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Bessent: Young, law-abiding, black and dead

Two people crossed paths one rainy night last month.

One was Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old on a snack run before the NBA All-Star game. He bought Skittles and an Arizona Iced Tea and headed back to his father's fiancee's home to catch the game.

The other was George Zimmerman, a beefy 28-year-old packing a 9-millimeter handgun, who spotted Martin walking alone, got out of his truck, trailed him through the quiet neighborhood and then confronted him on the street.

Which one had more reason to be suspicious of the other? Any reasonable assessment suggests it was Martin who had cause to fear for his life.

Add two more facts: Martin was black. Zimmerman isn't.

Because of that one simple reality, the weight of suspicion fell lethally on the teen. It's a burden no innocent person should have to bear.

And no, it doesn't matter that some other black men may have committed crimes in the area on some other occasions. Martin was a kid who did nothing wrong. Yet Zimmerman shot and killed Martin, a tragic victim of racial profiling. That has sparked national outrage.

So should Florida's wild-west-style "stand your ground" law, which Sanford police cited as the reason Zimmerman wasn't arrested and hasn't been charged. The law allows the use of deadly force if you're in imminent danger of being killed or badly hurt, and doesn't require retreating to avoid the threat. Since it was enacted in Florida in 2005, the number of "justified" killings each year has tripled.

Twenty-one states have similar laws. Coupled with pernicious prejudice that leads too many people to view young black men as a threat to life and limb, such laws all but paint targets on their chests.

According to the call Zimmerman made to police, to his eyes Martin was "a real suspicious guy. This guy looks like he's up to no good, on drugs or something. He's got his hand in his waistband and he's a black male," Zimmerman said. "Something's wrong with him. He's coming to check me out. These assholes, they always get away. ----, he's running."

When Zimmerman said he was following the man, the police dispatcher told him, "We don't need you to do that." He kept on following.

Zimmerman, by all accounts, is an aggressive crime-watch volunteer who wanted to protect his gated community in Sanford, a suburb of Orlando. But painful history says Martin's race was the reason Zimmerman stole his life. He didn't see a carefree kid with candy and tea who a teacher said majored in cheerfulness. He saw a black man in a hoodie and just assumed he was a hood.

Zimmerman told police he shot Martin in self-defense. But Zimmerman weighs 250 pounds, had a gun and was clearly the aggressor. If anyone was in imminent danger of being killed or badly injured, it was Martin, an unarmed, 140-pound kid who just wanted to go watch a basketball game.

Zimmerman said he was attacked, and, of course, Martin isn't around to dispute that claim. But phone records show a 16-year-old girl spoke with Martin in the final moments of his life. He told her a man was watching him. According to the girl, Martin said, " 'What are you following me for?' and the man said 'What are you doing here?' " She heard what she described as some pushing. Then the line went dead.

The Florida State Attorney said Tuesday that he'll present the case to a grand jury. And the U.S. Justice Department announced this week it will take a look as well. It's about time, but offers cold comfort.

Young, law-abiding black men can't be fair game simply because their skin scares people.

Alvin Bessent is a member of the Newsday editorial board.


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