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Are Self-Defense Laws "Whites Only"?

"African Americans are caught," says Rev. William Barber. "On one hand, we fight against stand-your-ground laws, but once the laws are on the books they aren't applied to us."

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Trayvon Martin's killing at the hands of George Zimmerman, who walked free for six weeks before being arrested amid a public outcry, has both traumatized and galvanized Americans. The case reminds us that justice can be hard to come by in the U.S., and that race continues to play a disconcertingly large role in whether -- and how quickly -- wrongdoers are held responsible for their crimes.

In particular, the case has shined light on dubious "stand your ground" laws. Fed to state lawmakers -- first in Florida, and then in dozens of states around the country -- by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) on behalf of the NRA, stand-your-ground laws allow citizens to use deadly force if they feel threatened, even if they have the opportunity to retreat.

These pieces of legislation have been nicknamed "shoot first, ask questions later (or never)" laws, and since Florida's was passed seven years ago critics have warned that a spike in justified homicides could follow. Indeed, that is exactly what has happened.


[Chart via Mother Jones]

Stand-your-ground laws are currently on the books in 25 states around the country and have been considered in several others.

In the wake of Martin's death, Americans are becoming more aware of not only the problematic nature of stand your ground laws, but also how such laws are inconsistently enforced. Stories have started to surface of individuals, notably people of color, who have genuinely acted in self-defense, but not been protected under the law the same way George Zimmerman was. And even when stand-your-ground laws aren't at play, we've started to see more clearly than ever how some members of society are legally allowed to defend themselves from harm, while others are not.

1. Black transgender woman charged with murder for defending herself against hate speech.

One night last June, Chrishaun "CeCe" McDonald and a group of friends, all of them black and trans or queer, were on their way to a Minneapolis grocery store when they passed a dive bar called the Schooner Tavern. Several white bar patrons began hurling invectives at the group, reportedly calling them the n-word, "faggots," "chicks with dicks," and other homophobic, transphobic and racist slurs -- names McDonald had heard over and over again.

McDonald, a community college student who mentored black trans youth, reportedly told the harassers she wouldn't tolerate their slurs. The Advocate describes what happened next:

Soon one woman reportedly yelled, "I'll take you on, bitch" and hit McDonald in the side of the face with a glass beer mug, lacerating her salivary gland and slicing her cheek through to the interior of her mouth.

What happened next is murky still. What cops might call a bar fight ensued, with several more people joining in the melee. At the end, McDonald was lying in a pool of her own blood, Schmitz in a pool of his blood. The father of four had lost too much blood to survive.

The 47-year-old Schmitz had been stabbed with a pair of fabric scissors that McDonald had her in purse. Confused and frightened, McDonald first allegedly told police Schmitz had run into her scissors as she was fighting back from the all-out assault on her, an act of protection that came with the ultimate cost. Later she said it was a friend of hers who used the scissors to protect her.

It's unclear exactly how Schmitz died. What is clear is that Schmitz had a history of spewing hate speech -- according to several reports, Schmitz also had a swastika tattoo on his chest -- and he and his companions both verbally and physically attacked McDonald that night at the Schooner Tavern. The weapon was reportedly never found.