What does the story of Trayvon Martin tell our society—and business?

By Luke Visconti

* UPDATE: Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder on April 11,2012.


In case you missed it, Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman as he walked down a street to a friend’s home in Sanford, Fla. Zimmerman, on a “neighborhood watch” patrol, called the police to report Trayvon as a “real suspicious guy” and “up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something.” Trayvon was wearing a hoodie; it was raining. The dispatcher asked, “Are you following him?” When Zimmerman said “Yeah,” the dispatcher said, “OK, we don’t need you doing that.” Zimmerman was armed with a Kel-Tec 9mm pistol. It took one shot to kill Trayvon.

When I first read of the news, Trayvon’s picture was in the story, and I was struck by how handsome and open he looked—in contrast to his murderer.

But chances are you’ve heard of Trayvon. As of this morning, there are almost 1 million electronic signatures on the change.org petition demanding that Zimmerman be arrested. Spike Lee and Wyclef Jean started the ball rolling with tweets. The press picked it up. Anderson Cooper was all about Trayvon last night. Because of the Internet, you can hear the 911 tapes, see Trayvon’s pictures and hear his mom say that he was killed because of “the color of his skin.”

As hard as it is to imagine, George Zimmerman has not been arrested. The law in Florida, a “Shall Issue” state where one is entitled to carry a concealed weapon, does not call for people to back down from confrontations because Gov. Jeb Bush signed the “Stand Your Ground” law in 2005. Prosecutors in Florida have apparently decided that prosecuting shootings in this case is not worth it as judges can dismiss the case before the trial begins under the concept of “true immunity” based on a “Stand Your Ground” assertion.

But there’s a lot of pressure on Sanford, a place that ran Jackie Robinson out of town during spring training. The city commissioners voted to demand that the police chief resign. If you do a little digging on the Sanford police, you’ll see that there’s been a history; the NAACP is collecting stories to deliver to the Department of Justice. In a larger context, this “Stand Your Ground” law, which has been passed in 21 states, needs very close examination. I am a fan of the Second Amendment, but this reads a little to me like “Shoot the Black guy first, ask questions later” law.

What can we learn here from a business context? History matters. Having a trajectory of good practices—or bad—is public knowledge these days, especially when something goes wrong and people have a little time to dig around the web. Many companies I visit still have a policy of being “modest.” It’s old fashioned and doesn’t serve your customers, employees or shareholders. Websites should have clarity and focus; today, hundreds of millions of people tell their own story on Facebook and Twitter. Your company must tell its own story on its website, yet most corporate websites are soulless (many look like they’re designed by soulless ad agencies and vetted by attorneys who don’t get out much).

I’ve been discussing strategic philanthropy with several companies, a program that has a theme, reflects the company’s values and can be integrated with the general business. There is nothing self-serving about building a pipeline of educated professionals and talented technicians by serving poor and underrepresented young people in a nationwide education mentoring program (the Rutgers Future Scholars program could be adopted nationwide, and Rutgers is an AAU research institution, so it is doing the research to understand how).

The kind of pressure that took years to create during the civil-rights era now takes days. What I’ve observed is that furtive and hateful things burrow underground, while the opposite struggles for sunlight. But what I’ve also found is that, although evil is not sustainable, it is well organized—while forces for the good often devolve their conversations into arguments over jargon. (Is it “I&D”? “D&I”? “DNI”? Just “I”?) Trayvon was murdered by a man with a troubled background who was empowered by a law that needs to be repealed. The force of the social media has taken the lead and traditional media is following. The lessons here for business are clear.

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  • If Zimmerman is not prosecuted, how many extremists will see this as license to declare open season on your son, your daughter, your husband, your wife? Where is the safety net? Because this law will become a new age version of lynching. Minorities won’t get to use this law…

    • Well said…
      I would only add, from a parent’s perspective, that lunatic wouldn’t make it to jail if he shot my 17 year old son…I won’t apologize for taking this extremist stand against an extremist who was emboldened to kill a child by an extremist law passed by extremists (Gov Bush, case in point).

