Ta-Nehisi Coates on Trayvon Martin

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Civil rights leaders and residents of the city of Sanford, FL attend a town hall meeting to discuss the death of a 17-year-old unarmed black teen Trayvon Martin. (Gerardo Mora/Getty)

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor for The Atlantic, discusses the killing of a Florida teenager, and what it says about race, fear, and gun laws in America.


Ta-Nehisi Coates

Comments [27]

The question is what is aggressive behavior? And who gets to decide? In this instance one person can no longer speak for himself and the other is protected by a law that permits any action as justified. Who among us is prepared to respond "correctly" when being followed for an unknown reason? Anything we might do could be interpreted as suspicious, guilty or aggressive behavior even if we were merely trying to protect/defend ourselves.

Mar. 21 2012 11:30 AM

jgarbuz, Martin WAS being attacked. It seems he defended himself, and Zimmerman killed him for it.

Mar. 21 2012 11:24 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Steve from Queens

As a white Jewish kid growing up in the housing projects, I knew what it was like to be followed, mugged, robbed, etc. just because I was white, Jewish and wearing a yarmulka. THat was a long time ago. Nonetheless, I also know what Black people had gone through in the South, being constantly harassed under segregation by southerners, and thus often teaching their children in the North to "stand their ground" when confronted by police or anyone. This confrontational attitude on both sides leads to death. NO ONE SHOULD BE AGGRESSIVE, whether they are following or being followed! Period. Defend yourself if you are attacked, and preferably call the police. But aggressive behavior on either side invariably leads to fights and to tragic death. Misunderstandings can be avoided by keeping a cool head unless actually being attacked.

Mar. 21 2012 11:09 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

bernie, there's an even bigger question than that one...

Mar. 21 2012 11:09 AM
bernie from bklyn

@sburgernutr- what does your story have to do with this topic?
and can we just consider the state of florida to be a failed state? their dysfunction is monumental on so many levels.....the biggest being the bush v. gore situation that is the direct result of the stupidity of florda officials and therefore led to the 8 hellish years that george bush was our president. look where we are could all be potentially traced back to florida- iraq, afghanistan, economic crash and so on and so on....

Mar. 21 2012 11:03 AM
Steve from queens NY

Unfortunately this will not be the last black man killed because they were walking while black. What gives this guy the right to follow and chase down a teen and confront him and take his life during a dust up? Me as a black man, if put into that kind of situation would probably do the same thing and try to run away if a guy jumps out of his truck (and possible brandishing a 9mm) and start coming towards me. Maybe we need to let black teens know they should just put his hands in the air like a prisoner of war when they are confronted by people like this.

Mar. 21 2012 11:02 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

To Tamara

NO ONE should be "aggressive" even if they are being followed! If I had been "aggressive" every time I thought I was being followed by young black kids growing up in Brooklyn, I wouldn't be here today. Nonetheless, no one belonging to a vigilante group should be armed. It is the job of the police to question those under suspicion. NO ONE SHOULD BE AGGRESSIVE whether they are following or being followed!

Mar. 21 2012 10:58 AM

As a mother of a teenage son, my heart goes out to the parents. This is just such a terrible horrible tragedy and I hope that Mr. Zimmerman is prosecuted.

I just had a recent incident on an airline flight where my son and his friend were targeted. At the time, I didn't even think about the fact that my son's friend is African American, but now I'm rethinking it. The flight was completely full due to a group of 80 skiers. We only had two seats together. So we let my son and his friend sit together. I took a seat in front and my husband in back. There was turbulence so the seatbelt sign never went off. Since the boys were nearly 13, I didn't even think of checking on them. It was so crowded I couldn't go back to help them with their carry on. I noticed an angry woman pointing at me. I exited, but stayed in the tube to the side waiting for my son, his friend and my husband. The woman came off and bullied me into a corner SCREAMING at me for not sitting with them and checking on them. I didn't know what they did, but she literally wouldn't stop even when I explained that I had no choice. She was so aggressive verbally and physically I was afraid I'd need to use my Martial Arts self-defense moves. Her husband literally had to drag her down the tube away from me. The flight attendants who served them made a point of tracking me down and telling me that my son and his friend behavior beautifully on the flight and the woman had a lot to drink. At the time, I blamed it on the drink and the fact that boys like to joke around. Many adults are quite happy to talk in loud voices but get really angry if children talk and laugh. Now, I'm wondering if she was looking at my son's friend (who happens to be a sweet and generally polite boy) with a racial bias.

Mar. 21 2012 10:54 AM
natalie from MA

1) Hispanic vigilante commits crime against African American kid 2) Gated communities are aberrants in a society 3) NRA continues to promote their message of death 4) Florida is recalcitrant red state that passes laws that gives carte blanche to law enforcers to use force amongst its citizens.5) Unwarranted racial tensions based on impending inequalities to be resolved in this country. All of these facts, As I see them, have resulted in a flare up in our society.

Mar. 21 2012 10:53 AM
fuva from Harlemworld

Hey, Brian, who said Trayvon was walking around, "looking at all the houses"? Zimmerman didn't even say that. He was WALKING and LOOKING, presumably on his way home.

And that caller has it wrong. The criticism of the police is that they DID NOT adequately investigate; that they basically took Zimmerman's word for it.

As poorly-conceived as it seems, are we to believe that the "stand your ground" law was even intended to be invoked by someone who pursued -- FOR NO GOOD REASON -- the UNARMED high-schooler he claims to have defended himself against?

Also, is this law really applicable for deadly "self-defense" against perceived harm that is NOT DEADLY; when the person claiming self-defense is armed and the other is not?

