How many more Trayvons?

February 20, 2014

The trial of Michael Dunn for the murder of an unarmed Black teenager never got to the racial underpinnings of the crime, write Todd St Hill and Eric Ruder.

MICHAEL DUNN, the white man who killed Black teenager Jordan Davis in Florida after an argument about loud music, faces 60 years in prison for the shots he fired that night.

But incredibly, he won't be serving time for murdering Davis.

On February 15, a jury convicted Dunn of three counts of second-degree attempted murder because the 10 shots he fired into the SUV in which Dunn was sitting could have killed Davis' three friends. On the charge of the first-degree murder of Davis, however, the jury deadlocked.

Millions of people who mourned the death of Trayvon Martin and protested the acquittal of his murderer, George Zimmerman, had a simple question: What does it take for a white man to be convicted of killing a Black teenager?

Now, after Dunn's trial, they're still wondering.

THE FACTS of the case aren't in dispute. In November 2012, Davis and his friends were listening to music in an SUV parked in a convenience store lot in Jacksonville, Fla. Dunn drove up and parked next to the SUV. He asked the teenagers to turn down the music, and they refused. Dunn then took a 9 mm pistol from his glove compartment, and fired 10 rounds into the SUV. He left the scene and returned to his hotel room, where he ordered a pizza. Dunn never called the police.

Jordan Davis
Jordan Davis

During a police interview, Dunn claimed that Jordan threatened him, and that only after he saw Jordan brandish a shotgun did he fire his pistol. He also referred to the rap music the teens were listening to as "thug music." No firearm of any kind was recovered from the SUV.

Dunn told police that the teens verbally threatened to kill him, and that, in his words, "This was a clear and present danger." But witnesses reported hearing Dunn tell the teens, "You are not going to talk to me like that." As prosecutor John Guy said in his closing argument:

If Jordan Davis had a gun, the defendant would have never left the scene. If Jordan Davis had a gun, he would have called the police. If he was truly acting in self-defense, he wouldn't have lied to the police. He wouldn't have changed his story...That defendant didn't shoot into a carful of kids to save his life. He shot into it to save his pride.

Incredibly, Guy and the other prosecutors on this case--the same ones who failed to convict George Zimmerman--never raised the issue of race. But of course, racism has everything to do with this case. Imagine if a Black teenager were on trial for firing 10 shots into a car and killing a white middle-aged man because he didn't like the man's music? It's impossible to imagine anything but a guilty verdict for the shooter in this circumstance.

It seems all but certain that Dunn didn't fear for his life, but wanted to make a statement. The phrase he threatened the four boys with--"You are not going to talk to me like that"--was followed by a letter he wrote from jail that the jury never got to see, in which he states: "This 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 [bleeping] idiots when they're threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior."

Dunn--who has a history of violence and boasts about wanting to confront someone with his gun--also told his family that he thought the criminal justice system was biased in favor of African Americans.

THE VERDICT has sent a new wave of bitterness and grief crashing over Florida and the rest of the U.S. Yes, Dunn will be sentenced to a minimum of 60 years--20 years for each of the attempted murder charges--but that's a "hollow victory," in the words of Tonyaa Weathersbee, an award-winning African American columnist based in Jacksonville:

It's hollow because it means that, in 21st century America, the notion that a mouthy young Black male could be a threat carries more weight with some people than the fact that an impulsive middle-aged white man could be a liar...

Someone on that jury saw Davis with a shotgun that likely never existed, but didn't see the real bullets--10 in all--that Dunn pumped into the SUV and into Davis' body, bullets that left Davis bleeding and dying in his friend's lap.

It's hollow because it underscores what seems to be a scary trend. I guess now any random white man can confront a Black teenager whose style of dress or music he doesn't like or views as suspect. And when that teenager doesn't submit to him, or responds to him in a confrontational manner, or in a way that any rebellious teenager is apt to respond, then it's perfectly fine to exterminate him.

Jordan's father Ron Davis and his mother Lucia McBath issued a powerful statement after the verdict, pleading with U.S. society to value the lives of Black youth. They also spoke out against Florida's notorious Stand Your Ground law that shields racist vigilantes such as Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman. In the words of Ron Davis:

[Jordan] was a good kid. It wasn't allowed to be said in the courtroom, but we'll say it. He was a good kid...There are a lot of good kids out there...They should have a voice. They shouldn't have to live in fear...that if they get shot, it's just collateral damage...We do not accept a law that would allow collateral damage to our family members...We expect the law to be behind us and protect us. That's what I wanted the law to do--to protect Jordan as we protected Jordan.

The acquittal of George Zimmerman reawakened a movement for racial justice that erupted after Trayvon Martin's murder the year before.

The verdict enraged all those committed to social justice, it shamed the judicial system, and it further punctured the veneer of supposedly "post-racial" America to expose the racist society festering underneath. A demonstration called to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington became an urgent protest against unemployment and underemployment, education deform, the unjust justice system and racist violence.

But Florida's racist Stand Your Ground law still stands, and that is no doubt a primary reason why the first-degree murder charge against Dunn ended in a mistrial. Jordan's family plans to continue its effort to get Florida, along with other states with similar laws, to repeal Stand Your Ground.

Among the places that have seen an upsurge of protest since Trayvon Martin was killed is New York City, where a federal judge ruled last year that the police department's "stop-and-frisk" policy of racial profiling violates the constitutional rights of the victims. In Florida, following the Zimmerman verdict, the youth-led Dream Defenders occupied the governor's office in the state Capitol to protest Stand Your Ground.

As a result of such struggles, racial profiling and other racist policing practices have been called into question all over the country. But this is not enough. We cannot allow such racially biased laws to be "updated" or "improved"--they must be revoked all together. A social movement from below, linking together different struggles for justice and equality, provides the greatest possibility for radical change and racial equality in our society.

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