Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Can't We Be Your Neighbor? Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the Resistance to Blacks as Neighbors

Academic journal article Boston University Law Review

Can't We Be Your Neighbor? Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman, and the Resistance to Blacks as Neighbors

Article excerpt

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 paved the way for the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which was designed to address discrimination in one of our most intimate spaces-neighborhoods. Fifty-six years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, Americans remain fiercely resistant to the concept of neighborhood integration. This Article uses an unlikely event, the killing of Trayvon Martin, to discuss one manifestation of that resistance with disturbing implications.


February 26, 2012 was a cold and rainy evening in Sanford, Florida. George Zimmerman, a twenty-eight-year-old neighborhood watch volunteer, encountered Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old, walking in Zimmerman's gated community, The Retreat at Twin Lakes. We know roughly what time Zimmerman saw Martin because 911 records show Zimmerman's call at 7:10 p.m. to report a "real suspicious guy" in the area.1 Zimmerman told the 911 dispatcher that he was following Martin, stating, "These assholes, they always get away."2 Minutes later, several people called 911 in response to the pursuit that ensued. Shortly after the pursuit began, Zimmerman drew his pistol and fatally shot Martin.3

The police did not arrest Zimmerman at the scene. Sanford police later told the media that once Zimmerman insisted that he'd shot Trayvon in selfdefense, police procedure predicated on Florida's Stand Your Ground Law prohibited Zimmerman's arrest.4 After significant social media frenzy and nationwide protests, a special prosecutor, Angela B. Corey, state attorney for the Jacksonville area, was appointed to the case. After an investigation, Corey charged Zimmerman with second-degree murder and manslaughter.5 The jury of five White6 women and one Hispanic woman acquitted Zimmerman in July 2013.7 The not-guilty verdict sparked further nationwide protests.

The encounter resulting in Martin's death lasted just minutes. No direct witnesses other than the accused himself could testify to the crime, and Zimmerman chose not to take the stand. It is clear, however, from Zimmerman's first 911 call that the tragic encounter between Zimmerman and Martin began with the idea that Martin, a teenager whom Zimmerman outweighed, was "real suspicious."8 Race is the best explanation for why Zimmerman pursued Martin, despite the 911 dispatcher's direct instruction that he not do so.9 Though Zimmerman did not know this, Martin was in the area legitimately visiting with his father, whose girlfriend lived in the neighborhood.10 Martin was out of the house because he had just been on a snack run to the local convenience store.11 Without any facts other than Martin's appearance, Zimmerman immediately linked Martin to the break-ins that had occurred in the neighborhood, and assumed that Martin was most likely there to cause trouble. Though it is common for Black men to be stopped by the police as they travel through predominately White neighborhoods, in this case Martin was not demographically out of place. The Retreat at Twin Lakes was not an all-White neighborhood, with 20% African American, 23% Hispanic, 49% Caucasian, and 5% Asian residents.12 Empirically, Martin looked like he belonged. But not to Zimmerman.

The public outrage both before and after the jury's verdict in Zimmerman's criminal trial suggests that many Americans have a hard time understanding why this crime occurred. Offering an explanation, scholars and commentators have placed significant blame for the tragedy on Stand Your Ground laws.13 While it seems true that, but for the national outcry, Florida's Stand Your Ground law would have allowed Zimmerman to escape prosecution entirely, I argue that there are better explanations for both Zimmerman's actions and the jury's verdict. We can best understand Zimmerman's actions that February night if we view his behavior in the context of the particular neighborhood setting where the killing occurred. The facts that we do know about Zimmerman's actions and motivation suggest that his crime was a classic act of neighborhood defense influenced, as it typically is, by an unarticulated longing for White neighborhoods. …

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