Stand Your Ground

02.16.14

Michael Dunn Trial: White Fear Matters More Than Black Lives

A Florida jury failed to convict yet another man for killing an unarmed black teenager. By their logic, Michael Dunn should have kept shooting and never asked questions.

Let's say you wanted to kill a black teenager. The reason doesn't matter. Maybe they looked too suspicious while walking home, or maybe they just wouldn't obey when you gave them a command. The goal, however, is to make the kill without getting convicted.

Well, if there's anything to take away from the trial of Michael Dunn, it's that—in the state of Florida—this is possible. You just need to be more thorough than Dunn could manage in his initial rage, when he killed Davis for being a "thug" who wouldn't bend to his will.

First, let's look at the trial. Yes, assuming a tough judge, the 47-year-old Dunn will go to prison for the rest of his life. But he won't be going to prison for Davis's death. On the charge of first degree murder in the killing of the unarmed teenager, the jury couldn't come to a decision. Indeed, if Dunn is facing a jail cell at all, it's because the jury found him guilty of attempted murder in the case of Davis' friends—after killing Davis, Dunn fired more shots into the vehicle. The jury has held him for shooting at three teenagers, but not for killing the fourth.

With that said, there's another way to look at this. If Dunn had killed Davis and his friends—or if he had killed Davis without shooting afterwards—then, by to the logic of the jury, he would have escaped punishment altogether. Which provides a guide, of sorts, for future killers, racist or otherwise. Claim fear, kill your target, and either do so away from people, or be sure to kill any witnesses. As long as you can portray the witnesses as also threatening, it seems like you could avoid jail time.

Which, you know, is insane, both in what it says about Florida's “Stand Your Ground” law—your best bet for getting away with murder is to shoot first and kill everyone—and what it says about the value of black lives vis-à-vis the state's legal system. According to the criminal justice system of Florida, you are right to fear African-American men, and if you decide to act on that fear with violence, then you stand a good chance of avoiding conviction, on account of a jury that—more likely than not—will sympathize with your fear.

The facts back this up. In states with “Stand Your Ground,” homicides with a white perpetrator and a black victim are most likely to be ruled "justifiable." By contrast, it is least likely—by a factor of ten—for black on white homicides to receive the same designation.

In fairness to Florida, it's not as if this—white fear as an adjudicating factor for black life—is a new thing. It's the force behind the lynching epidemic of the early 20th century, the racial terrorism of the 1920s, and the economic assaults—riots and redlining—of the post-war period. And for all of the real problems of the current moment, there was a belief that we had put that behind us. Which is one reason why this case is so jarring. No, “Stand Your Ground” isn't as egregious as the worst of Jim Crow, but there's no denying that it harkens to a time when you could shoot first and never ask questions, as long as the victim was a black person.

I think I speak for many black people when I say that's terrifying.