Don’t Be Alarmed, We’re Negroes

The title of this blog entry was inspired by the 1995 movie, Bad Boys, featuring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence. As Detectives Marcus Bennett (“Lawrence”) and Mike Lowrey (“Smith”) were entering a home, Bennett says, “we’re your new neighbors.” Lowrey followed-up by saying, “don’t be alarmed, we’re negroes.”

Though this quote elicited laughter from the audience (admittedly, I thought it was hysterical), disclaimers about the harm Blacks will not cause our counterparts may be necessary to protect the life of young Black teenagers. Before there is any confusion, declaring a “lack of harm” is facetious, but necessary to make my point – that race, racism, and implicit bias exists, and unfortunately, young Black men suffer deadly consequences.

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Remember this story: On February 26, 2012, a Black teenager walked to a local convenience store, in Florida, to buy his younger brother some candy.  In his hand, he carried a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona© iced tea. Unfortunately, this young man was identified as “suspicious” by a self-appointed neighborhood watch captain.  After calling the police, the neighborhood leader approached the young man, and after an altercation, shot the young man in the chest at close range, which killed him instantly.  The young man’s name is Trayvon Martin; and sadly, his tragic death highlighted the continued problems of race-relations.

(Pictured below: Trayvon Martin)

Initially, it was difficult to wrap my brain around the fact that a young man could walk down the street, be targeted because of his race, and end up dead.  My shock turned into anger, which turned into disgust, which turned into action.  About a week after the tragic incident, I noticed that it was not being discussed in the media or even among law students focused on social justice issues.  I, then, approached a few professors at American University Washington College of Law and proposed that we have an event at the law school in honor of Trayvon Martin and the problems of racism in our country.  At that time, I had no idea how successful this event would be, but it was arguably the most successful event of that year.

On April 9, 2012, the Black Law Students Association (“BLSA”) sponsored The Trayvon Martin Tragedy: A Teach-In and Legal Discussion Forum (selfish plug: I speak shortly at 03:43:56 – 03:45:20). As one of three student organizers, this event helped served several communities because not only did we discuss the legal issues with “Stand Your Ground” laws, we discussed the role of race in the criminal justice system – from arrest to sentencing.  The program featured a legal analysis of the issues and remarks by civil rights experts, followed by a town-hall discussion of activists and scholars.  Included in this program were Benjamin Jealous, President and CEO of the NAACP, Laura Murphy, Director of ACLU’s Washington Legislative Office, Barbara Arnwine, Executive Director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, and William Yeomans, former Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights at the Department of Justice.

After the program, we began a letter-writing campaign to the Department of Justice to discuss the urgency of justice for Trayvon Martin’s family, and for race-relations in general.  In our letter-writing strategy, we researched past racial problems in the Sanford Police Department.  Through our research, we discovered that in recent years, there were numerous complaints that police were lenient on an officer’s son who beat a black homeless man.  Moreover, there were complaints concerning black teenagers being pulled over by police for wearing the wrong color hat because they were suspected to be affiliated with gang organizations.

Furthermore, we highlighted that the Martin case was just one example of a systemic problem of racial inequities and injustices in our criminal justice system.  In fact, there are racial disparities at every step of the criminal process, from arrest through sentencing.

Racial profiling is a larger problem in the criminal justice system. Racial profiling occurs whenever law enforcement agents use race, religion, ethnicity, or national origin as a factor in deciding whom they should investigate, arrest or detain, except where these characteristics are part of a specific suspect description.  With the suggestion of Laura Murphy, we advocated for Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act (S.1670), and to institute a federal ban on profiling based on race, religion, ethnicity and national origin at the federal, state and local levels.  Furthermore, we urged the Department of Justice to amend its 2003 Guidance Regarding the Use of Race by Federal Law Enforcement Agencies.

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Unfortunately, race and racism has re-appeared in the State of Florida. Similar to Trayvon Martin, an unarmed Black teenager, Jordan Davis, was shot and killed by Michael Dunn because Dunn claimed to be in “fear” of his life after an argument occurred.

(Pictured below: Jordan Davis)

This past weekend, an argument between Davis and Dunn occurred at a gas station parking lot, when Davis and other teenagers were asked to turn down their ‘loud music’ coming out of their SUV. After the verbal exchange between Dunn and Davis, Dunn claimed to hear threats from the teenagers, and told police that he felt threatened and thought he saw a gun in the teenagers’ car.  As a result, Dunn grabbed his gun and fired into the SUV eight or nine times. After the shooting, Dunn drove back to this hotel room because “he was scared the teens would call their friends and have them hurt him.” Dunn also claimed to see a weapon, however, after searching the SUV, the cops did not find a single gun inside of the SUV (according to the police report). Similar to Trayvon Martin, Davis was unarmed.

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Do not over-simplify this issue as just a man shooting someone because of a purported “fear.” Confrontation aside, when will we begin discussing the fact that when Black men are involved, people always seem to be in “fear” or feel “threatened.” Should I pretend his fear would be present if the individuals in the car were White? This is a systemic issue of race and racism. Besides, the legal standard for self-defense isn’t a simple “fear;” it is “reasonable fear,” and I hope that ‘reasonable fear’ has not become synonymous with Black person.

