Your Ground law is the self-defense law in Florida. I mean, let's be clear. People have been using self-defense -- and you can use this self-defense as a defense -- you know, for hundreds of years. What this really did was it basically took what you enjoyed in your home, where you had no duty to retreat, and basically applied that to wherever you are. So you had no duty to retreat wherever you are.
OVALLESo this is absolutely a self-defense Stand Your Ground case. It's called the Stand Your Ground law, but it basically just enhanced, in the eyes of the people who passed the law, the self-defense statute. So, I mean, this will be a Stand Your Ground case if and when it comes to a jury or a judge.
REHMDavid Ovalle of the Miami Herald, thanks for joining us.
REHMAnd turning now to you, Donna Britt, I'd be interested in what went through your mind when you first heard about the Trayvon Martin situation.
BRITTTo be honest, my first reaction was to turn away because I -- it was -- I knew that a young man had been killed. I didn't know very much about him at all. I just knew that it was causing some outcry and that he was young and that he had been killed under what look like suspicious circumstances. And it's -- it just was too reminiscent of what happened in my own life with my brother.
REHMTell me what happened with your brother.
BRITTHe was 26. He was in a neighborhood that was -- where he lived -- that was transitioning, you know, from mostly white to mixed, and he was -- a white homeowner looked out of the window and saw him by his truck and came outside and said, what are you doing? And he -- the police reports said that my brother said, I need to go home. Can you take me home? And the man said, wait here, I'll take you home. And he went into the house and called the police and said, I'm holding a guy who tried to steal my truck.
BRITTAnd so the police came and shot and killed him. And the circumstances which they described in no way comport with anything that I know about, you know, this man who'd been my hero and my best friend and my confidant for, you know, all -- my whole life, he had been my favorite. And they described him as attacking them with a -- with a baseball bat, a length of chain and a piece of pipe and that -- and they said they had to use deadly force to kill him.
BRITTNow, so you -- when you hear this, you think he was -- he had to be high, or he had to be drunk. And the autopsy showed no drugs, no liquor in his body. I will never know what happened.
REHMDonna Britt, she is the author of "Brothers (and Me) : A Memoir of Loving and Giving." She is a journalist and former syndicated columnist for the Washington Post. Isabel Wilkerson, I'd be interested in your reaction when you first heard about Trayvon.
WILKERSONWell, I first thought about the long history in that particular state and throughout the South and, really, the country of essentially African-Americans being targeted as a result of being part of a racial caste system, a caste in which they could and their children could be identified and lose their lives on the basis of nearly what they look like and where they fit into their caste system that's existed for so long in the South. I was also reminded of the many events in Florida in particular where African-Americans have been targeted or have been focused of this kind of violence.
WILKERSONYou know, the first major riot in the post-civil rights era occurred in Miami when a man, Arthur McDuffie, in 1979 was killed by the police during a high-speed chase. And in that particular case, it appeared -- or they said that he had died in the crash. But, instead, it turned out that they had gone back and reordered the scene and had actually -- in actuality, they had handcuffed him, beaten him to death and then redid the scene in order to make it appear as if it had been a killing.
REHMIsabel Wilkerson, she is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." More when we come back.
REHMAnd welcome back. We're talking about Trayvon Martin, the young man who was killed by someone in his neighborhood who was holding a gun. Trayvon Martin was unarmed. He was on his way home. This all happened in Florida a month ago today. It didn't come out and make national news for a couple of weeks, and now it would seem the whole country is talking about it. Here in the studio, Donna Britt, former syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. And Anthony Cook, he is professor of law at Georgetown University.
REHMHe teaches courses in constitutional law, civil rights and African-American critical thought. And on the line with us is Isabel Wilkerson. She is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." Want to turn to you now, Anthony Cook. There's been a lot of talk about the fact that there was a conversation that Mr. Zimmerman had with a 911 dispatcher who instructed him not to continue to follow Trayvon Martin. What is your understanding of that conversation as it relates to Stand Your Ground?
