By Sonali Kolhatkar
Florida has one more chance to deliver justice to the parents of a slain black boy. The state that faced calls for boycott over the acquittal of George Zimmerman is currently holding pretrial hearings in a similar case.
Nearly a year ago in Jacksonville, Michael Dunn, a 45-year-old white gun collector and software engineer, fired at least eight shots into a carful of teenagers after admonishing them about the volume of their music. Two of those shots hit and killed 17-year-old Jordan Davis, an African-American boy.
Dunn, who has two more pretrial hearings next month, is using the Stand Your Ground law in his defense; it’s the same one that Zimmerman, who shot and killed teenager Trayvon Martin, initially invoked before his trial and subsequent acquittal.
The law was originally crafted by the National Rifle Association and introduced to the American Legislative Exchange Council, which pushed it as a “model bill” in states around the country. The Florida version of the law passed in 2005. Although the measure allows people to use deadly force if they feel threatened regardless of whether they can safely leave the scene, it provides no clear definition of what constitutes a threat.
What that essentially means is free rein for gun owners to carry their weapons into any situation, shoot and later claim to have felt threatened even in the case of killing someone. This Wild West mentality has proven advantageous for older white gun users like Dunn, who have a greater chance than others of proving homicide justifiable according to studies like this one.
Dunn said he felt threatened when one of the car’s occupants brandished a shotgun. He fired shots from his 9 mm and then fled the scene. But police found no weapons in Davis’ car or in the surrounding area. Davis’ father, Ron, lamented, “They were just kids. … They have never been in trouble. The kids had no weapon; they had no drugs in the car.”
With killings like those of Martin and Davis causing public uproar, Congress has been compelled to look into Stand Your Ground laws. In fact, a Senate hearing on the laws would have taken place in mid-September but was postponed due to the Washington Navy Yard shooting. The hearing had been slated to feature testimony from Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, and Davis’ mother Lucia McBath.
In lieu of the Senate hearing, McBath agreed to appear on “Uprising,” the radio show I host, for an interview. As a mother of two boys myself, I asked McBath to tell me about the child she had lost.
“Jordan was the life of the party,” she began. “He had lots and lots of friends. People seemed to gravitate toward him. He used to bring everybody together. I figured that when he became a man he would become a social organizer or activist or an attorney or would live out his life doing something bringing people together.”
There are differences between the shootings of Martin and Davis. In Davis’ case, there were plenty of witnesses to the shooting, and there was no physical contact between the shooter and the victim. However, as McBath points out, both involved “black young males, unarmed, being shot down.”
McBath believes the Stand Your Ground laws need to be closely examined. “You don’t have to prove you were threatened,” she noted. “The ludicrous thing about these laws is that you only have to prove that you believed you were being threatened.”
The combination of Stand Your Ground laws and pervasive societal stereotypes of black men seems to have extended the impunity previously reserved for cops, to would-be cops and vigilantes. Nation magazine journalist Mychal Denzel Smith, who has been covering the Davis case, told me just weeks after the killing last year, “I can’t imagine any scenario where Michael Dunn would have felt justified in using such deadly force against a group of white teenagers in the same situation. I just can’t fathom that.” He added that the Stand Your Ground laws are easy to invoke in a society where “the image that we have of black manhood and black teens is as ‘naturally violent.’ ”
Zimmerman’s casual remark to the 911 dispatcher made minutes before he shot Martin, that “these assholes always get away,” seemed to reveal his implicit prejudice against black youths. It is difficult to imagine what else he may have been referring to in using the term “these assholes” given that all he knew at the time about Martin was that he was a young black man. In addition, according to news reports, during the six months leading up to the Martin shooting, Zimmerman called the police several times to report people he believed to be suspicious, and each time, when asked, he said they were black, so it would be fair to assume black youths were collectively “these assholes.”
Similarly, Michael Dunn reportedly said “I hate that ‘thug’ music” when he drove up alongside the car that Jordan Davis and his friends sat in. To Davis’ mother, McBath, “right then and there he had already deemed the boys in the car thugs simply because of the music they were listening to. That’s a bias he had from the very beginning.”
The good news is that the legal protection Stand Your Ground laws offer to shooters who may be prejudiced against black youth may be short lived. A movement is afoot to overturn them, both in Congress and on the streets. A group of activists called the Dream Defenders camped out for days in front of Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office this summer, shortly after the Zimmerman verdict was announced. They are demanding the passage of a bill called Trayvon’s Law to repeal Stand Your Ground as well as to address racial profiling and what they call the “school-to-prison pipeline.”
McBath understands the importance of activism to overturn laws. Her father was the NAACP chairman for Illinois for 20 years, so she comes from a background of civil rights activism. And, as part of her quest for justice for her son, she has become a spokesperson for the group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
McBath’s father attended the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and she followed in his footsteps by participating in this summer’s 50th anniversary commemoration of that event, speaking there for justice for her son. She told me, “Jordan’s father and I have decided that no matter what justice we receive in our trial, the true justice will be in changing the Stand Your Ground Laws so no other families will never ever have to bear this burden.”
Only someone who has lost a child can know what Lucia McBath is experiencing. When I asked her how her family has managed to deal with the tragedy of Davis’ death, she said, “Of course it’s very difficult. I say all the time—it doesn’t get easier; it just gets a little bit more bearable. Every time we are able to share with others who he was as an individual, and what he meant to us, it just becomes a little bit easier. But,” she paused, “there are good days and bad days.”
Most parents of young black boys appreciate the danger their sons face in America today. The question is, when will American society at large appreciate it enough to demand justice? Smith distilled the urgency of repealing Stand Your Ground laws into this simple statement: “We don’t have time to sit around and wait for more young black boys to die before we decide that this law simply is unjust.”