Dayvon Love and Brendan Fischer say that ‘Stand Your Ground’ laws help rationalize violence against people of color by legitimizing fear of black men
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
A recent verdict on a murder case involving an unarmed 17-year-old black teenager in Florida has sparked a nationwide debate on racism in this criminal justice system and the controversial stand-your-ground laws.
Last Saturday, 47-year-old Michael Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted second-degree murder. However, the jury did not come to a conclusion on a first-degree murder charge. Dunn was sentenced to 60 years in prison, and he used the stand-your-ground laws as part of his defense.
In most self-defense cases, you must make an attempt to get away if you can. However, in Florida there’s no such requirement, allowing the shooter to stand his or her ground when firing in self-defense. These laws are on the books in more than 20 U.S. states.
Now joining us to discuss the significance of this case are our two guests.
Dayvon Love is the director of research and public policy of Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle, a for-profit, youth-led think tank and political action committee based in Baltimore, Maryland.
Also joining us, remotely, is Brendan Fischer. He’s the general counsel with the Center for Media and Democracy.
Thank you both for joining us.
DAYVON LOVE, PRESIDENT, LEADERS OF A BEAUTIFUL STRUGGLE: Thank you.
BRENDAN FISCHER, GENERAL COUNSEL, CENTER FOR MEDIA AND DEMOCRACY: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: So, Dayvon, let’s start off with you. What was your reaction to the verdict?
LOVE: Yeah. I mean, one of the things that often bothers me is that, you know, we live in a society that is structured on the principle of racism and white supremacy in many of the different arenas of life, so criminal justice, politics, economics. And so one of the things that disappoints me sometimes is that I feel like we should at this point have the expectation that we live in a society where the criminal justice system refuses to see the humanity of black and brown folks. And that’s just the way things are.
So for me the verdict wasn’t as traumatic as I think a lot of people expressed on social media in terms of being disappointed in the criminal justice system. It’s just my expectation. I think a big part of that is understanding the extent to which, in the collective American imagination, the notion that, you know, black men in particular, black youth, but black people generally, have been stigmatized and represented in mass media in such a way where folks internalize heightened levels of fear and anxiety at our presence, in our presence in public spaces.
And so I feel like what we should think about when we think about this trial is not, you know, how messed up the criminal justice system is, but more about why is it that it’s taking people so long to understand that this is really part of the courts.
DESVARIEUX: This is part of the courts. Okay.
I want to actually take a step back and I want to speak to the case. Some of our viewers may not be familiar with this case. So, essentially, Jordan Davis, 17-year-old in an SUV, playing music, according to Dunn, that was very loud, and he claims that he had a shotgun; and then, essentially, he responded by drawing a firearm from his glove compartment, and he shot ten bullets into their car.
Dunn actually wrote to his grandmother when he was in prison, and this is what the letter said. He said:
“The jail is full of blacks, and they all act like thugs. […] This may sound a bit radical, but if more people would arm themselves and kill these fucking idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.” [Michael Dunn, writing to an unknown recipient (name redacted)]
I just want to get your reaction to that.
LOVE: M’hm. I mean, I think it just–it confirms the idea that, you know, black folks are represented in mainstream society as thugs, as people that are a threat, that are an imminent threat to public spaces. And I think what you’ll find is is that even in, you know, what you just read, you know, what you find is is that you have an American society where there’s a lack of understanding and acknowledgment of the way in which racism and white privilege operate in our society, where many of the people that he’s probably in a cell with are folks that didn’t have adequate access to proper employment, didn’t have proper access to adequate educational opportunities, so come from communities from which he has no context to really understand what made folks who they are. And so a lot of when you talk about the loud music that people attribute, you know, to thug culture and criminal culture, you know, we’re talking about folks that have a set of collective experiences that for many people in the American mainstream are very foreign to them.
And so a part of what this necessitates is, I think, a more substantive engagement with the lives of people that typically, when they’re presented in the mainstream, [are] presented as mere threats and not as people that can substantively contribute to society and civil society at large.