COOKWell, my understanding is that he was told not to pursue, basically, and he ignored that instruction and pursued. I think I read that the police chief of Sanford, who has temporarily stepped down, stated that Mr. Zimmerman was not under any duty to follow the instruction of the dispatcher and that deciding to pursue would not have removed him from the protection of the Stand Your Ground law, right? So it, basically, is a way of establishing that he's still entitled to that immunity as I read it.
COOKNow, his lawyer has been very careful to kind of craft a story as to Mr. Zimmerman's activities and behavior that would suggest that he did retreat in some way, that he supposedly was going back to his truck and then he was attacked by Trayvon. And so the way that that connects to the law is that, of course, if he is the pursuer, then it may very well be that Trayvon is the person who was entitled to the Stand Your Ground law because he's carrying the gun, after all -- Zimmerman is, right?
COOKAnd it may be that Trayvon feels that he is under threat, imminent threat of death or substantial bodily injury. So it's necessary for Zimmerman, it seems, to establish that he was no longer the pursuer, the aggressor, that, indeed, he had called it off, you see, and had retreated.
COOKAnd, having retreated, now Trayvon becomes the assailant, the aggressor, and he is entitled to the immunity.
REHMAnthony Cook, as a black man, were you given -- did you have, did you receive guidance from your parents as you moved from young boy to teenager, to young adult about your behavior, and what you should or should not be doing?
COOKWell, I grew up in Mississippi in the Deep South in the '60s, right? And so the lines of demarcation between black and white, the right side of town, the wrong side of town, where you should be and should not be, were often, you know, very clear, particularly to a generation who had lived through Jim Crow and who had seen the ugly side of that institution of oppression with regard to his hideous infliction of undeserved punishment on black men and women who had crossed that line, right?
COOKBut it was a very interesting time because it was filled with optimism and hope that we were moving into a different day. And so, I think, when I reflect back on my parents' instructions and their behavior and attitudes toward me and the whole color line, it was one of not wanting to instill a sense of fear, to embrace the hopefulness of this new day and the possibilities of this new day. And so there wasn't a whole lot of talk of, you shouldn't do X, Y and Z, because they didn't want to create a fearful mentality and orientation.
COOKBut, on the other hand, there were very subtle suggestions sometimes with regard to being out of certain areas by a certain time. We knew that the Ku Klux Klan occupied a small town called Tylertown, Miss. And I remember having a girlfriend in Tylertown, and my father was very concerned -- I didn't know why -- and wanted to make sure that I got out of Tylertown by a certain hour, right, because he knew the role of the Klan, the history of the Klan there, and what they had done to black people who were caught there past a certain hour.
COOKI remember seeing on a television show "Sunset Boulevard," white guys rolling down Sunset Boulevard in California, whistling at girls, and I was young, impressionable. You know, you do stuff that you see on television, so I go to our town with my aunt or with my cousin, Ashley. And, you know, he's in the store, he comes out, and I'm sitting on top of the hood mimicking the characters on the show, whistling at what happened to be white girls walking down the street.
COOKHe was so concerned. You know, he almost started shaking. Of course, I'm young. I don't understand what's going on here. And he goes back, he tells my mother, my father, and they're irate. And so I get a very stern lecture about the realities of living in the American South during this period of time.
REHMAnd you know who -- Donna Britt, Anthony said boys and girls.
REHMDid you get that lecture?
BRITTOh, no. I lived in Gary, Ind. in a mostly-black neighborhood and --my parents, too, the optimism that he talks about, our parents were so -- you know, we were in the north and had a sense of -- I mean, of safety. I never felt that I was endangered, and I felt very separate from the white people in my community but not endangered by them. And I don't know that my brothers had that talk either because our situation was very different from his.
BRITTI had such a talk with my sons because, by that time, I knew that whatever sense of complete safety that I had was not accurate. It wasn't real. And so my...
REHMWhere were you living when your sons were reaching that point?
