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Whose public safety? Trayvon Martin and Neighborhood Watch

Jonathan Simon, professor of law | March 26, 2012

The killing of teenager Trayvon Martin earlier this month, in Sanford Florida, has inflamed classic concerns about racism and criminal justice (especially in the South) as well as well as criticism of Florida’s “stand your ground law”; a gun rights law that has expanded the circumstances under which self defense may be raised in many states. Less noted has been the role of Neighborhood Watch, a program launched by the National Association of Sheriffs in the 1970s with the objective of increasing the role of citizens in local crime prevention. Much beloved by criminologists and politicians alike, Neighborhood Watch is credited with reducing crime and improving police-citizen relations in many communities since the first trial program was run in Seattle in the mid-1970s. Trayvon Martin’s death points to a darker side of Neighborhood Watch, one that may be unintended but predictable.

Trayvon Martin, a 17 year old African-American high school student from Miami was visiting with his father and his father’s fiancé in the racially diverse suburb of Orlando when the shooting took place. The apparent killer, George Zimmerman, a 28 year old of mixed Anglo-White/Latin American parentage had been very active in what was at best an informal neighborhood watch group (reports suggest he made over 50 calls to the police in the past several months). Zimmerman called the police to report suspicions about Trayvon (who was in fact walking home from a convenience store with a bag of candy and an ice tea while talking to his girlfriend on his cell phone). He apparently told police that Trayvon assaulted him and that he used his gun in self defense leading to a police decision not to arrest or charge Zimmerman in Martin’s death.

Public outrage built after the case received attention from the national media, including New York Time’s columnist Charles Blow last week (read it here). Demonstrations have sparked appointment of a special prosecutor in Florida and widespread concern about Zimmerman’s use of his weapon. There has been widespread debate about whether the killing plausibly fits the criteria intended by the “stand your ground” laws.

As a crime prevention strategy, NW combines several potentially crime suppressive dynamics including facilitating quicker and more effective police response, deterring potential offenders through the observation of active and alert guardians, and altering the perceived opportunities for crime through routine activities like removing accumulating newspapers at the door of a home whose residents are away. The most recent meta-analysis of research on NW in both the US and the UK is modestly supportive of the proposition that neighborhood watch groups can reduce crime in their areas (with roughly half the communities studied showing some crime reduction and 12 of 18 empirical studies showing statistically significant differences between neighborhood watch covered areas and those without. According to the same study 27 percent of the British population and fully 40 percent of the U.S. population live in a neighborhood in which some form of NW operates (See Trevor Bennett, Katie Holloway, and David Farrington, “Does neighborhood watch reduce crime? A systematic review and meta-analysis,” Journal of Experimental Criminology (2006) 2:437Y458; read it here but registration may be required).

As a social formation NW is also a vehicle for promoting law enforcement as a kind of citizenship project to which individual citizens are invited not only to support but to adopt. As such it is a crucial expression of what I have called “governing through crime” and what Garland calls the “culture of control.” Historically citizens did participate in criminal justice as jurors, and as well as in the posse comitatus powers associated with citizen arrest. Neither approximates the distinctive political subjectivity modeled by NW. As a juror, the citizen sits as a peer of the accused, not the police. Even as a member of a posse the citizen acts as a peer of a fellow citizen who has raised the hue and cry against a trackable felon, a legal relations that goes back to Norman England and according to an article by renowned 20th century criminologist Sam Bass Warner persisted in the US as a significant part of law enforcement in rural areas as late as the 1940s (See, Sam Bass Warner, “Investigating the Law of Arrest, ” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology (1931-1951), Vol. 31, No. 1 (May – Jun., 1940), pp. 111-121, read it here but registration may be required). The Neighborhood Watch subject, in contrast, is mobilized to extend and supplement an existing police forces in urban and suburban areas. Rather than being limited to pursuit of a fleeing felon, whose criminality has been witnessed by a neighbor, the political subject mobilized by NW is directed to attend to quotidian world of micro disorders and to act in relationship with police rather than neighbors.