DESVARIEUX: Brendan, I want to turn to you now, and I want to speak to your piece that you wrote titled “Verdict in Jordan Davis Case Highlights Continuing Injustice of ‘Stand Your Ground’”. What was the role of stand-your-ground laws in Dunn’s defense and the jury’s deliberations? And why do you think it essentially led to an unjust outcome?
FISCHER: Sure. Well, I think the stand-your-ground law played a similar role in the Jordan Davis case as it played in the Trayvon Martin case. It was part of the jury instructions. It was part of what the judge in the case instructed the jury to consider when deciding whether the defendant in this case was going to be guilty of murder, of first-degree murder. And in both cases, in the trial, George Zimmerman’s trial, you saw him get off as not guilty, because of the stand-your-ground law–at least in part because of the stand-your-ground law; and you saw a similar outcome in this case, where the jury could not reach agreement, it was a mistrial. So there was no conviction of Michael Dunn on the killing of Jordan Davis, despite the fact that there was no–it was not in dispute that Michael Dunn shot Jordan Davis and killed him.
And to go off of what Dayvon was saying earlier, there are, obviously, huge inequities in the criminal justice system. And I would say that these stand-your-ground laws make it worse. When you look at the way that the stand-your-ground laws are applied and have been applied in Florida and around the country, you’re much more likely to get off under a stand-your-ground law, to walk free under the stand-your-ground law, if you are a white person killing a black person, and you’re much more likely to go free then than if the races were reversed.
And the premise of the stand-your-ground law is that if you believe that a person poses a threat to you, you’re permitted to use deadly force. It doesn’t–and the question is if that belief is reasonable. And it may be objectively unreasonable to think that an unarmed black teenager poses a threat to you, but when you take into account all of the subjective biases and prejudices that are present in many people and in society at large, that belief can become reasonable, at least in the eyes of many jurors. And I think that’s part of the reason that these laws have been so unjustly applied. And the verdict from last weekend is another example of that.
DESVARIEUX: Dayvon, I see you nodding your head.
LOVE: Yeah. I mean, I think, you know, everything that he’s saying is correct in terms of the way that, you know, people’s own racial biases affect how laws are applied.
I mean, I think it’s really important, when you think about the notion of someone being a threat to someone’s life, that it’s important to understand what does that mean. You know, what does it mean when someone perceives, you know, a 17-year-old in a car as a threat to their safety? And for me, I think what that describes–or what that indicates, rather, is that, you know, for black youth, you know, it seems that the burden of proof, that anything that we’re doing is a threat to someone’s life, the burden of proof is much lower, you know, which means that the law is going to be used in a way that disproportionately affects the livelihood, you know, of black folks, and so understanding it in that context.
One of the things I’ll say, too, is that I think it’s also important that when we think about the specific laws in many of these different states are used to justify the–some of the people like Mr. Dunn not being convicted, I think what we have to realize is that at the core of it is a conversation about many of these subconscious biases that many people are uncomfortable with having, even those who espouse to be about having a, you know, society that, you know, is just to everyone. I think we’ve got to actually have the conversation of what do people really think about black folks in our society, like, what does that really mean, and to have that conversation. I think a lot of people are just afraid to really have that conversation.
DESVARIEUX: Yeah. And these biases–Brendan, I want to bring you back into the conversation, because at the end of the day, the people who are funding the passage or supporting this legislation are folks like the–in the NRA, ALEC, groups like that. Can you just explain how they helped create or support the stand-your-ground laws?
FISCHER: Sure. This was a law that was written, partially drafted by the National Rifle Association, the NRA, back in 2004. Florida was the first state to pass it. The NRA shepherded the legislation through the state legislature. It passed. It was signed into law by Jeb Bush.
A few weeks later, it was brought to the American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, and the criminal justice task force of ALEC approved the bill unanimously. At the time, the task force was led by Walmart, which was also the nation’s largest seller of long guns.