BRITTIn Detroit and around here, and because -- I don't -- you know, the idea -- I grew up with the idea that racism was something that happened in the Deep South. I was looking at television and seeing images of people being beaten and hosed, and, you know, I'm really young and really impressionable when I'm watching workers, civil rights workers be harmed and threatened and sometimes killed. And so you're very aware of that, and you're thinking, wow.
BRITTAnd almost so many of the black people from Gary were from the Deep South and would go back every summer, and I was really happy that my people were from Pennsylvania where bad things didn't happen. And so the sense that something like that could happen in Gary, where I grew up and where I felt safe, changed my whole perception, and raising sons -- and for a good deal of that time on my own, you know, before I got married again -- it was just a terrifying situation.
REHMWhat did you say to them?
BRITTNever make fast moves around a cop. And white kids hear some of this, too, because it's not just about black kids. Cops can respond because they feel threatened. Be careful about running, you know, the perception that you're running from something, and your attitude, be incredibly almost over-polite to policemen, to people in authority. And my sons learned these lessons well, and they said -- we recently talked about this, and they said they don't remember a specific talk. They just remember lots of talks.
BRITTAnd they were always struck when they were because their friends were always a mix of kids. Darrell, my middle son's best friend, was white, a blue-eyed blonde. And they were driving through not far from our neighborhood, and they got stopped by the police. And Jacob, his friend, was very aware of his rights and was speaking sort of sharply to the policeman. Well, I know, you know, you cannot search our car, and Darrell's sitting there thinking, man, do you understand that probably you got stopped because you were with me and sort of chill out a little bit here?
BRITTBut they -- so they noticed how different their white friends were able to behave with police because police weren't as threatening to them. They were more like family.
REHMIsabel Wilkerson, can you speak to this? Isabel?
WILKERSONWell, first of all, I find it so heartbreaking that, for generations, African-American parents and families have been put in a place where they have to walk this line of wanting their children to be as free and as ambitious as any other American in this country, and yet having to also realize and help their children to realize there's the enduring place that seems to be -- we're reminded of the enduring place of this -- the caste system that has been in place for so long.
WILKERSONAnd, in some ways, what's happened here is kind of, in my view, a relapse from this illness that we thought we have recovered from, and yet perhaps we have not. I'm reminded, too, of the stories of people who grew up in the very area where Trayvon Martin was killed. And so, for generations, there's been this divide. For generations, there have been tensions that we're still living with even to this day.
WILKERSONYou know, not very far from -- about 30 miles from where Trayvon was killed, there is a town called Ocoee, which had been massacred, where African-Americans there were -- their homes were burned down because a black man attempted to vote. And just in that same town, an individual that I interviewed for this book, he had -- was trying to lead the citrus workers to -- for better pay, and he was arguing and advocating for better pay.
WILKERSONAnd he had a standoff in the groves right in Sanford, in that same place in the 1940s where this young man lost his life. This is such a -- an enduring and longstanding issue not just for Florida, but for the entire country. Florida is one state, but you can see that this is something that happens all over this country. And I would hope that this would be a wakeup call for everybody, that this is, in some ways, a moral challenge for all of us.
REHMYou talked about a man called George Starling, Isabel. Tell us about him.
WILKERSONHe was a young man who had gone to Florida A&M. He was from Central Florida, not far from Sanford. And when he got out -- when he -- the money ran out, he decided to -- he had no choice but to return to the work of the area. That whole area where Trayvon Martin was killed was citrus groves, and the people who were the workers there were African-Americans who were, in some ways, in a caste system.
WILKERSONIn Mississippi, it was cotton. In Florida, it was oranges. And he was out there. They were being paid pennies on the box for fruit that was very dangerous to pick. They had to walk up into 40-foot trees in order to get this fruit. They were being paid pennies on a box. And he set out to try to negotiate for fair wages and working conditions for the people that he was working with.
WILKERSONI mean, he had to take on the grove owners and the foremen who were leading them, who were over them. And for doing that, he ran smack into the caste system, which, in some ways, reverberates still to this day, as to where an African-American -- where one's place might be. And for doing that, he had a standoff in the groves in Sanford, Fla., and he ended up having to flee for his life because a lynching was planned for him.
