Protesters holding signs reading “Trayvon Martin Lynched” marched down University Place in New York, where I happened to be, on Monday. From across the street, the marchers seemed outnumbered by police. A long line of officers walked in tandem with them, another line of police on motorcycles edged the street, and other officers, apparently of higher rank, stood nearby, along with several vans. I had no idea what to expect and wondered if the police were sent out in high numbers only to keep order or because violence was feared.
There have been other protests around the city and country after a jury of six women in Florida found George Zimmerman not guilty of either manslaughter or second degree murder. In the city on Sunday, thousands had grouped at Union Square, then moved up to Times Square and eventually into Harlem.
At about the same time, some of the Web sites I look at started recounting the case of Marissa Alexander, who was sentenced last year to 20 years in prison, having been convicted of attempted murder after a gun she fired hit a wall, injuring no one.
Twenty years is the mandatory minimum term under a 1999 Florida law, which requires an automatic 10-year term if someone shows a gun while committing certain felonies and 20 years if the gun is fired. Judges are left with no discretion in sentencing. (If someone is wounded, judges can mete out 25 years to life.)
Ms. Alexander had given birth nine days before the incident, and it was reported that she had a protective order against her husband, Rico Gray, who had beaten her during pregnancy. Mr. Gray had a history of abusing her as well as other women, and she had been hospitalized at least once.
She testified that she went to the house they had shared to get some of her clothes when they got into an argument. She said he laid hands on her, that she escaped after he tried to lock her in a bathroom; she then went to her car to retrieve a legally obtained handgun, and fired what she later called a warning shot. Mr. Gray said she had aimed at him but missed. She was found guilty of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon.
Not sufficiently informed about Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, I am not qualified to make an in-depth comparison about what happened between George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin and between Marissa Alexander and Rico Gray. However, both Mr. Zimmerman and Ms. Alexander said they feared for their lives when they fired their guns. The jury did not believe Ms. Alexander and voted for conviction in 12 minutes. The six women on the Zimmerman panel, on the other hand, believed him. It was a crucial difference.
Hovering over each case are the contexts in which the incidents occurred: domestic violence and disregard for women’s rights in one, institutionalized racism, perhaps, in both. There were rallies on behalf of Ms. Alexander, after her conviction, and a movement asking that she be pardoned is under way now. The Justice Department is reportedly considering whether to bring a civil rights case against Mr. Zimmerman.
Regardless of what happens, these Florida laws and those who have written them should be indicted in the court of public opinion.