Can we have an honest dialogue about race in America today? One in which people who genuinely agree to disagree are not immediately branded as racists or bigots? I’m going to try by looking at a “Stand Your Ground” march held Monday in Tallahassee, Florida led by Al Sharpton featuring the parents of slain teenagers Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis.
However one looks at the case of Martin, we can all agree that a young man tragically lost his life on a night when he shouldn’t have. I’m not looking to re-litigate who did or said what—just observing that the young man’s death was tragic.
The same sense of grief and tragedy also comes to mind when looking at an incident in Jacksonville, Florida last year in which 17-year-old Jordan Davis was killed in a hail of bullets at a retail plaza. Another promising life that senselessly ended in violence.
I bring up the Stand Your Ground march because I’m worried about the message that it sends and I’m worried about the manner in which such rallies threaten to divide our country rather than bring us together to have an honest discussion about race relations in America today.
Just before the march began, Sharpton offered the following:
To have laws that tell people that they can shoot first and then ask questions later is a violation of our civil rights. I believe that law is inherently wrong…The law in effect says based on your imagination—if you imagine I’m a threat—you have the right to kill me.
Here Sharpton and I are in complete agreement. I don’t believe people have the right to shoot others and ask questions later, nor do I believe that people should have the right to use lethal force unless their life is in imminent danger. Yet Sharpton and others use the death of young teens like Martin and Davis to protest against Stand Your Ground laws when the defendants in either case did not use Stand Your Ground in their defenses.
Both George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn in the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis trials, respectively, said that they acted in self-defense but did not do so invoking a Stand Your Ground justification. There is a clear distinction between a general claim of self-defense versus Stand Your Ground that is often glossed over by those who are opposed to the latter.
In Florida, a defendant may use deadly force if he or she believes imminent death or grave bodily harm will otherwise result. Unless the defendant is in their home or vehicle, every effort must be used to remove themselves from that threat before deadly force is legally justified. In 2005, the affirmative self-defense was broadened under the so-called Stand Your Ground Statutes. Here defendants who are not engaged in criminal activity are allowed stand their ground and legally use deadly force without a duty to retreat if they believe their life is threatened and/or they could face grave bodily harm.
This is a significant detail as some in the civil rights community and the mainstream media assert that such a Stand Your Ground defense was raised in Florida in incidents involving blacks who had been killed when no such justification had been raised. Zimmerman claimed that Martin had attacked him that dark night, while Dunn asserted that Davis had pointed a shotgun at him when the two vehicles were parked side by side.
In neither case did either defendant seek the broader affirmative defense afforded by the Stand Your Ground statute. This troubles me, as it seems as if such an effort is undertaken to intentionally inflame racial tensions rather than extinguish them.
Consider, for example, a headline from Rolling Stone magazine discussing the Jordan Davis killing “After Trayvon: Will There Be Justice for Florida's Other Stand Your Ground Victim?” At first blush, a typical reader might assume that Martin’s killer had been acquitted on a Stand Your Ground defense and perhaps Davis’s killer might elude justice on the same grounds.
A recent New York Times article also muddied the water when they ran an article entitled “Florida Self-Defense Law Complicated Jury’s Job in Michael Dunn Case” While a law professor from the University of Miami is cited in the piece describing how Stand Your Ground laws have created a problem in Florida, it is interesting to note that nowhere in the article is it stated that such a justification was used by the defendant—because it wasn’t.
I support Al Sharpton and hundreds more who descended on the Florida Capitol today to exercise their freedom of speech rights enshrined in the First Amendment. I only wish that they aired their grievances against Florida’s Stand Your Ground statute in cases in which defendants actually invoked such a defense. To assert otherwise appears to be used as an angry instrument of division rather than marching for those whose lives were lost.
As consumers, we are quick to read reviews about a new restaurant or hotel in a far away city on sites such as Yelp or Trip Advisor before making the decision to spend money in a venue we know little about. I only wish the same common-sense would apply when listening to “civil rights leaders” such as Sharpton or media outlets such as The New York Times or Rolling Stone describe significant political and social events in America. If we can be discerning about where we’ll eat or stay when we know little about the venue, I would only hope we could be equally discerning to filter out information given to us by “reputable” news sources who might have their own political or social agenda to pursue.
Finally, in order for us to begin an honest dialogue on race, let us not castigate those with whom we disagree as racists. Martin and Davis were two young men whose lives were tragically brought to an end at the hands of others. Rather than make broad generalizations about race, racism and a return to Jim Crow, let us calmly review the facts and allow a jury of our peers to proclaim an individual’s guilt or innocence. We will honor Martin and Davis by doing so.
We can and must do better as a society.