As difficult as it may be for those outside Florida to comprehend -- much less accept -- there is a slim but real possibility that a white software engineer may escape punishment for killing an unarmed black teenager. A predominantly white jury, now considering the first-degree murder charge in Jacksonville, could free Michael Dunn, 43, for killing Jordan Davis, 17, in November of 2012 outside a gas station.
Dunn's attorneys claim he was defending himself -- in effect "standing his ground," while fearing for his life -- when he fatally shot Davis. Ostensibly, the cause of the altercation was that Dunn felt Davis and his friends were playing music too loud on their car radio. In the past, Dunn has said that Davis was reaching for a shotgun, or seemed to be reaching for a weapon, possibly a lead pipe or a small knife. This, his attorneys have argued, provoked Dunn to take a hand gun from his glove compartment, fire 10 times into the car the teen was sitting in, and drive away. No weapon was found in the SUV or at the scene.
While not invoked in this case, Dunn's defense is informed by the larger message of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law. As a result, history repeats itself, in short order, thanks in part to the nebulous notion of what constitutes self-defense in the Sunshine State. As a Florida native and resident -- and as someone who covered the Trayvon Martin murder and trial -- it's clear to me what our Republican state legislators intended when they drafted this now infamous statute.
The reality is that the law's existence, and this intentionally vague concept of self defense, suggests to white people that they have the right to shoot people of color with near-impunity, even in non life-threatening situations, by giving white juries wide leeway. In such cases, these laws can have the effect of being little more than thinly-disguised instruments of social and racial control.
Despite the uproar following the Trayvon Martin killing, GOP lawmakers in Tallahassee have no intention of changing "Stand Your Ground" in any way. Why should they? It's working just as could have been expected. According to the law, the critical factor is the state of mind of the person perceived to be under threat, rather than intent or action, an absurd notion on its face.
Notwithstanding, what is Michael Dunn's state of mind?
In one letter from his cell, released by the Florida State Attorney's Office, Dunn suggested his state of mind, when he wrote: "This jail is full of blacks and they all act like thugs. ... if more people would arm themselves and kill these [expletive] idiots when they're threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior."
A witness at the scene of the Jacksonville shooting reported that, before firing, Dunn shouted at Davis, "You are not going to talk to me like that." In another letter, Dunn acknowledged that his only chance at trial would be that jurors chosen would be " predominately white and Republican and supporters of gun rights."
At the same time, "Stand Your Ground" does not seem to have become a license to kill white people, especially decent, middle-class white people. In January, Curtis J. Reeves, Jr., 71, a white former police captain, was almost immediately charged with second-degree murder in the death of Chad Oulson, a 43-year-old white husband and father, a Desert Storm veteran. It was obvious that no judge or jury would accept Reeves' claim of standing his ground, defending himself in a darkened movie theater, outside Tampa. Oulson's thrown popcorn, after Reeves complained that the younger man was texting (his daughter's baby-sitter) during the previews, is unlikely to trump Trayvon Martin's ice tea and Skittles as a deadly threat.
As many have pointed out, it would not be difficult to imagine the response of law enforcement, the public or jurors, if it had been Trayvon Martin who fired the gun in that gated community, and George Zimmerman the one returning with the snacks. Which is why Curtis Reeves is still in jail, denied bail last Friday after a court hearing. By contrast, George Zimmerman went home the night of the shooting, because Sanford police assumed he was legally defending himself under "Stand Your Ground." Although Zimmerman's attorneys did not invoke "Stand Your Ground," a nearly all-white jury later acquitted Zimmerman of second-degree murder, saying later that they believed he was legitimately defending himself.
More fundamentally, "Stand Your Ground" reflects another Sunbelt reality: how lives are valued. For example, who gets the death penalty for murder? Study after study (Amnesty International, the ACLU, even the U.S. General Accounting Office) has documented that, more than any factor, it is the race of the victim that most accurately predicts who is put to death in America. Since 1976, when capital punishment was reinstated, between 75 to 80 percent of those executed were for killing whites, echoing the 19th and early 20th century era of Southern "lynch law," legalizing and legislating the uneven prosecution of the Jim Crow era.
This isn't just about Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law -- and those like it passed in other Southern states under the guidance of the Koch brothers-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). Too often, it's about race, if only subtly and sotto voce. Listen carefully for the racial undertone of rhetoric in support for easing and expanding "concealed carry" firearm permits from supporters like Dunn throughout the region. It sends a clear political message to the party's white base, combining with the gun control issue as a powerful wedge issue -- always a winner.
Economic and political justice follow the same pattern as criminal justice. That's no coincidence. In Florida, as in many Sunbelt states, the GOP carries its parents' and grandparents' political DNA. That is, the zeitgeist of White Citizens Council, the coat-and-tie analog to the hooded, lower-middle- and working-class Ku Klux Klan. Racism infuses the comments of food stamp critics in Mississippi, themselves often recipients government welfare in the form of agriculture subsidies. For centuries their families relied on slaves, cheap convict labor, and peonage to tend their fields. Today they depend on low wage farm workers, including undocumented immigrants -- the same people Tea Party Republicans want to deny a path to citizenship.
These governors and legislatures have, by and large, refused to accept federal Medicaid support to provide health care to the working poor. They have enacted voter ID laws designed to reduce black and brown turnout at the polls, just as their political antecedents established "white primaries" throughout the South after Reconstruction. And in Florida, Governor Rick Scott has acted to prevent convicted felons who have served their terms from regaining the right to vote, which is routinely granted elsewhere in the country. The effect of this pernicious practice can only be to disenfranchise African Americans who disproportionately populate the prison system, as U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder noted Tuesday.
Such is the burden of Southern history. As William Faulkner wrote in 1950 in Requiem for a Nun, in this part of the country, "The past is never dead. It's not even past."