Monday, February 17, 2014

Jordan Davis and Florida’s war on young black males

WE’VE BEEN here before, again. A white man with a gun. An unarmed black male teenager. The wrong words. A drawn weapon. Shots fired. A child dead on the ground. Outrage and tears. A trial. A verdict. More outrage at a system that works preferentially, when it works at all.

On Saturday, after 31 hours of deliberations, a Florida jury reached a verdict on four of the five charges in the trial of Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old Floridian accused of shooting Jordan Russell Davis to death in a Jacksonville convenience store parking lot on Nov. 23th, 2012, for the crime of playing hiphop music too loud.

Davis and friends had arrived to buy gum and cigarettes; Dunn pulled up so his fiancée could buy wine and chips. Dunn had issues with the volume of the music coming from the teens' Dodge Durango SUV. He asked them to turn it down. Dunn claimed Davis threatened him, and said he saw what he thought was the barrel of a gun coming from the Durango.

And then Dunn, subconsciously secure in the conviction that might makes right, took matters into his own hands, firing 10 shots from a 9mm into a car full of kids.

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On four of the charges, the jury ruled that Dunn, who said he was in fear for his life, was guilty of attempted second-degree murder because he fired at the Durango, filled with Davis and other teenage occupants. But the jury couldn’t reach a decision on one of the charges to determine if Dunn’s killing shot — the one that ended Davis’ life at the age of 18 — constituted first degree murder, second degree murder or manslaughter. Thus deadlocked, the judge declared a mistrial on the one count that mattered.

The jury could have waited until Monday to announce its verdict, but they came back on Saturday, at the low end of the news cycle, when maybe no one was paying as much attention. Or maybe they hoped to avoid the unhappy prospect of announcing a verdict any closer to Sunday, what would have been Davis’ 19th birthday.

Whatever the reason, whatever the timing, the Davis verdict has reopened the wound that never heals in this nation, the wound of violence against young black Americans on the strength of a suspicion, and nothing more. And it reawakens the interminable debate over Florida’s Stand Your Ground law, and that law’s ancillary permissions of other avenues to deadly force, and the ways the Sunshine State has declared war on the young black American male.

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ASSISTANT STATE Attorney Erin Wolfson told USA Today that each of the three attempted-murder counts carries a 20-year minimum mandatory sentence. Jackelyn Barnard, spokeswoman for the State Attorney's Office, told USA Today that the sentences must run consecutively. Another sentence of 15 years is also possible, for the act of shooting at the SUV.

“You are looking basically at life in prison,” Dunn defense attorney Cory Strolla told CNN, when asked to speculate on his client’s time behind bars. “At 47 years old, that's a life sentence regardless of count one.”

Dunn and his defense team went to great pains not to invoke (or even mention) Florida’s infamous “stand your ground” law, the work of a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association that was signed into law by then Gov. Jeb Bush, the same Jeb Bush pulling his chin over making a run for the White House. (You shudder to think of Bush making this legacy of his time as governor something he’d work to bestow on the whole country as president.)

But the parallels to “stand your ground” were there just the same. Davis’ killing, after all, bears the eerie echoes of the slaying of Trayvon Martin, the teenager shot to death in February 2012 by the cypher George Zimmerman, in Sanford, due south of Jacksonville. And Strolla did make a point of claiming that Dunn fired in self-defense, the crux and pivot point of the “stand your ground” statute.

The question is, self-defense from what?

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Was this a cultural thing, was Dunn defending himself from rap music and its culture? Because that was on trial too. Dunn’s actions were apparently precipitated by his distaste for what he called “rap crap.” It wouldn’t be the first time that rap and hiphop culture have been indicted by implication, in the mainstream media if not in a court of law. To go by the media’s shorthand characterization of this case as either the “loud music” or “thug music” trial, if Davis and friends had been listening to “Nessun dorma” or “Okie From Muskogee,” everything would have been all right.

Strolla, Dunn’s attorney, tried to take the high low ground. “[T]his was not a “black-and-white issue,” he told USA Today, but “a subculture thug issue. And again, it doesn't go to race. It goes to how people behave and respond to situations.”

But maybe this was a racial thing. Dunn’s jailhouse letters, circulated in the media but not entered into evidence for the prosecution at trial, paint a nasty, suggestive picture of Dunn’s state of mind.

While in jail, he wrote this to an unidentified recipient:

I just got off the phone with you and we were talking about how racist the blacks are up here. The more time I am exposed to these people the more prejudiced against them I become. I suppose the white folks who live here are pretty much anti-black, at least the ones who have been exposed to them.

In another letter dated July 12 he wrote:

The jail is full of blacks and they ALL act like thugs. I think the legal system is scared of a backlash any time there is a white-on-black incident, but don’t get excited when it’s black on black or even black on white. This may sound a bit radical but if more people would arm themselves and kill these ***** idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.

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BUT THE most poisonous aspect of the outcome is the tally of the charges for which Dunn’s been convicted. Guilty on three counts of attempted murder; guilty on the charge of firing into an occupied vehicle.

But on the principal count — the charge of taking someone’s life — the jury bailed, laying the groundwork for a mistrial despite having the options of convicting on lesser charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter.

There was no conviction for the most serious matter in this case. The verdict on Saturday confirmed the idea that, for all intents and purposes, Jordan Davis did not exist. This, as surely as the Trayvon Martin verdict, is what amounts to a declaration of war.

The unfortunate instructional narrative for black families with children has become pre-emptively proscriptive, and utterly corrosive: The quasi-executions murders of Davis and Martin mean that black children, especially black males, are the ones whose behavior is presumptively suspicious, if not presumptively criminal. Act like this, don't act like that. You must watch how you behave at all times. You are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates, writing post-verdict on Saturday in The Atlantic, summoned rage and a blistering candor he could barely contain: “I insist that the irrelevance of black life has been drilled into this country since its infancy ... I insist that racism must be properly understood as an Intelligence, as a sentience, as a default setting [to] which, likely to the end of our days, we shall unerringly return.”

In a statement it broke our hearts to watch, Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, struggled on Saturday to speak, to say what we all know had to be said: “We will continue to stand and we will continue to wait for justice for Jordan.”

Dunn’s sentencing is set for March 24. We’ll have a better handle then on whether justice for Jordan Davis is possible, or if Florida continues its sorry, tragic slide further and further back into the judicial swamps. Til’ then, we stand and wait and try to hold back the tears. We, all of us, got robbed again. Another young man is gone. And if we start crying now, we might never, ever stop.

Image credits: Jordan Davis: RIP Jordan Davis Facebook page. Dunn: Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office booking photo. Jordan Davis: via

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