Considering the role of race in this encounter suggests the continuities and differences with the Jim Crow era. If mass incarceration is the New Jim Crow in Michelle Alexander’s formulation (See, Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow, it is because it is a legal structure that is also a racial order but not because it carries the same beliefs or mentalities about race on an either conscious or unconscious basis. Zimmerman is unlikely to turn out to be some postmodern equivalent of Mississippi’s Milam brothers who tortured and murdered 14 year old Emmet Till, an African American teen visiting his Misissippi family from Chicago in 1955 (the incident helped galvanize northern public opinion for federal enforcement of civil rights laws in the South in the year after Brown v. Board of Education was decided, read the Wikipedia article here).

Zimmerman, whoever he turns out to be, is more likely to reflect a new kind of law and order subject constituted by programs like Neighborhood Watch, and other cultural expressions of the war on crime, than the traditional racialized vigilante or racist neighborhood lynch mob member of the sort that afflicted Mississippi or even parts of Brooklyn and Queens as late as the 1980s. Till’s banter with a married white woman in 1955 affronted the racialized Jim Crow honor code of the murderers. Zimmerman’s lethal violence seems to have been activated by different set of nonetheless racialized codes which Trayvon traduced, one in which African American young men wearing hoodies are presumed to be cruising for criminal opportunities and should be prepared to perform their innocence visibly at all times (and not be distracted talking to their girlfriends). Zimmerman drove his SUV around his gated community, gun and cell phone at his side not to enforce a racial order in which miscegenation is the gravest moral breach (indeed he was the product of a mixed racial marriage), but to enforce a civil order anchored in fear of crime in which fitting a racialized risk profile is a breach that can cost a young man his life.

Cross-posted from Jonathan Simon’s blog Governing Through Crime.

Comments to “Whose public safety? Trayvon Martin and Neighborhood Watch

  1. Speaking of public safety, the rush to judgement, inaccurate reporting, demagoguery and so on threatened the Zimmerman family public safety. Rush made an apology, Imus made an apology but if I hear a retraction or apology from anyone on the left I will probably keel over from the shock. This is why the left is so dangerous, ends justify the means in their view. Even when those means threatens the public safety of law abiding individuals.

  2. “Zimmerman drove his SUV around his gated community, gun and cell phone at his side not to enforce a racial order in which miscegenation is the gravest moral breach (indeed he was the product of a mixed racial marriage…”

    I respectfully disagree with a slight component of the analysis presented by Jonathan Simon: First, if Race is taken as a social category than it must be clear that a uniform mold regarding its parameters is nonexistent. Even within the U.S., there was a time in the past when a few baseball players from Cuba were allowed to play in the “big leagues” just as long as they were “the cleanest bars of Castillian soap”, meaning that they were descendants of Spaniards, commonly called “Criollos” in various Latin American countries.

    In this sense, Zimmerman may very well be just as “White” as other Americans of various European ancestry. But here is the rub, it is assumed that American “Whites” possess a monopoly on “Whiteness” whereas, descendants of Europeans in Latin America are viewed as not really “white”, both indicating a regional heirarchy (America vs Latin America and Northern Europe vs Western Europe) as ideas of purity mark American Whites as such virtue of a believed purity of blood and Latin American “Whites” as nonwhite by virtue of a lack thereof a conceived notion of purity.

  3. To Sophia Chishom about your “small in stature” comment Treyvon Martin was 6’3″ George Zimmerman is 5’9″! Treyvon Martin’s right to “stand your ground” kicks in just as soon as he is attacked! Unfortunetly there is no credible evidence of that! JUSTICE IS SERVED!!!!

  4. The tragic lost life of a 6’3″ football player can never be recovered. The victim had his nose broken, cuts on the back of his head and grass stains on his back! Treyvon Martin was old enough to put George Zimmerman on his back!Treyvon Martin was old enough to take a bullet! TREYVON MARTIN GOT JUSTICE!!!

    • First, what is worse — a bloody nose or a mortal gun shot wound?

