My mother lives in a retirement community outside Lake Worth, Florida, one of the more civilized areas of the state. Even though I'm white, middle aged, and not especially threatening looking, when I go there to visit her, I'm always well aware of the Stand Your Ground laws. These laws allow you to legally shoot somebody to death in "self defense" if you feel threatened by them. And in Florida, you're allowed to take a handgun almost anywhere.
I never leave my mother’s house without carrying identification, especially if I’m going to walk a few blocks on the main road outside the village. Because Florida is one of those places where everybody drives everywhere, and to be seen walking on the main road is in itself considered “suspicious.” I always half-expect to be stopped and questioned by the police, which is probably just a carryover from my younger hippie days when I couldn’t drive around the block without the police pulling me over to check my license and registration. The Florida police, to their credit, have never harassed me.
But the shooting last month in Sanford, Florida, of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, by a neighborhood watch volunteer, who was not arrested after he told police that he felt threatened by Martin and shot him in self defense, reminded me of something that happened in Florida 36 years ago, and which might have had a very different ending had the Stand Your Ground laws existed then.
I was in Gainesville, a college town in the north central part of the state, doing research for an article on magic mushrooms. Gainesville is one of the few places in the continental United States where this psychedelic fungus grows naturally. It’s also home to a lot of people who’d fit the standard definition of “redneck.”
One night I was hanging out in a local bar when one of those rednecks—young, longhaired, and with a heavy-duty southern accent—struck up a conversation. Though he was obviously drunk, at first blush he seemed like a typical drunk, the kind you might meet in any bar. He asked what I was doing in town, and where I was from. I told him.
A beer or two later, he followed me out of the bar and started screaming at me, something to the effect of, “Who do you think you are coming to this town to write about us?” Then, as a bunch of people from the bar gathered around us, he hit me with his motorcycle helmet, a glancing blow off the side of my head. I was more astonished than anything. I hadn’t been in a fight since junior high school.
He kept swinging at me with the helmet and his fist, but he was too drunk to connect solidly, and I was mostly able to duck and block his wild attempts to beat me to a pulp for no rational reason. It went on for a good minute, until a couple of people from the crowd restrained him, and I got the hell out of there.
But when I think about this incident in light of the Martin shooting, it occurs to me that if something like this were to happen today, the guy might very well have shot me in “self defense.” Because he obviously felt “threatened.” And he might very well have gotten away with it. Cause it happens every day in Florida. Which is pretty much all I have to say about it.