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Wave of protest in USA over neighborhood watch member shooting African-American boy

USA, 24.3.2012 16:32, (ROMEA)
Trayvon Martin (left) was shot by George Zimmerman (right), who claimed he was defending himself. Collage:  Romea.cz, PHOTO:  Wikipedia.

A powerful wave of protest has arisen in the USA, forcing the US Justice Department to initiate an investigation into the death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. One month ago, the African-American youth was shot dead by a member of a neighborhood watch organization, George Zimmerman, who is Hispanic. Zimmerman claims he shot the youth in self-defense. Police never arrested Zimmerman even though it was clear from an audio recording made to emergency responders that the victim had done nothing to warrant Zimmerman's response.

The incident has sparked discussion in the US once more of the controversial laws on self-defense that exist in many states there. US President Barack Obama has commented on the case.

Trayvon Martin was watching an NBA basketball game in his girlfriend's parents' home in a gated community in Sanford, Florida, a suburb of Orlando. During half-time, he walked to a nearby store to buy some candy and drinks. Such communities usually have neighborhood watch organizations, and George Zimmerman, a member of such a group in Sanford, noticed Martin on the street. The armed and suspicious volunteer immediately saw a problem in the African-American youth.

Zimmerman called emergency services to report that the African-American youth looked suspicious to him. "This guy looks like he's up to something fishy. He's on drugs or something like that," Zimmerman told police. The officer on the line did his best to restrain Zimmerman and told him he didn't have to follow the youth. Zimmerman didn't listen and ended up shooting Martin, who was unarmed.

At the time of the incident, Trayvon Martin was speaking to his girlfriend on his cell phone. She described the entire incident to detectives: "We were talking on the phone and he told me a weird man was following him. I heard him ask: 'Why are you following me?' The man asked him: 'What are you doing here?'" Then her boyfriend's phone went silent.

After the entire unedited recording of the call was released, it turned out that racial hatred was evident at the moment of the crime. The recording captures the words "fucking coons". Witnesses have also said that Zimmerman was in the habit of going from house to house to warn residents of "young blacks".

Zimmerman's father has defended him, saying that he is Hispanic and from a multi-ethnic family. The elder Zimmerman says his son is the last person who would discriminate against anyone.

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have responded to the recordings of the emergency services call. They are outraged at how quickly Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of the innocent African-American boy and at the fact that authorities in Florida never showed the slightest doubt that the intervention had been justified. "That could have easily been any of us," is a common thread of the protest. "In our opinion, George Zimmerman was pointing his weapon at an innocent 17-year-old boy who asked him for mercy, but he just pulled the trigger," said Natalie Jackson, the lawyer for Trayvon Martin's family.

On Thursday about 2 000 demonstrators convened in Sanford demanding the immediate arrest of Zimmerman. Trayvon's mother thanked the demonstrators for the support she and her family were receiving. "You are giving us strength, you are keeping us above water," Trayvon's father said in an emotional speech. The demonstration was led by clergy and legislators, including Congresswoman Corrine Brown, who called for Zimmerman's arrest and called the incident a hate crime.

The US Justice Department will be reviewing the case. The Governor of Florida, Rick Scott, has created a special working group to investigate Martin's death. Given the rising public pressure, the head of the police in Sanford, Bill Lee, resigned last Thursday. Lee was criticized because police never arrested Zimmerman and believed his version of events only.

Criticism is also being aimed at Florida's law on self-defense, which took effect in 2005. According to that law, citizens who feel their person or their property is threatened may shoot anyone without legal repercussions. Critics say the law is so unclear that it tempts Floridians to make tragic mistakes.

Barack Obama: If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon

US President Barack Obama has also commented on the case. "Every parent in America understands how important it is that this case be investigated," Obama said, adding that given the ongoing investigation he could only give his personal opinion. "This is a tragedy and it is very hard to imagine what his parents are going through," the president said. "If I had a son, he would look like Trayvon."

However, Obama has avoided sensitive questions such as whether Zimmerman should be arrested or whether the law on self-defense goes too far. He said he did not want his comments to influence the ongoing investigation.

The tragic event took place inside a gated community or neighborhood surrounded by walls. Such complexes for residential homes exist primarily in Mexico and the USA. They include streets and sometimes a park or a few shops.

"The entrances into such neighborhoods are under constant supervision by private security because the people who live there want to have control over who moves around the complex. The only people who get in are people invited by a member of the community. The residents are supposed to feel safer there. Houses in such communities are usually expensive, so only members of the upper middle class can afford them," explained Gwendolyn Albert, an associate of Romea.cz in the USA.

"The shooter was a member of what is called a 'neighborhood watch' here. That sort of organization exists everywhere, not just in wealthier neighborhoods. The watch cooperates with police by observing who comes and goes in the neighborhood regularly and then calling the police when they see something suspicious," Albert said. "In the US it is unfortunately very easy to buy a weapon and that means that a person like Mr Zimmerman can easily perform his voluntary service to the neighborhood with fatal results. This is a classic example of a well-intentioned idea having a bad outcome."

Gwendolyn Albert, Zdeněk Ryšavý, Zdeněk Ryšavý, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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