Mar. 21 2012 10:52 AM

The local police have been remiss from the start. Initial reports from witnesses who called 911 and then attempted to talk to the police indicated that the police tried to change the witness testimony to exonerate Zimmerman. Seemingly they showed no interest in what might have happened -- they were protecting someone they knew (Zimmerman) against someone they did not (Martin). We must start holding the police accountable for the continued racism in our society. Wasn't a teenager recently killed by the NYPD -- in his own apartment -- and there was no weapon or cause for such a violent response. When will it end?

Mar. 21 2012 10:52 AM
Tamara from NYC

Stand Your ground? How in the World does Zimmerman get to claim this? Travon Martin had a right to stand HIS ground! He was walking and Zimmerman confronted Martin armed with a GUN. Martin has a RIGHT to be aggressive IF in fact he was being aggressive. What did Zimmerman expect would happen if he followed someone in an SUV then got out of the car to confront someone? HE

This is shoddy police work! That caller was wrong! Anyone can see that this Zimmerman is a foolish wannabe Batman who ended up committing murder.

Mar. 21 2012 10:51 AM
Pat from Manhattan

Million Hoodie march in Union Square park today 3/21 in suppport of Trayvon Martin. Wear your hoodies

Mar. 21 2012 10:45 AM
John from office

Stand your ground is intended for rural and remote areas where there are no cops available. Not for Urban areas.

Hugh, dont cloud this issue with a anti stop and frisk argument. One is law enforcement the other is the actions of the "public".

Mar. 21 2012 10:45 AM
Jennifer from Brooklyn

Get it right Brian... most neighborhoods in NYC don't have neighborhood watches. The only communities that the NYPD allows for neighborhood watches are Jewish communities. Many Black communities in NYC have tried to set up neighborhood watches but the NYPD disapproves of them.

Mar. 21 2012 10:44 AM
david from manhattan

As the Times story makes clear, this law should really be called the "Shoot first and shoot to kill" law. If no one can contest your story that you felt endangered, then you're more likely to get off.

Mar. 21 2012 10:42 AM
the_hme from Jersey City, NJ

My goodness, this is so heart breaking and sad. I hope all the details come out because even if Trevon was suspicious, he doesn't deserve dying. In fact, if break-ins were actually happening in this area, he should have be tried in court for whatever he would've been accused for. NO-ONE that has a gun and disobeys the police surely has problems. How can it be "self-defense" when you seek the suspect, who in this case could've been a teen just talking on the phone and passing around, as I ALWAYS DO when I am on the phone - at home or not!!!

Mar. 21 2012 10:41 AM
Leo from UES

What if this Zimmerman commits suicide? He should not be free!

Mar. 21 2012 10:39 AM
Theresa from Brooklyn

Where is Trayvon Martin's cell phone?

Mar. 21 2012 10:39 AM
John A.

The "Stand Your Ground" laws. Please describe.
Laws that are difficult to follow are routinely replaced for reasons such as this mess.

Mar. 21 2012 10:39 AM

In describing Trayvon Martin's attempt to get away, Ta-Nehisi Coates has described the experience of _many_ men of color in New York City _at the hands of police_.

Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee has done _nothing_ in Florida. And here in NYC, Ray Kelly and Michael Bloomberg _invariably_ defend the police no matter how the cops behave. If a cop does what Zimmerman did in Florida, the cop can be absolutely certain that he will get away with it.

Mar. 21 2012 10:39 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

The entire first 911 call is difficult to explain. Was Zimmerman's description of young Martin's behavior even somewhat accurate? (Seemingly just looking aimlessly around; heading towards Zimmerman; running away....) -- remember this was all recorded BEFORE the shooting.

Not that it gives any excuse to Zimmerman's action(s.) It seems fairly obvious that Zimmerman had a talent for sticking his nose into innocuous behavior and perhaps a degree of paranoia.

Mar. 21 2012 10:39 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

This is what happens when armed vigilantes with little or no experience with Black people are allowed to operate. But in this particular case, the operator should have told Zimmerman over the radio in clear and unambiguous terms, "DO NOT FOLLOW" the suspect! By using ambiguous terminology like "We don't need you to do that" is so WRONG! At any rate, these neighborhood protection groups should NEVER be allowed to be armed! Never.

Mar. 21 2012 10:37 AM
andy from manhattan

Why is the media not digging deeper into Zimmerman's "Neighborhood Watch Captain" status? It seems Mr Coates' article is being referenced on occasion, but I'd like to hear more about this "Neighborhood Watch" he was "president" of.

Also worthy of discussion is how can one claim self defense when one pursues. This seems to completely eliminate any claim of self-defense, and the ability to use Florida's heinous law that makes it so easy to use deadly force.

Mar. 21 2012 10:35 AM
bernie from bklyn

given, this florida law is ridiculous as so many things are in that backwards state. this guy that shot this kid should be arrested and tried for murder immediately.
but the bigger question has to be- why are young, black men walking down the street immediately deemed to be suspicious? is it because all other races hate black people and want them dead or is it something else?

Mar. 21 2012 10:35 AM
john from office

This is a tragic event and the law needs to be changed. Mr. Zimmerman is a wannabe cop who is more dangerous tha any criminal.

It is interesting that the Media has a hard time with whether Mr. Zimmerman is latino or white. He claims to be hispanic now that there is a problem.

Mar. 21 2012 10:34 AM
Peter from North Carolina

I really feels that Mr. Martin was hunted and killed. Once the volunteer watch person (Mr. Zimmerman) was asked to stop following the teen, it seems that Mr. Zimmerman should not be able to argue self defense.

Mar. 21 2012 10:31 AM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

Get the WNYC Morning Brief in your inbox.
We'll send you our top 5 stories every day, plus breaking news and weather.