      • Luke Visconti

        Although I share your emotional sentiment, I believe that you reap what you sow, and in cases like this, the only thing left to you is your dignity, and that is what you must preserve. I would work hard to obey the law – even though the murderer wouldn’t have as much blame, in my mind, as the people who are given the symbols of authority – badge, gun, imprimatur (prosecutor), robe. In this case, the entire system ENABLED the murderer and has done so for years. Keep in mind that Sanford is the lovely place that ran Jackie Robinson out of town. Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

  • willian Yates

    This tragic situation highlights in bold relief the fact that in America, race and RACISM are still dominant issues. It is unfanthomable that Mr. Zimmerman still possesses both his Concealed Carry Permit and his weapon. Had the race of the two players been reversed, the perpetrator would have been jailed immediately. The manner in which this has been handled to date is abhorrent. My understanding is that Travon’s body lay in the morgue for three days before there was any notification to his parents of his death. This situation also highlights the fact that to be Black and male in America still carries a lot of dangers. Every Black man can remember a similar situation wherein a bad decision would have been the last decision made. I have confidence that the Grand Jury will retunr an indictment, but wish it were meeting before 31 March, when the Grand Jury on which I serve could hear the evidence. Sooner would be better…

  • James Coles III

    Obviously the local law enforcement should have arrested the shooter and charged him with murder. This is a clear case of a provocation and result. The new law (“stand your ground”) would not even apply in this type of circumstance. Society needs to have common sense and apply it.

    • James you are right on. Deadly force should only be used as a last resort when all other means have failed. It should only be considered to protect your life or to protect you or a loved one from serious physical harm. There is no property worth killing a human being over. The problem is not with the law but with Zimmerman’s abuse of it. Don’t know why they didn’t arrest him. BTW, don’t know if folks are aware Zimmerman is a minority; he is Hispanic.

      • but the point is he isn’t black. he is white “enough”. his dad is white and usually if a person has a wealthy white dad they relate with being white.

  • There is no problem with the concept of “Stand Your Ground”. However, the way police, district attorneys and the courts have/ are interpreting the law allows for “open season” when anyone “perceives” damage.

    I am a 6’9″, 250 lb. African American male. My sheer presence makes many people fearful………does that give them the right to shoot me? As I understand it, Mr. Zimmerman was in his SUV when he saw Trayvon Martin walking [to a friend’s home]. He “assumed negative intent” and pursued the young man, even though the police dispatcher told him not to. The yougster, never in trouble and a good student, became fearful and ran away from the danger [I’m sure it’s what he was taught to do]. Where was the imminent danger to Mr. Zimmerman.

    I also understand the shooter has a history or making 911 calls. It would be interesting to learn the nature of those calls and how many were a result of his “perception”. He also reportedly tried to physically resist police when they ordered him to obey a command. Is this consistent with the average citizen, or is it perhaps more akin to someone that has his own agenda.

    As I said at the outset, if I or my family is faced with imminent danger, I would likely use force to protect those I love, who had done nothing wrong. In this case, a young [Black] man was assumed to be dangerous. The real danger rested in a man [Zimmerman] who’s own bias found all Black men to be dangerous.

    • James Coles III

      I agree with you. The problem is the political will of the police, the prosecuters, and the judges, AND they need to be held accountable. The people should be protesting these entities since they are the people that are not supporting justice and common sense. Keeping up the good fight and have dialog with the entire community to talk about these issues.

  • The unbelievable part in all of this is that Zimmerman shot someone. Regardless of whether or not it was self defense (as we know it was not) he still shot and killed someone and should have been arrested for that reason alone. It is up to a jury to decide if indeed it was self defense not the sheriff or the police department of that town. I live in FL and I have found that because the state is over 67% white there appears to preferences given to whites in everything here. If you don’t have, as a minority, stay away from having to live in this state. I on the other hand did not have a choice in moving here.

    • James Coles III

      No, disagree in part, if someone broke into your house, killed your husband, then you shot and killed the intruder, should you immediately get arrested just because you killed someone? I’m hoping you say no at this point. The police should review what happens and determine cause and intent. I dont claim to know exactly what happened in this case, but it sounded like Z. followed, confronted, perhaps provoked, and then T. reacted and then was shot. At the very least, the police should have interrogated Z. and I would have charged him since he went well beyond common sense and the law.

      • Luke Visconti

        Big difference between in your house and jumping out of a car to confront someone (after the police told you not to), isn’t there, James? Luke Visconti, CEO of DiversityInc

        • James Coles III

          Absolutely a big difference, but I wanted to clarify when commenters use words like “that reason alone” and that situations do matter. And I believe I previously identified where I think the problem was that created the injustice…

  • I am appauled that this man could get away with this murder. I have not heard anything to say that Zimmerman was justified in his actions. A young man’s life is tragically over for no reason at all.
    My heart is saddened. My prayers are with the family.
    If we continue to let this happen it could be my child or yours next!

  • This is indeed a tragedy. I am praying for all involved. This is yet another illustration of where laws intended to help the innocent end up hurting, or in this sad case, killing the victim. Another reason why handguns should be banned. Statistically speaking, Guns kill more people than people kill guns. Maybe that should change. Matthew 19:26

  • Will we ever learn? The reason that Mr. Zimmerman was not arrested was because “those in power” did not value the importance of that young life. Little Trayvon was once again relegated to the invisible, unneeded, unwanted, element of society with little regard to his true self. He simply, in their eyes, did not matter. And that.. comes from CONDITIONING.

