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Trayvon Martin Case Reflects Institutional Deficiencies with Race, Gun Laws

Thousands rallied in Sanford, Florida yesterday, seeking justice for Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed by a neighborhood watch patrolman in late February. And the public outcry has made an impact. In addition to Sanford Police chief Bill Lee stepping aside (temporarily), Governor Rick Scott appointed a new special prosecutor for the case.

But the more institutional problems reflected in the Martin incident aren’t likely to change. The President of the Florida state Senate said yesterday he would not seek any alteration or even a review of the “stand your ground” law, the NRA-backed initiative that allows gun holders to use deadly force if they feel threatened. The NRA, in fact, would expand that law to all 50 states if they had their way, and they’ve already had plenty of success in that department, since the gun control advocacy side has basically withered on the vine. 24 states have a stand your ground law, and four more have considered it this year.

Similarly, the institutional problems in the Sanford Police Department have not been addressed. Sanford incorporated three black-run cities over a hundred years ago (particularly the historic black-run community of Goldsboro), and that racial divide still motivates a good deal of the conduct there, if the African-American community in the area is to be believed.

To many black residents of Sanford, the escalating national anger over how local police have handled the case reflects years of tension and frustration over their treatment by authorities.

Murray Jess, for one, can’t shake the memory of an evening two years ago, as he drove through Sanford at dusk, heading home after attending an art show with his fiance and his 14-year-old nephew.

A police cruiser began following Jess’ silver-gray 1996 Mercedes. Two unmarked police cars blocked the road in front of him, forcing Jess into a Pizza Hut parking lot. An officer got out of a van and pointed a video camera at the bewildered Jess as another officer, his hand on his gun, approached the car.

Jess asked the officer why he had been stopped. “He said, ‘We’ve had a lot of reports of these kinds of cars being stolen lately,’ ” said Jess, a black Sanford resident and business owner whose voice still shakes with rage.

And that’s only one example.

And of course, you have idiot bobbleheads proving that we still cannot have a serious conversation about race in this country.

So until we break through to the institutional issues raised by the Martin case, we’ll still just band-aid these incidents one at a time, provided they reach a sufficient level of awareness, and most of them don’t.

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David Dayen

David Dayen