      Second, it was Zimmerman that confronted the late Martin after being advised by the dispatcher to remain in his vehicle.

      Third, until the case has undergone a proper investigation we are in no place to deem the matter closed let alone representative of “justice”.

      Finally, David if your idea of justice is based off of an easily avoidable altercation, resulting in the death of one person and condemnation of another, then I’m curious as to what you would consider unjust.

  5. You have a case of a 160 pound person who was returning to his car to leave the area confronted by a 200 pound person who proceeded to punch Zimmerman in the nose, breaking his noes. Zimmerman was wrestled to the ground had his head smashed against the pavement. The screams you hear on the 911 tape are most likely Zimmerman’s. These are the facts of the case corroborated by the police report, eyewitness accounts and the fact Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and the back of the head. Anyone remember Tawana Brawley or the Duke LaCrosse case? What does this say about liberals? I’d tell you but every time I do Mr. Moderator censors me. Where’s Mario Savio when you need him, or were his followers only interrested in free speech for liberals but not conservatives? You be the judge. Also, for a law professor to act as judge, jury and executioner in this case seems a little odd to me, give that our system is innocent until proven guilty, unless you can be used to further the cause of left wing activists. OK to burn the flag but not point out the lies, hypocrisy and dirty dealings of the left.

    • It could be argued that by defying explicit dispatch orders, Zimmerman provoked an unnecessary altercation. Had Zimmerman been an actual police officer or security guard in uniform, then Martin’s alleged use of force may possibly have been a factor.

      However, Zimmerman is simply another private citizen that should have obeyed the advice he was given and awaited the arrival of the proper authorities. Owning a gun does not make a person a surrogate police officer, and it most certainly does not render a person into an infallible judge of another person’s character. So, you mean to tell me that hooded sweatshirts are never worn by law-abiding citizens?

      It is easily imaginable to sketch out a scenario in which a man X (whom fancies himself an authority figure) follows around someone Y (deemed suspicious), sparking fear and uncertainty into Y. X then confronts Y with bravado, initiating an unnecessary altercation from which X mortally wounds Y with a gunshot wound.

      Again, this is a constructed scenario, but one which takes into consideration the most recent information.

      • “It could be argued that by defying explicit dispatch orders” – Are you sure about this? I read the transcript and he was not explicitly ordered to do anything. An explicit order would be “stop following that person immediately and return home”. Instead he was given the more ambiguous suggestion that it was not necessary to follow Trayvon Martin.

        I have not seen any evidence that Zimmerman confronted Martin. I have read that Zimmerman was returning to his car to leave the area. If that was case then the altercation must have taken place near the car. No one seems to have disputed that.

        The motivation to bully, smear, slander and try Zimmerman in the court of public opinion rather than wait for the facts to establish themselves in a court of law is a result of the philosophy and quest for power by liberals. They consistently play the race card, the victim card to influence public policy. Zimmerman is just a pawn in the leftists struggle for power.

        That’s why I respond to this stuff, liberals are dangerous, they believe ends justify the means and the don’t care what happens to Zimmerman or his family. They only want to enforce the laws they like. Did anyone on the left protest the bounty that was placed on Zimmerman’s head? Similarly, lefties are always railing against bullying but what about the bullying Obama does, and Robert Reich also? They are always trying to demonize their opponents rather than have a civil discussion. Zimmerman is being demonized as an overzealous police wannabee. What does that have to do with the facts of the case?

        And now you have Obama disrespecting separation of powers and trying to whip up popular opinion against the supreme court. Don’t any of you on the left ever get sick of the tactics of your own side? Separation of powers is great for you guys when you have a conservative president and a liberal supreme court, if the court overrules the conservative then you are all happy. But when you have a liberal president and a conservative supreme court then you get a lecture about unelected officials overturning a popular law.

        The fact that public opinion polls and the results of the recent congressional election shows that the majority don’t want Obamacare. If a Republican took a stand like this you lefties would accuse him of being undemocratic.