WILKERSONAnd he fled to New York in part of what's known as the Great Migration, which Donna alluded to as well, where people grew up, you know, as the children, grandchildren of people who were part of this migration and carried with them the hopes that they would escape what they had left, and found that it kind of followed them.
REHMIsabel Wilkerson. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Anthony Cook, you wanted to add to that.
COOKYes. The ways in which the legal caste system -- in which you have classifications based on color and race -- has been replaced now by a de facto caste system that is preserved by the criminal justice system, I think, needs to really be accentuated here and the way that this law figures into that. As your first caller said, your first guest said, the Stand Your Ground defense, right, it did away with the duty-to-retreat standard.
COOKNow, that duty-to-retreat standard said that, even if I'm in a situation where I'm faced by the use of potentially deadly force, if I can retreat, I should retreat. Why? Because we want to incentivize people to de-escalate the potential of violence, so if you can get away and call the police, if you can hide, if you can do something to avoid a situation where individuals might be killed, do so because we want to de-escalate that violence. This law incentivizes the escalation of that kind of violence, and that's very problematic, it seems to me.
REHMHow do you think police feel about this?
COOKWell, I think that they -- many of them, the ones who are acting on good faith, they hate this because the former police chief who was in place in 2005 when the law was passed, he came on the record and said, this is a terrible idea. It's a terrible idea because, you know, we're escalating potential violence, but also because we're putting too much discretion in the hands of police officers who will listen to someone's account of their acting and using deadly force in self-defense and say, well, that sounds reasonable to me. I'm not going to bring them in. I'm going to release them.
COOKAnd the problem with not having a court or a jury decide whether or not self-defense should be applied is that the person who would be able to counter the narrative or the account of the person who has used deadly force is dead.
COOKAnd so you cannot leave this to the discretion of police officers, right? Those who are acting in good faith are trained to make determinations about how to encounter people who are wielding a knife or a gun and to de-escalate the potential violence, right? Average citizens don't have that kind of training and may engage in a provocation, escalating the situation that need not be escalated, and accounting for people dying when they need not die.
REHMDonna, there's one other thing here, one item that Trayvon was wearing, and that was a hoodie. Now, why in the world has that come into the whole conversation?
BRITTBecause there are some people who would suggest that a hoodie is -- it's absurd to even say. But it's a provocative, it's a dangerous, it's a garment that suggests anything other than someone trying to keep his or her head warm, which means Belichick, you know, the...
BRITT...Patriots coach, who always wears a hoodie, is a dangerous man. It's -- what's wonderful about the hoodie is that it's an identifiable symbol now of what went wrong. And so people can have hoodie marches, and the Miami Heat can pose in hoodies in support of this boy that was killed.
REHMHere we have an African-American president. We hoped that things would change. How much have they changed, Donna?
BRITTI honestly believe that Obama's election does signal change. There was a time when it was impossible -- it wasn't that long ago when the bulk of African-Americans didn't believe he could be elected. So his election, to pretend like it's insignificant or that it doesn't signal something important would be wrong, to me, and inaccurate. But I always thought the notion that somehow his election signaled that we were suddenly colorblind was absurd. You know, racism, like sexism, like other motivations of us, it runs really deep, and it's not that easy to get rid of.
REHMDonna Britt, author of "Brothers (and Me) : A Memoir of Loving and Giving." Short break. When we come back, your calls and comments.
REHMAnd welcome back. It's time to open the phones as we talk about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla. Let's go first to Cincinnati, Ohio. Good morning, Joy. You're on the air.
JOYGood morning, Diane and your panel. You know, just feeling really helpless and wishing that I could support. And I know in Cincinnati, even today, they're having something on the Square, and I intend to go. But my question real quick and then a quick comment is the media is representing in a fact that this man, Zimmerman, is actually a part of this neighborhood watch group. And I was catching wind and reading in some places that he's not really even officially a member of that group.
