“Can a Negro, whose ancestors were imported into this country, and sold as slaves, become a member of the political community formed into existence by the constitution of the United States? … They are not included, and were not intended to be included, under the word “citizens” in the constitution, and can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which that instrument provides for. … “ Chief Justice Roger Taney – Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857)
The verdict is in. Michael Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted second-degree murder, but the jury failed to reach a verdict on the most significant charge of first-degree murder in the shooting death of Jordan Davis.
Instead of celebrating what would have been his 19th birthday, Davis’ parents continue to mourn the legally unrecognized murder of their son. I can only imagine that this verdict is analogous to killing him again. Davis has become another victim of a murderous historical American continuum.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin murder, the killings of Oscar Grant on New Year’s Day 2009, Sean Bell on November 26, 2006, police Sgt. Cornel Young Jr. on January 28, 2000, police Officer Willie Wilkins on January 11, 2001, Amadou Diallo on February 4, 1999, and so many others we find ourselves coming to the same conclusion: By focusing on their color, people failed to see their humanity.
The subtext to all of these untimely deaths remains race. The subtext to the inability of juries to convict the George Zimmermans and Michael Dunns of the world of murder is tied to race as well. Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are the most recent victims of a murderous historical American continuum. Tolnay and Beck in their book A Festival of Violence, “identified 2,805 victims of lynch mobs killed between 1882 and 1930 in ten Southern states. Although mobs murdered almost 300 white men and women, the vast majority – almost 2,500 – of lynch victims were African-American. The scale of this carnage means that, on average, a black man, woman or child was murdered nearly once a week, every week, between 1882 and 1930 by a hate-driven white mob.” Today, lynch mobs have been replaced by Zimmermans and Dunns and sanctioned by “Stand Your Ground” and “juries of their peers.”
As Africans in America and later African-Americans, we have been engaged in a struggle for a very long time. Too many of us have forgotten what’s at the crux of the issue. Many believe it’s economic; others believe it’s civil rights. Both of those are important and play a significant role in improving our circumstances, but what we’ve been fighting to have recognized since those first 20 and some odd “African indentured servants” disembarked from the Dutch Man O’ War off the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619 (395 years ago) is our humanity.
According to the Virginia Statutes on Slavery, Act 1, October 1669; what should be done about the casual killing of slaves? “If any slave resist his master and by the extremity of the correction should chance to die, that his death shall not considered a felony, and the master should be acquitted from the molestation, since it cannot be presumed that prepense malice should induce any man to destroy his own estate.” We were property, not human – part of the estate.
For decades, the law recognized the value of life over property. In many jurisdictions, before a person could use deadly force, they had a duty to retreat. They had to prove that the use of deadly force was justified. This is often taken to mean that if the defendant had first avoided conflict and secondly, had taken reasonable steps to retreat and so demonstrated an intention not to fight before eventually using force, then the taking of a life could be considered justified.
Today, Stand Your Ground has turned this long-held principle on its head. Today, it provides individuals (seemingly, mostly European-Americans) the right to use deadly force (seemingly against African-Americans) to “defend” themselves without any requirement to evade or retreat from a circumstance of their own creation.
One cannot stress enough, in the Trayvon Martin murder and the murder of Jordan Davis, that the victims were in public space, were engaged in legal activity and were not a threat to anyone. Zimmerman and Dunn initiated the confrontations, created themselves what they would later reconstruct as harm’s way then took matters into their own hands, choosing to use deadly force against unarmed, non-threatening, innocent victims. Neither Martin nor Davis was given the opportunity to stand his ground.
What ties the death of all of the individuals listed above together is the culturally accepted stereotype of the threatening black male. Defense counsels in the murder of Martin, Davis, Diallo and so many others rationalized these irrational shootings by tapping into the oftentimes unspoken – but clearly recognized and understood – fear of the black male.
Even nothing resembling a weapon was found in the vehicle Davis was riding in, at least one member of the Dunn jury understood his claim that he was in fear of his life. Even though Martin was unarmed, members of the Zimmerman jury understood on a gut level his claim that he was in fear of his life. Diallo was armed with only his wallet when the NYPD unleashed a barrage of 41 bullets, striking him 19 times.
Since those first 20 and some odd “African indentured servants” disembarked from the Dutch Man O’ War off the shores of Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, Africans in America and now African-Americans have been victimized by a murderous American historical continuum.