        The Zimmerman-Martin incident is just one more attempt by the left to exploit something to gain an advantage. That’s all these blogs are about, they are not scholarly, they are not based on fact, they are just the liberal establishment’s attempts to provide intellectual coverage for their schemes to diminish both our political and economic freedom. The true liberals are people like myself, who believe in liberty

        Obama is truly a transformational president, he has transformed Washington, as bad as it was, into a mirror image of Chicage style politics. Not the transformation we were led to believe by the mainstream media and their fellow propagandists.

  6. Great comments. Please watch Adam Carolla’s “On Police” on YouTube. Caution: Many expletives but he gets to the point of police corruption and the “gravy train” it’s become, no longer serving US or fighting crime.

    A lot of this dovetails with the racial injustice so prevalent in America.

    Thank you

  7. We can’t have a REAL conversation about race because white America is too afraid on something thinking they are even a little bit racist. They point out how they dated a black girl in school, and have dinner with their black couple friends, but they wont tell you what they think when they pass the projects and see black people walking around with their pants hanging down, and walking down the street when they should be working or at school. Is there such a thing as Part-time Racist? More here:

    • In response to “brian”

      I’ll tell you what I think of the black people in the projects walking around with their pants hanging down:

      The EXACT same thing I think about WHITE, HISPANIC, ASIAN, or ANY OTHER RACE of people walking around in the projects with their pants hanging down! They certainly want to appear “thuggish,” so maybe they ARE thugs and maybe I’m better off avoiding any contact with them!

      This has nothing to do with race, and everything to do with IMAGE. When I see anyone of any race dressed in that manner I always play it safe and cross the street because I know from personal experience that it’s better to be safe than sorry. I was walking home one night in what I thought to be a safe neighborhood. I was literally turning onto my street when I spotted two black men, dressed in the stereotype “thug” clothing, on the same side of the street as me and a block away, walking toward me. My immediate thought was to avoid any interaction. I thought about crossing the street, even though my house was on the same side of the street on which the two men and I were walking. I thought about turning around and running the other way, knowing I was only about 8 blocks away from the police station, and could likely outrun them for that distance with the one block head start I would have. I even thought about turning up the driveway of the house I was immediately passing, knowing I could hide there and they probably wouldn’t be able to tell which house I had gone into, and they would probably assume I was safe inside by the time they got there (this of course, being under the assumption that they were in fact wanting to rob me). Then my very next thought was I being racist to even have that idea in my head, and that these were probably a couple of nice people walking home just like me. So I did not alter my trajectory, and our paths crossed about 20 feet from the steps leading up to my front door. That’s when one of them pulled a sawed-off shotgun out from under his pea coat and ordered me to give them my stuff. Stupidly, I thought they meant my wallet, so I pulled it out and handed it over. That’s when one of them punched me in the face and told me he meant everything. They took my jacket, my shoes, my watch, everything I had, and left me there in the cold of December with a busted lip and no shoes or jacket. I was 17 when that happened, Trayvon’s age. What I learned that day is when two people are dressed like thugs, then just because they are black doesn’t make it racist to assume they actually ARE thugs!

      Should Trayvon have been killed for wearing a hoodie? Of course not!! But that’s really all this is about, and I would bet if it had been a 6’3 white or Asian or any other race kid wearing a hoodie that night, Zimmerman would have reacted the exact same way. Zimmerman should not have confronted Trayvon. Trayvon should not be dead. But that doesn’t justify fueling a race war with misplaced accusations of racism.

      And finally I would like to say to “brian,” that perhaps the reason you “can’t have a REAL conversation about race with white America” is because you wish to revolve the conversation around a tragedy such as the killing of Trayvon Martin, rather than focusing on an event where ACTUAL RACISM took place. The problem is, when a white person points out that racism wasn’t involved in the killing of Trayvon, too many black people are two quick to point the finger at that white person as being racist themselves.

      • In response to J:

        Do you think race plays into the fact that Zimmerman has not been arrested more than a month after murdering a kid. If that were a white kid lying dead in the street, shot by a black man who thought the white kid looked suspicious wearing a hoodie, what do you thnk would’ve happened to that black man? This whole incident reeks of race and racism. Wake up.