JOYI just wondered if anyone knew or could speak to that. And then I wanted to say I think the biggest outrage about it all is that, of course, you know, he pursued this boy without having any fact that he had done anything and that -- you know, it wasn't like somebody could say someone had been raped here or anything like that, and, therefore, this could be a suspect. He just pursued him.
JOYAnd then that he was not ever arrested at all because the feeling is, had he been an African-American individual who have pursued anyone, whether it had been pursuing another black, a white person or whomever, that that person would have been at least arrested, given a bail. And, wow, the facts of the case sorted themselves out. You know, if that person could post bail, maybe they would walk around free, but not just to be free without ever being arrested.
COOKWell, you know, you're quite right. I mean, this is perplexing. The law itself is, I think, a very bad law that leads to a lot of gray area and ambiguities in which, you know, these kind of things can happen. In 2005, you got a young black teenager in Florida, in Sanford, who's in the parking lot, you know, taking a nap. Security guards who are associated -- have been associated with the police force believe that he has done something wrong. They come up to him.
COOKYou know, he panics, and then, you know, there's a little altercation. And he attempts to drive off. They pull out their revolver, and they shoot him and kill him, shoot him in the back, right? And you would think that, you know, he's driving away. There's no altercation here, really. This is not part of the Stand Your Ground defense, but the judge basically cleared them, freed them under the Stand Your Ground defense.
COOKWhen you look 2000 to 2005, right, there were, before this law was passed, approximately 13 incidents of justifiable homicide in Florida. Between 2006 -- after this law was passed in 2005 -- and 2010, that escalated to 37, OK, which means that, you know, this defense is being used to clear people who are killing people unjustifiably.
REHMDonna Britt, our caller is in Cincinnati where she said there is going to be a demonstration today. Why do you believe this has touched so many people?
BRITTIn some ways, Trayvon, God bless him, was the perfect victim. He was young. He was handsome. He was -- we have technology that, you know, he has a girlfriend he was talking to and talking about how he was concerned and worried about this guy that was following him. We have -- you know, his picture is everywhere. We have a social media that has trumpeted his cause.
BRITTAnd he represents so many men without faces, without names, to the public who were killed under suspicious circumstances, whose families had no recourse and who, essentially, were forced to live with the death. And, you know, I think about his mother and his father, and I'm -- my hope is that, in their pain, they understand at least there is some meaning attached to this death that thousands of the rest of us did not get.
REHMThere are so many people who are making an analogy between the death of Emmet Till and the death of Trayvon Martin. Do you see that, Donna?
BRITTI absolutely do. You know, young, basically defenseless boys who are murdered primarily because of how they look.
COOKAnd let's hope this is analogous in another way as well because, of course, the Emmet Till murder, as we know, spurred, really, the civil rights movements. It galvanized it, right? And, hopefully, this creates and enhances a consciousness about the continued pervasiveness of racism and justice within the criminal justice system and the ways in which we have handed over so much of our democratic power to the NRA, to the gun lobby and to those that want to turn American into a, you know, pre-20th century wild, wild west.
REHMIsabel, tell me about the reaction in Georgia.
WILKERSONWell, I am not in the best position to express or represent the entire state or the South, but I will say that I think that the -- what we learned from all of this, to me, is that the laws change. We had major change legislatively in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s. And this law clearly is, in some ways, an attempt to reinforce a long-standing caste system.
WILKERSONAnd yet, you know, what, to me, matters the most is that the attitudes and the assumptions that are the underpinnings that make it possible for a young man, just walking down the street being with his candy and his iced tea, talking on the cellphone with his girlfriend, could be gunned down. It's whatever attitudes and assumptions that run so deep in this country that allowed that to happen in the first place, and then the idea -- the also continuing sense of the nonchalance of the investigation.