    Nowadays, young white boys dress similarly to young black boys. However, rarely are they targeted for immediate censure because… they are NOT portrayed as angry, gun-wielding, sex-crazed, drug-taking, out-of-control “gangstas” in the media. This only adds fuel to fire for the Zimmermans of the world.

    Unfortunately, it is sad for both Zimmerman and Trayvon’s family, because this deed was committed because of misguidance and a lack of understanding of a people.

    And since when do neighborhood watch groups “arm themselves”?!!

    A strategically worded phone call would have undoubtedly brought the police SCREECHING to the scene to arrest the young “black man” who was in the alleged wrong neighborhood. I’m sure Trayvon’s parents could have dealt with a unwarranted arrest far better than a dead child. This is truly a tragic story.

  • Karen Hernandez

    If this was my son, I would consider it a Hate Crime. I hope and pray that justice is served, that Trayvon’s parents find consolation in their grief, and that America wakes up to the reality that this time a gun was allowed to be put in the wrong hands—so is there ever any guarantee that it won’t happen again? To your son? To mine?

  • What a terrible thing to lose a precious young man in such a violent manner. Who knows what really happened out there, but I am certainly not going to guess. People seem to be desperate to call the shooter white. There are huge efforts to make this about race. His father may be white, his mother is Latino and some of his relatives are black. I wish that the theatrical people in our society, politicians and the like would stop tryin gto stir people up. You calling the stand your ground law “Shoot the Black guy first, ask questions later” law is despicable.

  • It tells our society and businesses that #1: We have a hek of a lot more work to do as human beings in striving for harmony. #2: That we truly need each other to survive. #3: That the law is not bias, but those enforcing the law are. #4: Last but not least, prayer, love, and hope will change this situation for all of our young people, minorities, and workplaces alike if we simply believe in loving our neighbor as ourselves. That is the legacy that Trayvon Martin will leave behind!

  • That nothing changes under the Sun, Florida was once a place where Black people had to carry “cards” and show them on demand to ANY white person that asked (St. Augustine) after curfew that only applies to Black people. Sounds like a typical case of self-induced paranoia, when, if anything, Black people should be afraid of the whites, check the history of the United States.

  • That giving people a shorter path from internal hatred to unthinkable actions has been the objective of the NRA, and they are seeing the outcomes that most of us knew were inevitable.

  • I like your article. It’s amazing that in the year off 2012, WWB (Walking While Black) is still reason to get murdered. This is despicable and the murderer must be held accountable.

  • The law is “Stand Your Ground” not “Hunt Them Down”. Zimmerman apparently confronted Trayvon Martin who tried to escape/get away as opposed to standing fast. Coming out of your house, and chasing someone is not “standing your gorund”!!

  • Rochelle Tinsley

    My prayers to the family. The more we humans change morally, the more we reamain the same. It is a generational curse, handed down….

  • I think that all the Black people in Sanford should apply for a concealed weapon carry permit because if Zimmerman was able to get one with his background then everyone that has a similar background should be able to get a permit and then its open season for everybody.

  • I am a supporter of the “stand your ground” laws as a prior victim of domestic violence. If you are on MY property and I ask you to leave and you do not, and there is clear and present danger to me or my family, I have the right to defend my home and safety.

    But NO WHERE in the Constitution is open season declared on people who you ASSUME have ill intent. This man is obviously sick and needs help. He should be arrested as he did not have any proof that this “up to no good” young man was armed or was in the process of committing a crime. If he is not arrested and held accountable the State of Florida is saying that they will not only provide a home for people trying to avoid tax laws, but also those who want an open reason to kill people without rhyme or reason. God bless the family, community and specifically this young man and his friends. Fear was the only reason this child was murdered, not because some man had a “right” he was entitled to. To fear the color of skin or a persons religion or their sexual orientation is wrong and no law should ever prevent or protect those who act with this as their basis.

  • It lets us know that RACE differences still exist!! It exist within each other as well as other races. All people need to believe in the person that made them which is their GOD! When you believe in God and follow him you love everybody for the person that they have become. America lets follow God and everything will be solved but until then the world will continue to have hate in it.!

  • It tells that we have lost sight of what is important. A young man’s life is worth more than anything that they thought he might take from them. Whatever material losses they suffered; they could all be replaced. Trayvon cannot be replaced.

  • It tells me that many people react without all the facts. It is say to lose a soul, but there is no need to damn another soul without knowing the truth.

  • That in over 200 years nothing has changed. That it is time to become proactive and to utilize our governmental system as it was designed to function. To hold ALL elected representatives on ALL government levels responsible for the execution of ALL governmental policies in accordance and spirit of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. Time for our young people to take up the spirit of their grandparents and great-grandparents to enforce civil liberties for ALL.