        • T,

          I was responding to brain, who was clearly making the assumption that Zimmerman himself was racist in this incident. I argue Zimmerman is not racist, and instead he was prejudice against Trayvon Martin’s choice of attire.

          My comment was in regard only to Zimmerman’s state of mind, and not to the police work and the possibility of racism in the investigation.

          I think you make a good point, if it had been a black man who unfortunately had to kill a white kid in the streets in self defense because the belligerent white kid broke the black man’s nose and had him fully mounted, smashing his head into the ground, then I’m sure the black man would be arrested that night and taken to jail immediately. This would be a WRONGFUL ARREST, because the black man in this hypothetical scenario is playing the same role as Zimmerman played in the real version: the neighborhood watch public servant who (within his legal rights) approached a suspicious person and asked what are you doing here, to which the suspicious person illegally and belligerently attacked the public servant and unfortunately the public servant was forced to defend himself.

          I don’t think Zimmerman should have been arrested, because all of the PHYSICAL evidence supports his self defense claim 100%. Bruising on Trayvon’s knuckles, blunt force trauma to the nose and back of the head. And if it had been a black guy shooting a white kid with all of the same evidence, I would argue the exact same point, that this is a clear case of self defense.

          Maybe Zimmerman shouldn’t have pursued Trayvon but he was within his legal rights to do so and to ask Trayvon why he was walking around in the rain looking suspicious. All Trayvon had to do is say my family lives here, I’m visiting for a week. Or Trayvon could have walked away, or he could have said he was just coming from the store and shown his purchases. He could have done anything other than be a wannabe-toughguy and physically attack Zimmerman. Once Trayvon crossed the line from Zimmerman trying to have a conversation to now making it a physical confrontation, Zimmerman had every right to defend himself.

          This was not Trayvon’s first incident of violence. He was getting into fights at school and trying to make himself appear thuggish. Perhaps he really was a future thug, soon to be robbing and raping and murdering. Maybe not. But we do know he WAS a violent person in the months leading up to his death. If our legal system was reversed to where the burden of proof was on the defense, then maybe Zimmerman would have something to worry about (and that’s a huge maybe). But with the burden of proof on the prosecution this case is nothing but a huge waste of money. There’s reasonable doubt in every single aspect of the case.

          I don’t think the police were racist by not making an arrest. I think if it had been a black guy shooting a white kid with all the same evidence, and if the police were to arrest the black guy, then THAT would be racist. But that is not a reasonable argument in favor of arresting Zimmerman!

          Have you ever heard the phrase 2 wrongs don’t make a right? If someone shouldn’t be arrested because the evidence shows they were acting in self defense (as it does in this case), then the person should not be arrested, regardless of race. And even if we assume that the police definitely would have arrested the black guy in our hypothetical (which in and of itself is prejudice against cops – not all police are racist), that still is not a valid argument to have Zimmerman arrested.

          @ Sophia Chisholm

          If Zimmerman had ran up on Trayvon and taken a swing at him, then yes, Trayvon would have the same rights to stand his ground.

          If instead, Zimmerman asked Trayvon what he was doing there, and Trayvon responded in the manner of any belligerent wannabe-thug and physically attacked Zimmerman, then Trayvon no longer has the same right to stand his ground by the Florida law, and in fact he has now invoked Zimmerman’s right to use lethal force to stand his own ground.

          All of the evidence supports Zimmerman’s story. Zimmerman had no injuries to his knuckles and Trayvon had no injuries other than the gunshot wound, so certainly Zimmerman had not punched Trayvon even once. Zimmerman had obvious damage to his nose and the back of his head, and Trayvon had damaged knuckles, indicating Trayvon DID physically hit Zimmerman hard enough to do significant damage, more than once. There’s no way to really know what exact words were spoken that night between Zimmerman and Martin. But given the evidence of Trayvon’s recent violent activity, I don’t think it’s a far stretch to assume Trayvon was the instigator of any violence in this incident.

