† Criminal InJustice is a weekly series devoted to taking action against inequities in the U.S. criminal justice system. Nancy A. Heitzeg, Professor of Sociology and Race/Ethnicity, is the Editor of CI. Kay Whitlock, co-author of Queer (In)Justice, is contributing editor of CI. Criminal Injustice is published every Wednesday at 6 pm.
Black Life, Perceived Threat, and “Stand Your Ground”
by nancy a heitzeg
Almost one year ago, CI published Standing Up to Stand Your Ground in response to the murder of Jordan Davis. In the ensuing months, we have witnessed an intensifying climate of toxic Anti-Blackness, where fear and explict/implict bias turn deadly and white killers walk.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman for the murder of Trayvon Martin . The death of Jordan Davis. The death of at least 6 Black men, women or children at the hands of someone employed or protected by the US government. Jonathan Ferrell, who survived a car crash only to be shot 10 times by the police while seeking help. And now Renisha McBride, another help-seeking crash survivor shot in the head with a 12 gauge shotgun by a Stand Your Ground Michigan homeowner. Brittany Cooper in Asking for Help While Black: How it Became a Capital Offense:
White supremacy is no country for black people. Gender be damned. And it remains abundantly clear that black life is still considered a reasonable price to pay for the protection of white property and white life. White supremacy works to reassert and maintain dominance by striking fear in the hearts of black and brown people, by restricting our free movement through the world, by reminding us at every turn, that we might end up the indiscriminate victims of white rage. We are made to believe that white rage is ephemeral, though, such that we look up in its aftermath, devastated by its inhabitation, but remain unable to track, trail or trap it. With a kind of profound certitude, though, we can generally trust its trail of black destruction.
Video by dream hampton
So too the calls for “justice” – one by one by one – from a system designed to devalue it. Ultimately, we must challenge both the cultural constructs and structural processes which collude/collide/conspire to devalue Black Life. As Kay Whitlock notes in What Would Real Justice for Trayvon Martin Look Like?:
While the NRA may solidify its ethically bankrupt power by encouraging an ethos of enmity and expendability, great leaders for social change—King, Gandhi, Chavez, Huerta, Malcolm X, Archbishop Oscar Romero—have always rightly noted the importance of simultaneous forms of transformation at both individual and structural levels.
Where are the civic and faith-based leaders calling for such transformation today? Where are today’s risk-takers who are willing to step out into the great storms of fear—those who are willing to call not for more policing, punishment , and retribution, but for justice that not only names and confronts, but works to transform and heal the terrible wounds of structural racism in this purportedly “colorblind” society?
Even as we mourn the loss of Trayvon Martin and so many other young people of color, let us reflect on the collective duty before us: valuing their lives by dismantling all the neutral-sounding ways in which racism manifests—anti-immigrant laws, gutting of the Voting Rights Act, voter suppression efforts, Stop and Frisk police practices, race-based mass incarceration and more. If we’re serious about racial justice, we have to embrace measures equal to the challenge.
The challenge is a daunting. Legal challenges to Stand Your Ground laws remain a starting place. Since CI originally published its’ critique, a growing body of research indicates that these laws have contributed to the racially fueled climate of guns and violence, with white shooters being wide latitude to kill Blacks. For example, a recent study of homicide conviction rates in the 22 states with such laws, found that 17% of the homicides of black victims by white defendants were ruled justifiable, while only 1% of the homicides of white victims by black defendants were deemed legally justifiable.
Resistance has mounted as well. But repealing these laws will largely be a state by state struggle. And so, as a reminder of the scope and legal pitfalls of expanding “gun rights” legislation, CI revisits an updated Standing Up to “Stand Your Ground” below..
Standing Up to “Stand Your Ground”
A mere 9 months after Trayvon Martin, and here we were, mourning Jordan Davis, another 17 year old Florida teen shot down. This time “loud music” not “hoodies” was the proximate trigger, but the real reason, of course, irrational archetypical threat of The Criminal-Black-Man.
As Melissa Harris-Perry puts it, “No Country for Black Boys”.
Her Open Letter of that week addressed the details and the larger concerns. It still rings so true.
Michael Dunn, unlike George Zimmerman, was immediately arrested and charged with murder and attempted murder and is being held without bail. Like Zimmerman, however, he is claiming self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. While race and racism are central to the shooting of these young black men ( and women), it is the latitude towards gun users further legalized in Stand Your Ground that allows the defendants to claim “self-defense”.
Their genesis and impact deserve closer scrutiny here.
The Trouble with “Stand Your Ground” Legislation
For centuries, the so-called “Castle Doctrine” has held that a homeowner may use deadly force against intruders and legally claim self-defense. Until recently, The Castle Doctrine (as expressed in various state laws ) also required key elements in order for a successful claim of self-defense to be made. Generally, the person must be in their home, there be an unlawful intrusion ( as opposed to standing on your lawn),. the use of deadly force must be “reasonable”, and in many cases, their is duty to retreat i.e. deadly force must be a last, rather than first, resort.
