Civil Liberties

Michael Dunn Trial: Is America's Legal System Capable of Defending Black Life Against Irrational White Fears?

Jordan Davis death shows this country has a long way to go.

"Sis, c'mon, dis Brooklyn Winter Olympics!" I'm sitting in a car in backed up traffic, watching two young black boys and their sister turn treacherous sidewalks into an icerink and the slopes of Sochi - their own personal Winter Olympics. They laugh, slide, create shapes, do commentary, scrunch up their faces, dance, slip, right themselves and do it over again. I laugh thinking about how irritated we all are by the ice. I laugh thinking how irritated we all are by the ice, but how kids take adult things and through their lens see and make magic, create a wonderland. The older brother declares he won the gold medal, slides dramatically to his knees, puts his arms in the air and starts his thank you speech: "First I'ma thank God that I didn't break my lil black butt on this crazy ice...." His younger brother and sister crack up laughing and start applauding. They then begin to argue about who gets the silver and bronze medals. As I watch, I start to imagine Jordan Davis as a kid--Trayvon Martin, too. I wonder about the games they played, their dreams, what medals they might have won or claimed in childhood games. I see the faces of Jordan's mama, Trayvon's mama and the worlds they must confront in which their 18 and 19 year old sons are now corpses and names on the tongues of a nation--high profile examples of Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws.??

The traffic starts to clear; the lights finally change. I sit in a car on my way to Rockefeller Center to join MSNBC Legal Analyst Lisa Bloom, former prosecutor Cheryl Anderson and MSNBC host TJ Holmes to talk about the Dunn verdict. Michael Dunn - a white man convicted of attempted murder. The judge declares a mistrial on the first degree murder charge. Protests begin, social media erupts and the prosecution announces a re-trial. On Sunday, Joy-Ann Reid, hosting MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry Show, asked panelist and writer Mychal Denzel Smith: "What would you say to folk who say, ‘Listen, this guy is gonna spend a lot of time in jail, that should satisfy people in this case?’" Smith responded: "I'm tired of coming up with words to talk about young black children being dead."

There are powerful politics of emotionality at play here. Florida courtrooms are currently the Ground Zero landscape in which society's refusal to grapple with irrational forms of white fear has far-reaching consequences for notions of justice and black bodies. Scholar and Salon.com contributor Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote on her FB page: "This is not just about Dunn getting jail time. This is about whether our legal system is capable of defending Black life against irrational forms of white fear." Angela Ards, Assistant Professor of English at Southern Methodist University, also noted on her FB page: "The chilling social logic of this illogical legal verdict is that Dunn has been found guilty of missing the other black boys in the car, of failing to kill them all."

My car arrives at Rockefeller Center. I sit in the green room and continue to read and prep for the 3pm discussion about the verdict. I get mic'd up. I join the panel where I hear an emerging and troubling narrative: the "what do we tell our black boys about how to behave?" narrative. This framing is deeply problematic. It is the equivalent of asking "what do we tell girls and young women about what to wear and how to act so they don't get sexually assaulted?" It feeds a discourse that further scrutinizes and criminalizes black male bodies and implies if black boys would just behave differently they would be less likely to meet the bullets from "stand your ground" gun-toting white men equipped with irrational fear and backed by a law that legitimizes their feelings. So what exactly is the acceptable decibel level of that would prevent a black body being pumped with bullets? Don't answer that.

Florida's "Stand Your Ground" laws sanction America's legacy of untreated trauma, which stems from a history in which irrational white fear and black male threat were intimately intertwined, a deadly historical relationship in which black men routinely paid with their lives. That historical reality provoked deadly aggression for which white men suffered no consequences and black male bodies suffered deadly consequences. On Melissa Harris PerryShow, Rinku Sen of Colorlines.com 's called the fight to repeal "Stand Your Ground" this generation's "anti-lynching movement."

On the stand, Dunn framed his irrationality as something heroic: a grown man demanding respect, refusing to be disrespected and using deadly force. In recognizing this moment as the manifestation of untreated trauma, what Dunn demanded - and expected - was submission. Black males were supposed to submit to his demands, his white male authority. When mainstream media holds on to the "what do we tell our black boys about how to behave" narrative, it sanctions Dunn's focus on black boys' behaviors as opposed to his own totally irrational and criminal aggression.

These are our politics of emotionality: the failure to deal with "post traumatic master syndrome" - white men's expectations that black male bodies must submit to their authority, without question or challenge and that their feelings and opinions must be central to how black male bodies navigate the world. It is that cancer that moves unchecked via prosecution and defenses in Florida courtrooms turning them into hostile spaces for black male victims of white fear, rage and hatred. Evidence of racial prejudice - though clear via Dunn's prison letters - failed to make it to the jury.

"What do we tell our black boys about how to behave?" is a deadly narrative that polices black boys' bodies even more than they are already policed. Black boys and all women face this one reality: they are held responsible for the violence inflicted on them, and they are told their very being was guilty. Black children are dying, and trials and verdicts reveal the hypocrisy of the State. And, another black mother and black father take the mic, face a nation, their teenage son now a memory, a court case, a corpse, a reminder of a nation unwilling to grapple with laws that enshrine America's brutal relationship with race.

The MSNBC panel has been over for an hour. I sit in the green room staring at a photo of Jordan Davis. 18. Jordan Davis would have been 19 on Sunday - the day after the jury delivered their verdict. Cake, laughter, party threads, friends, loud music - the routine of celebrating 19 and being a teenager was cut short, cut down by one man, by an America addicted to its narrative on race and white rage. Instead of a party, a celebration, parents shouting at their kids to turn down their music - there is a mic, a platform, a parent, a prayer, a black boy corpse, a trial, a verdict, a wake. I think again about the two black boys turning a Brooklyn ice covered sidewalk into the Olympics, the wonder of black boy dreams and the reality of a nation in which those dreams are drowned, but the murderers of those dreams walk free, their bodies wrapped in law, a deadly weapon and their irrational white fear.

 

Esther Armah has written and reported across Europe, Africa and America. She now lives and works in New York. She is a political commentator on MSNBC Live's The Brain Trust Panel, a playwright and the creator of "Emotional Justice Unplugged," a multi-platform, multimedia, public arts and conversation series. Follow her on Twitter @estherarmah.