WILKERSONAnd the fact that there's no arrest suggests to me that we still have a long, long way to go in reaching people's heart to see beyond the -- what they think they're understanding and what they think they see when they look at an individual and to see that we all have so much more in common than we've learned to believe. And that's the beauty, as Donna said, about whatever good can come from this, is the fact that people are identifying with him. People all over the country are seeing their own...
BRITTMm hmm. All over the world.
WILKERSONAll over the world are seeing their own. They're seeing their own children. They're seeing their children's friends. And he's become, in some ways, every teenager in this country. And that's the most hopeful aspect of all of this.
REHMAll right. Let's take a caller in Miami, Fla. God morning, Bob,
BOBYes. How are you doing, Ms. Rehm?
BOBThree pretty quick questions. You know, when I watch some of these television shows -- and I hear these white men talking about the situation. I heard somebody on CNN today -- because if we're talking, we're on a different planet. We have a history that's established in this country where you can point to a black man and call him suspicious or say that he fits the description. It is all -- it's always been confirmed and established in this country where the end result with either this person being in -- he'd be in jail or he will be killed.
BOBAnd second of all, we don't -- we -- last 30 years, we've have a financial scandal after financial scandal concerning -- with white men being the culprits. But we don't have the same kind of mindset that if we see that white man in a three-piece suit, then he is a danger to the society. Only when it comes to us having a hoodie on, then we are a danger. And third, with regard to Mr. Obama, even Mr. Obama, the president, a Harvard-educated man is considered suspicious, dangerous and radical. Now, if he is the -- if he is considered that, then where does that leave us? Thank you.
REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. Anthony.
COOKYou know, there have been studies that, you know, have looked at the whole issue of unconscious racism and prejudice. And individuals have been taken with the -- you know, the brain-scan technology, put on and been flashed images very fast, quick-flash images of people. And the part of the brain that connects to fear and trepidation, right, feeling being threatened, right, would actually go off when they would see black images and black men in particular. And this was true across the board.
COOKEighty, 90 percent of whites who received these images, right, would fear -- that part of their brain that would connect to fear would be -- would go off. And sometimes, even with regard to blacks, I think 30 percent of the black people who were surveyed, right, had the same response. So my point is that, you know, even in a post -- so-called post-Obama, post-racial society, the stereotypes and social constructions of black people as menacing, as threatening, they run very deep.
COOKAnd I would hope that part of what comes out of this is a willingness of a white America, black America, Asian, Hispanic-American to interrogate the deep-seated issues of how we view and understand black people.
REHMBut, you know, you mentioned, Anthony, that the number of killings under Stand Your Ground had gone up from 2005 to 2010.
REHMThe question is, were there any white men killed as well?
COOKRight. I don't know.
REHMYou don't know.
REHMOK. Now, the Justice Department is getting into this. What do you expect them to do?
COOKWell, it's great to have them -- have a collateral proceeding going on because I think that puts pressure on the state, and you got somebody watching you, as well as the nation and the world, of course. But the gravamen for the complaint are the jurisdiction for the Justice Department is primarily under the hate crime statute. And under the hate crime statute, you've got to show that you have specific intent, that is that Zimmerman actually pursued Trayvon because he was black, right, that he engaged in an encounter with him because he was black. It's a very difficult burden of proof to satisfy.
COOKYou've got some testimony in the transcripts that he may have used a racial slur. He may have said -- you know, called Trayvon an effing coon, right? And if that's the case, that would provide some evidence that he had racial animus and intent, right? But he might argue, right, that he pursued him because he looked suspicious. Now, when he got in an encounter with him, yes, he used a racially derogatory slur, but that was not the reason why this happened. It's not the reason why he pursued him. It's a very difficult standard to meet.
REHMAll right, to Gilford, N.H. Good morning, Tony.
REHMGo right ahead, sir.
TONYYes. My comments -- and I don't want this to be taken the wrong away. The way Trayvon was profiled and followed is disgusting in my mind. What's cloudy in -- as far as the details in what happened with the altercations, did Trayvon attack this man physically? If so, that's a different matter. It doesn't negate the fact that this guy was following him wrongly. But when you are physically being attacked -- and if you watch "Discovery Channel," you see two -- the same species fighting -- it usually doesn't end well for the person that runs.
