Sunday, February 16, 2014

On Race and Unreasonable Fears

As we all know, the "Stand Your Ground" law in Florida came under a fair amount of national scrutiny during the Trayvon Martin case. Sadly that's not the only instance that calls into question both the utility and application of this law, which allows a potential aggressor to use the perceived fear of a perceived threat to justify firing a weapon and taking a life. The problem, of course, lies in how nebulously we define terms like "reasonable" and "fear." Case in point, the Michael Dunn trial that just concluded in Florida yesterday.

Dunn, a middle aged white man, shot Jordan Davis, an un-armed black teenager, in November of 2012 in a convenience store parking lot after beginning an argument with the teen and his friends, sitting in an SUV, that their "thug music" was too loud. After the shooting, Dunn returned to his hotel and didn't call the authorities. Davis,
meanwhile, died from his wounds. It was only after police tracked Dunn down a day later that he asserted he'd been in fear for his life during the confrontation, and was thus, you guessed it, standing his ground.

After a lengthy deliberation finding Dunn guilty of several lesser charges, the jury ultimately deadlocked on the key charge of first-degree murder. As comedian W. Kamau Bell put it yesterday upon learning of the verdict, "In America - and especially in Florida - it is apparently impossible to murder a black male." Coming so soon after the George Zimmerman case, where the defendant didn't even need to assert a "Stand Your Ground" defense to be found not guilty of murdering Trayvon Martin, you do start wondering what's happening here.

Here's Paul Campos at Salon, making some pretty sobering observations:
...because this is America, it’s reasonable for Dunn to fear that the scary black boys playing the scary music are armed. After all, there are more than 300 million non-military firearms floating around out there between the purple mountain majesties and the amber waves of grain. That’s no doubt one reason why Dunn has gone to the trouble of securing at least one of them for himself, and (again, perfectly legally) sticking it in his glove compartment, so that it’s within easy reach should he choose to get into a war of words with some black teenaged boys in convenience store parking lot on a Friday night.
Dunn carried a gun because he was afraid. He discharged that gun because he was afraid. Now, just to be clear here, no one is saying this isn't a scary world, that there aren't legitimate things out there to be afraid of, or that there isn't some form of "Stand Your Ground" that would at least be somewhat effective at addressing our -- here's that key phrase -- reasonable fears. The problem, however, is that as typified by the Dunn case, "Stand Your Ground" isn't really about making us feel safer despite our fears, it's about making us feel comfortable in our fears. And that's just not reasonable.

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