Stand Your Ground legislation removes many of the limits imposed on shooters by the Castle Doctrine — the self-defense claim extends to public places, there is no requirement of “retreat”, and the burden is now on the prosecution to determine “reasonableness.” The first such legislation was passed in Florida in 2005 ( it was shepherded through the legislature by Marco Rubio and signed into law by then Governor Jeb Bush for those of looking towards 2016). Pushed by the NRA and ALEC, these laws spread quickly; 24 additional states now have comparable legislation. ( See Mother Jones for an excellent interactive graphic on the spread of these laws.)
Although “theoretically” pushed as a means to increase public safety and deter crime, Stand Your Ground Laws have generally and specifically added to risk. Recent events and research highlight key concerns:
Stand Your Ground Laws May Lead to More Deaths
Stand Your Ground Laws were marketed as deterrents and protectors of public safety. Nothing could be further from the truth. This legislation has furthered a Wild West mentality that has actually increased homicides in states that have enacted them.
A recently published study from Texas A&M University found that the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased in states with Stand Your Ground Laws. This may be due to more people using lethal force in self-defense, or situations are more now likely to escalate to the use of violence in states with the laws. The study analyzed FBI crime data nationwide from 2000-2009 and found:
We find no evidence of deterrence ; burglary, robbery, and aggravated assault assault are unaffected by the laws are unaffected by the laws are unaffected by the laws. On the other hand, the rates of murder and non-negligent manslaughter increased by 8 percent in states with Stand Your Ground laws. That’s an additional 600 homicides per year in the states that have enacted such laws. The results indicate that a primary consequence of strengthening self-defense law is increased homicide.”
Teenagers May Be at Heightened Risk
While there is no research to date on age-related impacts, anecdotal evidence suggests that teens may be prime targets for Stand Your Ground stand-offs. In just the past 2 weeks, three teens – including Davis – have been killed in such circumstances. Since Stand Your Ground laws extend to public spaces, they increase the likelihood of confrontations with groups of young people, as in the Davis case. Kathleen Stilling, a former Wisconsin circuit judge articulates these worries:
These new laws are going to disproportionately result in more consequences to teenagers that are beyond the scope of what the kids were really doing, Teenagers doing things that are not capital offenses end up facing deadly consequences…
When you’re talking about the sidewalk immediately outside your house, it seems to me that’s going to be an area where there’s a higher potential for kids, perhaps naughty but innocent of any destructive intent, could end up. Just talking to teenagers reveals stories about underage drinking parties, or ‘Risky Business’ parties, and how everybody ran from the cops and scattered into surrounding yards, where they could end up in a position to frighten someone.
I do think that someone needs to tell the kids that the rules have changed.
Racial Disparity: Whites Killing Blacks Get A Pass
No surprise here. Research verifies what the Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis cases have suggested : the killings of black people by whites were more likely to be considered justified than the killings of white people by blacks. This was the case even before Stand Your Ground legislation and , alos as expected, these laws increase both number of justifiable homicides and the racialized gaps.
At the request of Frontline, John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center, analyzed the pool of 43,500 homicides by race in states with Stand Your Ground laws and those without them. Stand Your Ground laws tend to mirror the existing racial disparities in homicide convictions across the U.S. — with one significant exception: Whites who kill blacks in Stand Your Ground states are far more likely to be found justified in their killings. In non-Stand Your Ground states, whites are 250 percent more likely to be found justified in killing a black person than a white person who kills another white person; in Stand Your Ground states, that number jumps to 354 percent.
As a result, The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights announced plans to investigation “indicators of racial bias” in the application of Stand Your Ground legislation. ( Read full press release here).
Stand Up to Stand Your Ground
Stand Your Ground laws are, of course, just part of the problem. Their real impact is made manifest by the proliferation of guns in the U.S. — the average number of guns per owner is up from 4.1 per person in 1994 to 6.9 in 2004 – and a plethora of additional legislation that allows liberally for conceal and carry, sometimes without a permit and often, anywhere.
The chart below details the shifts in conceal and carry over the past 30 years. Wild, Wild West – Everywhere.
Oh the NRA will say, “Guns don’t Kill People – People Do”, and yes well that is simplistically true, but guns make it so much easier. And it is this toxic mix of heavily armed citizens, loaded up with ammo and racial stereotypes. that make Stand Your Ground Laws a recipe for on-going disaster.
Undoing these laws will be no easy task, but recent tragedies have raised questions again about both lax gun legislation in general and Stand Your Ground in specific. For now, if you live in a Stand Your Ground state –please Be Careful. Here are a few additional options for action:
- Support the Second Chance for Shoot First Campaign
- Support the Change for Trayvon Movement
- Support Dream Defenders