Self-defense? Feeling scared or threatened? Could those feelings be heightened because the victims were Black? Certainly, this is not to say that a confrontation did not occur. However, what is important is the discussion of why this man claimed to have felt threatened and whether race plays any role in that. This case is another example of implicit bias.  Many legal scholars have researched and written on the role of race and “reasonable” fear as it relates to self-defense.  As Professor Darren Hutchinson, blogger of Dissenting Justice, said, “This situation is similar to psychological studies. Participants are shown images of persons and told to press a button if the person is pointing a gun at them. The highest category of errant shootings: when the image was a black man. So – this man saw a nonexistent gun in the car.”

Dunn’s attorney, Robin Lemonidis, refuses to see any similarity between Jordan Davis and Trayvon Martin, and George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn. She stated, “There are no comparisons to the Trayvon Martin situation . . . He is devastated and horrified by the death of the teen.” So the reason a comparison is not being connected is because she believes her client was devastated by the death he caused versus Zimmerman apparently not being devastated or horrified?  The only visible difference appears to be the immediate arrest of Dunn without a national call-to-action, unlike with Zimmerman.

I will draw the connection for Lemonidis –

Davis/Martin: Both Black teenagers who men thought were “threatening.” Both thought to have a gun on their person. Both were unarmed.

Zimmerman/Dunn: Both men who approached a Black teenager. Both men felt “threatened” and in “fear” after causing the initial altercation. Both men thought the teenagers were armed. Both men shot and killed an unarmed teenager.

(George Zimmerman (top) and Michael Dunn (bottom))

“[M]ichael [Dunn] is not a vigilante,” the attorney said. “He’s a brilliant software developer. It was never his intention to kill anyone.” Lemonidis said she is contemplating what defense she will use if the case goes to trial. According to Lemonidis, “self-defense applies because Mr. Dunn was threatened,” Lemonidis said. “We can’t say what the defense will be at this stage . . . but stand your ground is a possibility.”

However, according to Florida Statute 776.012 (“Use of Force in Defense of Person”):

“A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if: (1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony . . . .”

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So the question remains – is it reasonable to be in fear of your life because you think someone has a gun in his or her vehicle, and as a result, fire eight or nine shots, even after the vehicle attempted to leave when the driver noticed the gun Dunn was holding was real?  Rebecca Dunn, the daughter of the suspect, apparently thinks so.

She says, “He got threatened and had to do what he had to do, and it’s sad, so sad . . . A terrible tragedy on both sides. It really is. I don’t know. What are you going to do in that situation? You don’t know what you are going to do. He just reacted.”  But Rebecca, a gut-reaction because of prejudicial (read: implicit) bias does not make the death of a teenager any less serious.

Though Lemonidis said, “Dunn did not intend to kill anyone,” how can she explain him firing into a vehicle of unarmed teenagers eight times? Admittedly, her and I went to different law schools, but have we eliminated “reckless indifference for human life” from our entire criminal law vernacular? Is the standard as simple as, “I felt threatened, no matter how unreasonable my fears were?” Absolutely not.

Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis, said, “[I] want to honor the memory of [my] son, and do not want his death to be divisive.”  McBath said her son brought people together and it would be even more of a tragedy if his death divided people.”

McBath has certainly earned the right to have her son’s death classified as whatever she would like. Respecting her wishes is the least that can be done for her at this point. McBath states, “we don’t know what kind of dark place that man was in, but something in him snapped . . . but we aren’t going to call this a ‘hate-crime’ because that wouldn’t honor Jordan.”  McBath’s opinion holds more weight than anyone’s in how to honor her son, but I am not sure anyone considers this a hate crime just as of yet.  On the other hand, most people are saying that Dunn’s feelings of feeling “threatened” were intensified because of Davis’s race, and because of Dunn’s implicit bias associated therein. Not that Dunn was searching for Black teenagers to shoot and kill.

Because of our criminal justice system, Dunn is “innocent until proven guilty,” and rightfully so. Civil rights and liberties should never be taken for granted, especially in the eyes of the law.  Since I have a passion for criminal defense, I will always believe this to be true.  However, I also understand the role of the prosecution, and how racial (and prejudicial) bias can negatively affect the criminal justice system based on who is the victim and suspect. But as Lemonidis said, “[Dunn] is no vigilante; he is a brilliant software developer.” I suppose only ‘vigilante’s’ can be guilty of shooting and killing an unarmed Black teenager.

When will the time come for Black teenagers to have a “reasonable fear” and use self-defense to save their own lives?

2 thoughts on “Don’t Be Alarmed, We’re Negroes

  1. It scares me that this kind of thing happens, and the law is actually on the side of the aggressor. It’s one thing for someone to get killed in a drive-by shooting, a robbery, etc; but for someone to approach another in an aggressive manner, kill them, and then claim to be acting in self defense… it just baffles my mind. It makes me really afraid of my own life as a Black man. Will I look threatening? Can someone kill me and later claim they were acting in self-defense? As a former Florida resident, I am shocked at what is taking place in my state. It is sick.

  2. “To be young, black and innocent is to live in a world full of folks who will always see you differently than you see yourself; ─ It is to live in a world where folklore, statistics and conjecture deem you dangerous until proven otherwise. ─ I began carrying feminine bags around age 13 graduating to full on purses around age 21, and while my love affair with the handbag has always felt natural, it became clear early on that when paired with my large frame and dark skin these well-crafted accessories possessed magical powers. Like the power to say “Hey white lady no need to clutch your purse, see I got my own.” or “Hey convenience store clerk don’t worry you’re safe, I’m here to buy” or “Hey officer don’t shoot, I’m not the black you think I am!” From Riding in Cars with Black People & Other Newly Dangerous Acts: A Memoir in Vanishing Whiteness.

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