  • It tells us that NOTHING has changed.

    That we can’t send out kids to the store, or even to school and expect them to be safe and treated fairly.

    It says that the American dream is crippled and is dying.

    It says there is no justice in the US.

  • This tragedy cries out for justice and the only justice in this case is to bring the killer to a jury trial, find him guilty as charged and imprison him.

  • That we have institutionalized “wild west,” shoot-first-ask questions-later, behaviors, which have no place in a democratic society. But also that there are millions of people across the nation and beyond who care deeply about justice and human life.

    By the way, I just signed the petition for prosecution.

    Regards, Luke.

  • Sad, sad, sad. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Thank you for addressing this issue.

  • It tells our society that we have digressed and not progressed.

    For business, it tells us that we have different minded people that work around us everyday. We do not know anyone’s true feeling as it relates to race or just how a person’s race can change the perception of a conversation, a meeting, or a simple act such as walking down a sidewalk with a bag of skittles. The situation of Travyon Martin can divide a population at work, or a customer base with its supplier or vendor

  • It reminds us that a postracial society is in the future, not in the society that we presently reside.

  • The US has a long way to go with race issues . Also law enforcement offices across US must be watched for possible wrong doing.

  • I am deeply saddened by such a senseless act. I am a Floridian and this is the kind of behavior that has exemplified itself since I was a kid. We must change laws and help others understand that we are all God’s creation. We don’t have to agree on ideas, political issues, religious or personal issues. However, we must respect each other as humans and have a moral decorum that will not lead to vigilante acts such as this. Thank you for your wonderful reads.

  • For African American mothers, it is not “hard to believe” that Zimmerman has not been arrested. History is replete with such examples; this is just another one in a long list.

    As for “Hispanic” not being “white”: “Hispanic” is not a race. It is not even “Hispanic”, which is a term that you will only hear as an ethnic categorization in the United States. Hispanic/Latinos also have racial classifications, in skin color going from white to Black, with a racial bias reflecting that which operates in the United States. To use that reasoning — “Hispanic is not white” — as a way of diminishing the role of racism as a fundamental reason for why Trayvon was targeted and assassinated is such a clear example of how willful we are about maintaining our ignorance of how white supremacy / anti-Black stereotyping and bias operates and the myriad ways in which African Americans are asked to pay for its sustenance.

  • That black males are expendable and people who are of a different race have no regard to human life.

  • It tells us that black people are still second class citizens, and especially black men!

  • Luke – As saddened as I am there is reason to hope as I listen and read the blogs. Across the board regardless of race and ethnicity people are outraged.

    As a mother I feel depressed that black parents have to give our children warnings about how to behave should they be stopped by the police because we know they do not have the benefit of the doubt. Zimmerman was simply acting out what has been done over and over again in this country. Yes I know about black on black crime. That is why this is so tragic. I look at Trayvon’s picture and I see my 13 year old grandson who is 6’ 1’’ and we are already talking to him about being so careful when he is out.

    At the same time I read the vitriolic attacks on President Obama – the total lack of respect – and feel sickened. The excuse that it is because of his policies is just that – an excuse for deep seated racism and the fact the a black man is President of the United States.

  • As a mother of a young African American male I am truly afraid and saddened that America still lives by the gun. The gun has taken more lives than any other means of death among our male children. Zimmerman must be held accountable for this child’s death. To allow him to continue to walk around w/o answering for his crimes only perpetuates the notion that it is open season on our children. My prayers go out to the family. I am sorry about your loss.

  • Not that this matters, because in my mind, this is a clear case of murder. However, I would really like to see the “stand your ground” law. I always thought that if a intruder was attempting to get in one’s home or an individual was endanger or protecting someone else that was, then you had the right to use force to stop harm from being done to yourself or someone else. No where in the previous laws was it OK to follow someone and then gun them down. Previously, if an intruder was running away and you used force, then you become the criminal.

  • Luke,

    It illustrates the conundrum in which we find ourselves and how difficult it is to extract ourselves from the confines of our language and the use of race to describe what happens to us.

    One the one hand, it should be abundantly clear to most Americans that had Trayvon not been a black teenager and and instead a white teenager, he may well still be alive today and if not, at worst his alleged assailant most certainly would have been charged with some type of crime.

    But here is what is also missing from the larger conversation: it would be more helpful, I believe in the long run, if in describing what has tragically happened to this family is that a 17 year old child, a son, a young human being has been killed; not a black teenager but a child…he was first and foremost a child. He was not a black anything. Sometimes it seems to me that if we were more selected in the use of our language, emphasizing the common humanity of each other, we may make more progress on the more difficult issues of race and ethnicity.

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