TONYHe becomes very vulnerable. You might have a chance if you stay and fight. Now, was Trayvon attacking this man physically? Was it a verbal altercation? This never should have happened, but we have to look at the fact. Was this guy physically attacked? And if so, I believe the law does apply there no matter you -- in fight something or antagonize, I believe you never have the right to raise your hand or physically assault somebody.
BRITTEverything we know about this case suggests that he was being pursued, that he was the person who was about to be victimized. And it's not that hard to put yourself in the position of someone who's just walking home, you know, after running an errand, and he's being clearly pursued by someone who he doesn't know. He's young. This is somebody -- you know, I'm assuming he's -- you know, he doesn't understand why he's being chased. And, you know, it -- we don't know what happened there.
BRITTBut I know many, many people who, if they are being pursued by a stranger, are going to respond in a way that may not be...
COOKBut the caller's right. A lot of details have to be fleshed out.
COOKBut we have a lot of stuff that's in place right now.
COOKWe do have the girlfriend on the cellphone who claims that, you know, Trayvon basically was screaming and was very concerned...
COOK...and was very afraid, right. So the point is this: In the absence of this law and under the laws that existed before this was put in place, you would work all of this out, Zimmerman in custody, going to trial to see whether or not he has a credible self-defense claim. This law short circuits -- provides an escape hatch from all of that and allows him to basically go free and to get immunity in a situation like this. So that's the first point.
COOKBut the second point is that Zimmerman, when he is encountering this kid, right, you got to understand that -- well, none of this would be possible without a law that basically gives him this type of immunity, and that's the problem, it seems to me.
REHMAnd none of this could have happened if there was not a gun involved.
COOKThat's a very excellent point. So, look, even under the caller's assumption that Zimmerman may have been attacked, the law, as it's written -- this bad law, as it's written, clearly states that if a person is provoking, which Zimmerman is in the position of doing, of following and harassing the kid, if the kid turns around and is then violent toward him, this guy who holds the gun has to have opposed to him an overwhelming amount of deadly force to be able to use that gun, you see?
COOKThis kid is unarmed. He does not see a knife. There is no gun. There is no firing. There is no force, counteracting force coming at him that would justify Zimmerman using a gun against this kid. Find another way to deal with the situation.
WILKERSONYou know, our very conversation is an indication of the problem with this case. This should be discussed -- this should be the focus of a discussion by a grand jury and not by Americans all over the country. We're trying to figure out what in the world happened...
WILKERSON...in a particular moment where a skinny, young man got -- was ultimately overcome by someone who was clearly aware of him before he was aware of Zimmerman. And so that's an indication of the fact that we still don't know enough because some evidence may never be known because there was such a nonchalant reaction to this -- what happened to him in the first place.
REHMHow could that have been? How did this case finally come to the public? Do we know?
BRITTSocial media is what I know that -- is what made it blow up, was what made it everyone know about it.
REHMAnd the question becomes: What will, or could, take it to a grand jury?
COOKWell, there is a grand jury, I understand, that is going to hear the evidence by the prosecutor in April, that that process is already underway, from what I understand. And, you know, grand juries are very secretive, you know, a mystery to most people. But the prosecutor basically can present whatever evidence they see fit, and that evidence cannot be refuted by the witness, or by the defendant, rather. And so we'll see what comes out of that process.
COOKWhat I think, though, is that, given the way in which the world is involved in this, all the protests, that that is going to assert a great deal of pressure on this prosecutor to do the right thing.
REHMAnthony Cook of Georgetown University law school. Donna Britt, authors -- author of "Brothers (and Me)." She is a journalist and former syndicated columnist for The Washington Post. And Isabel Wilkerson, author of "The Warmth of Other Suns." Thank you all so much for joining us this morning.
REHMAnd thanks for listening.
REHMI'm Diane Rehm.
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