After becoming an ALEC model bill, you saw the legislation spread across the country to around two-dozen other states. ALEC called the bill a success. It heralded the bill as a success story, as proof of how effective ALEC is in getting legislation passed and enacted into law around the country.
Last year, after the Trayvon Martin tragedy and after the outrage over stand-your-ground laws and ALEC’s role in spreading the stand-your-ground laws, ALEC disbanded the task force responsible for stand your ground, as well as a lot of other really controversial pieces of legislation that, like stand your ground, have a disproportionate impact on people of color, like voter ID, for example, or the privatization of prisons and tough sentencing laws.
But ALEC, despite disbanding this task force, has done nothing to promote the repeal of stand your ground, and stand-your-ground laws remain on the books in over 20 states. And the repeal has fallen to groups like the Dream Defenders or ColorOfChange who are on the ground trying to clean up ALEC’s mess.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. I want to talk a little bit more about your point, Dayvon, about how we’re not willing to have an open conversation about race in this country, and specifically you talking about how we perceive a 17-year-old, I mean, teenager in a car as being a threat because he’s black, I mean, essentially a black teenager. Like, what would you want to say to those that might at this point perceive this teenager as a threat? Or how do you think we push this conversation forward in America?
LOVE: Well, here’s the thing. Most people, and particularly white folks, in the conversations about race, their biggest fear is to be called a racist. And so a part of the problem is for us to be able to have a conversation where that doesn’t dominate the ethos of the conversation, where it becomes about people being actually willing to critically interrogate themselves in ways that they wouldn’t be willing to, you know, previously.
So what that means, for instance, is that when people think about racism, most people think about racism as being primarily about personal hatred. You know, so I’m a white person; I hate you because you’re black or I hate you ’cause you’re a person of color. But that’s not the way that racism is manifested. You know, racism has to do with social, economic, and political power to dominate folks on the basis of race. Right?
So when you look at the situation with Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin and many others, what you’ll find is is that we live in a society where the criminal justice system is structured in such a way, where the livelihood of black folks is in the hands of white folks who have these biases that they’re able to institute in ways that negatively impact our quality of life.
So when you understand it in that context, the biases then become less about finding individual villains who are white people or individual villains who are people who are law enforcement and more about understanding the culture that would justify a society where an entire apparatus of the state is used in a way that is complicit with denigrating quality of life for black folks. So that’s one element of it.
And then I think the other element, too, is understanding the importance of understanding that in a society that is structured on racism and white supremacy, that colorblindness isn’t the way that you fix the problem. So what some folks will say is, you know, well, I don’t see color, you know, so I don’t have that issue of–you know. But the problem is is that if you live in a society that is race-conscious in many of the things that exist in our society, then what you’ll find is that you need a race-conscious solution. You know.
And I think that’s a part of the problem that people have trouble with is that they think that the whole point of anti-racism is not seeing color, as opposed to–’cause I want people to see that I’m black. You know, it’s not that I don’t want someone to see that I’m black. I just don’t want them to think that I’m going to kill them or steal their purse, you know, ’cause I’m proud of the fact that I’m black. You know. And so it’s not at all a question of colorblindness.
In fact, that is what helps to perpetuate the injustice, because I think many people that disagree with the extent to which race is a part of the case, the base of their disagreement is based on this notion of colorblindness, when as far as, you know, a lot of folks are concerned, if you can’t prove that a person has an active hatred against a certain group of people, then we shouldn’t call that racism. And that’s just the notion of racism that doesn’t hold true with the way racism has historically been carried out in the United States against people of color.
DESVARIEUX: Alright. We can have this conversation for hours, this is such an interesting topic.
Dayvon, thank you so much for joining us in-studio.
LOVE: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And, Brendan Fischer, thank you so much for joining us as well.
FISCHER: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: Of course, you can follow us on Twitter @therealnews. Feel free to Tweet me questions, send me pictures, whatever you like, @Jessica_Reports.
Thank you so much for joining us.
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