Enormous media coverage has been generated by the case of Trayvon Martin. The unarmed black teenager was shot dead on his way back from the shops to the home of his father’s fiancée with whom he was staying.
This occurred on 26 February 2012 in Florida. The initial controversy arose as a result of the failure of the police to charge George Zimmerman, the person who had killed Trayvon Martin, with any offence.
A contributory factor to their decision appears to have been Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, under which the claim of self-defence against a perceived threat to the person can establish the basis for immunity against prosecution. The existence of such statutes in a number of states, most particularly in the Deep South, reflects populist exploitation of the fear of crime, and the consequent pressure for legislation that provides additional protection for law-abiding citizens against muggers and thieves.
Whether such legislation is in any way required is open to question, given that self-defence is a widely recognised and accepted justification for the use of lethal force in circumstances of the reasonable perception of a threat to life.
In this case, how reasonable or unreasonable George Zimmerman’s actions were is now set to be determined by the courts, thanks to the overturning of the original decision to release him without charge, following nation-wide protests. However, it remains to be seen what impact legal proceedings will have on the racially polarised reaction there has been to the case, most obviously reflected in the actions of the Black Panthers and white supremacist groups, but also in the coverage of such media outlets as Fox News.
What the case has underlined is the continuing importance of racial divisions in the southern states of the US and the impact these divisions continue to have on the operation of the justice system and how it is regarded by members from different communities.
The problem of justice in such societies is an issue discussed in depth in my book, Politics in Deeply Divided Societies. By way of illustration it focuses on the shooting of a black infant in South Africa in 1998 and the racially polarised reaction to that case in post-apartheid South Africa, which demonstrated the persistence of racial division even after the country’s political transformation.
The book considers how in deeply divided societies, justice tends to be affected by whether the victim and perpetrator come from the same or different communities. Thus, it is argued that in societies with clearly defined dominant and subordinate communities, there is a blatant tendency for the authorities to show leniency to perpetrators from the dominant community when the victims are from the subordinate community and, by contrast, severity when the roles are reversed.
Adrian Guelke is professor of comparative politics at Queen’s University of Belfast.