(Special to The Root) — My heart aches for the parents of Jordan Russell Davis, the 17-year-old African-American high-school student brutally killed in Jacksonville, Fla. They'll never get to see their son graduate from high school, pursue his dreams or grow into a man. Now, they must also contend with the shameful argument that his death was somehow justified.
While the facts have yet to be played out in court, media accounts present a stark and troubling picture. As Davis hung out with friends earlier this month, sitting in the backseat of an SUV parked outside a convenience store, 45-year-old Michael David Dunn pulled up to the vehicle and asked them to turn down their music. After an argument ensued, Dunn pulled a weapon and fired at least eight times, striking Davis twice. The teen died when he got to a hospital. Investigators say there is no indication that he or the other students inside the SUV had any weapons.
Dunn claims he acted in self-defense, and that he felt "threatened" before opening fire on the vehicle. His attorney argues that Dunn "acted responsibly." He is now calling on a legal hook for his view that his actions were warranted: Florida's deeply misguided "Stand your ground" law.
The law — which allows people to use deadly force, without any obligation to retreat first, when they believe they are being threatened — passed in Florida in 2005. Similar legislation has since passed in 20 other states, including South Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi. It's the same legal defense invoked just nine months ago by George Zimmerman of Sanford, Fla., for shooting and killing Trayvon Martin — also unarmed, 17 years old and black.
Supporters of the law say that it empowers and protects victims by allowing them to defend themselves in dangerous situations. But the unintended consequence of "Stand your ground" is to create an open season on anyone who is perceived as a "threat." It gives legal immunity to people who approach heated arguments with a ready weapon. And it's no coincidence that in both of these recent high-profile cases, the individuals who were seen as threatening, dangerous or suspicious — individuals who were seen through a lens of racial stereotypes and biases that we all carry to varying degrees — were black boys.
A racial impact also comes into play in how the law is enforced. According to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which launched an investigation into "Stand your ground" laws earlier this year, reports of justifiable homicides have nearly doubled from 2005 to 2011 in states where the legislation passed. While white killers of black victims comprise only 3.1 percent of all homicides, these cross-racial killings constitute 15.6 percent of justifiable homicides.
With another unarmed black teen fatally shot after being considered threatening by assailants who ran for protection under "Stand your ground," this criminal protection law has once again proved itself to be a menace that sanctions, and even encourages, such behavior. We should not have to wait for yet another child to be confronted, profiled and gunned down in Florida before the state sees the fallacy of this terrible law.
Contrary to Dunn's belief, driving up to a group of teen boys sitting in a vehicle listening to music and firing eight shots at them is not "standing your ground." If Dunn felt threatened, he could have driven away. If the argument got too heated after he complained about loud music, he could have called the police. Instead, he chose to shoot first. Florida's bad public policy should not be used to justify this killing.
Davis' grieving parents say they plan to reach out to lawmakers in an effort to get Florida's "Stand your ground" law changed. I stand with them in calling for not only a change, but an immediate repeal. The state must act now.
Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of Advancement Project, a next generation, multiracial civil rights organization. From its inception, Advancement Project has worked "on-the-ground," helping organized communities of color dismantle and reform unjust and inequitable policies that undermine the promise of democracy. It combines law, communications, policy and technology to create workable solutions and achieve systemic change.
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