  8. Under the “Stand Your Ground” law, did Trayvon Martin not have the same rights to stand his ground when he was being pursued by Zimmerman? Or is there some sort of hierarchy in the use of the law?

    It appears to me that Zimmerman’s threatening posture toward Trayvon was met with the only weapon that Trayvon had available to him, which were his fist when he perceived a threat. Now when Zimmerman found that he was losing the fight he was then feeling the threat at which time he gave up on his fist and pulled out a gun.

    There was a great example of this on You Tube where a group of young African American kids were playing in the snow on the street, when a white man who was in his house under no attack felt that these kids did not have the same rights as every other child that has a snow day out of school has. He proceeded to go out and start yelling in the kids’ faces trying to scare them by bulling them, when they were minding their own business and not hurting anyone. The man was asked by one of the kids to get out of his face, but the bulling continued until the young man punched the guy in the face, at which time the bully figured out that he should have stayed in his house and let those kids keep playing in the snow. Then he lowered his voice and started being apologetic because he knew he was wrong.

    Now according to Florida’s law that man could have come out of his house and shot those children because he felt threatened when the kid punched him after he first threatened them.

    This seems to be the same sort of incident because when Zimmerman threatened this already frightened child and ran up on him to bully him the child did what every other warm blooded mammal would do and proceeded to defend himself with the only weapon he had, his fist. Then Zimmerman found out that although this child was small in stature he wasn’t going to be a pushover to beat, so he shot him. Again I ask, “When was Trayvon’s right to stand his ground supposed to kick in?

    Rock Hill, SC

    • I had the same type of thought as Sophia–if an armed stranger approaches you at night and harasses you, under the Stand Your Ground law, aren’t you allowed to use lethal force to protect yourself? Even if Zimmerman’s current story is true, and Martin DID knock him down and then DID go for his gun, isn’t he allowed to do so as reasonably protecting himself? Zimmerman did not have the authority to stop Martin and force an encounter. Because he walked away alive and Martin did not, he walked away justified. That sounds strange, legally.

    • “Stand Your Ground” is quickly becoming the newest buzz word in the news but is nothing new. We have always had the right to defend ourselves but how we are able to do so is directly proportional to the attack. It’s unlikely the law would have applied to Martin though.

      We can be reasonably sure Martin was on top slamming Zimmerman’s head into the sidewalk when he was shot as eye witness reports and medical information corroborate the latter’s accounts – anything else is speculation.

      I don’t know what sort of exchange took place before Martin ended up on top of Zimmerman but with no reports of injury aside from the gun shot it seems pretty unlikely that Martin had legitimate reason to believe repeatedly banging Zimmerman’s head into the concrete was necessary to save his life.

      Martin would have likely killed Zimmerman had the latter not defended himself and the former continued smashing his head into the side walk and would have almost certainly been found guilty of voluntary manslaughter.

    • @ Sophia Chisholm

      If Zimmerman had ran up on Trayvon and taken a swing at him, then yes, Trayvon would have the same rights to stand his ground.

      If instead, Zimmerman asked Trayvon what he was doing there, and Trayvon responded in the manner of any belligerent wannabe-thug and physically attacked Zimmerman, then Trayvon no longer has the same right to stand his ground by the Florida law, and in fact he has now invoked Zimmerman’s right to use lethal force to stand his own ground.

      All of the evidence supports Zimmerman’s story. Zimmerman had no injuries to his knuckles and Trayvon had no injuries other than the gunshot wound, so certainly Zimmerman had not punched Trayvon even once. Zimmerman had obvious damage to his nose and the back of his head, and Trayvon had damaged knuckles, indicating Trayvon DID physically hit Zimmerman hard enough to do significant damage, more than once. There’s no way to really know what exact words were spoken that night between Zimmerman and Martin. But given the evidence of Trayvon’s recent violent activity, I don’t think it’s a far stretch to assume Trayvon was the instigator of any violence in this incident.

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