On July 13, 2013 a Florida jury found George Zimmerman not guilty of murder or manslaughter in the slaying of an unarmed black teenager. The verdict could hardly be described as surprising. Given America’s long history of tolerating the murder of black men the outcome was sadly predictable. Yes, perhaps many of us hoped that in 2013, maybe this time at least, a black man’s killer might be brought to justice, but those hopes were dashed by a jury comprised of six women, five of them white, who chose to acquit George Zimmerman.
Even in the 21st century it appears that the mere fact that a murder victim is black is enough to generate reasonable doubt in the minds of a mostly white jury. Many voices will argue that the Zimmerman case is not about race. Those voices of “post-racialism” will accuse Trayvon Martin’s defenders of playing the race card. They will insist that the system works, although for black people it really never has worked. We live in a nation of armed racial entitlement, where white people can shoot black people and stand a reasonable chance of being acquitted on the grounds that they were acting out of fear or for self-defense, even when their black victim is unarmed.
In 2012 alone, at least 136 unarmed black men and women were killed by police officers, security guards or vigilantes. While some of the unarmed victims were suspects in crimes, many were not. At least twenty-five unarmed African-Americans were killed by vigilantes. Ten of the killers were not charged at all. That means that in 2012, forty percent of vigilantes who killed an unarmed black person were not charged with any crime. Others like Zimmerman were eventually charged but not convicted, and some plead guilty to reduced charges. In short, if you kill an unarmed African-American in the United States, you have about a 50/50 shot at getting away with murder.
While Stand your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws have not worked out well for African-American defendants claiming self-defense, they have effectively sanctioned extrajudicial executions committed by those who justify the shooting of African-Americans. In Slider, Wisconsin, 20-year old Bo Morrison, who was biracial, was shot to death on the covered porch of Adam Kind, who is white. Morrison was hiding between a refrigerator and a dresser because police were breaking up a party next door and Kind was underage and had been drinking. Although Kind, who had called the police to break up the party, knew the police were just 300 feet away, instead of letting them know somebody was on his porch, Kind shot Morrison with his Colt 45 revolver. He could have called police who were already next door, but instead chose to take the law into his own hands. He did not need to shoot Morrison, but perhaps he wanted to. Kind, protected by the Castle Doctrine, was not charged with any crime.
In Milwaukee, 6th grader Darius Simmons was murdered in front of his mother by 75 year-old John Spooner, who accused him of stealing his guns. Although the act was clearly premeditated, in the initial hours, the police treated the victim and his family like suspects rather than the killer. While the 13-year old boy lay dead, the police ransacked the Simmons home and interrogated Simmons’ mother for two hours. The stolen guns were never found in the Simmons home. Spooner has been charged, but he still has not stood trial for the killing.
In Cobb County Georgia, Andre Oliver was shot and killed in a dispute with an overzealous apartment complex security guard. Oliver was unarmed. During the incident, the security guard also shot and wounded a bystander. Although Oliver was unarmed, the security guard fired off four rounds in fifteen seconds. Police did not file charges, even though residents complained that the security guard had a history of threatening residents by pointing his pistol at them.
In Arkansas, Ernest Hoskins Jr, a 21 year-old black man was shot in the jaw and killed by his white boss, Chris Reynolds , during a business lunch at Reynolds’ home. Reynolds was chastising Hoskins for his sales performance and then pulled out a .44 magnum and shot him in the face in front of witnesses. Despite an eyewitness who believed the shooting to be intentional, it took police weeks to charge Reynolds for the shooting and the only charge he is facing is for manslaughter. Even if he is convicted, he could be released in as little as three years.
Kijuan Byrd was murdered in Miami when a white nightclub security guard shot him eleven times in the parking lot, alleging that he feared for his safety. Byrd was unarmed and although his killer, Lukace Kendle, is now facing murder charges, it took the police over a week to arrest him. Kendle is invoking the “Stand your ground defense” even though he shot an unarmed man at a fair distance eleven times. While this may seem an absurd defense, it is Florida and the victim is black, so it just might work.
How far Florida is willing to go in allowing the murder of black men to go unpunished may hinge upon the trial of Michael David Dunn who shot and killed 17 year-old Jordan Davis over a dispute involving loud music. In the world of armed racial entitlement formerly known as the Sunshine State, a black teenager playing music too loud might be just enough to warrant a death sentence. Yes, Michael Dunn is being tried for murder, but you never know, a Florida jury might just buy his defense that he feared for his life as a bunch of unarmed teens tried to flee for their lives while he fired shots as they pulled away. Of course he feared for his life, they were black after all, and listening to music. What could be scarier than that?
Sadly, George Zimmerman’s acquittal will only serve to further embolden vigilantes to take matters in their own hands and it signals that in America it is still no big deal to shoot a black person as long as you can somehow convince jurors that just maybe for some reason, even though the victim was unarmed, you felt scared. While America pretends to be appalled by racism, we turn a blind eye to the fact that Stand Your Ground laws, the Castle Doctrine and our judicial system have been applied in a racially discriminatory manner and that as a nation we have tacitly sanctioned the killing of African-American men. Until we consistently punish transgressors for killing African-Americans with flimsy justifications, the carnage will continue.
Almost a year ago when Florida’s Walton Henry Butler shot a black man in the face and then went to finish his dinner, he seemed annoyed when the police came to interrupt his dinner and arrest him for shooting the man. He did not understand what the big deal was since he had “only shot a nigger”. Of course his comment was appalling, but in light of the way white murderers of African-Americans have been treated in America, maybe he had reason to believe this was a valid defense.
After all when you strip away all the legal arguments, this is the defense that killers have used for decades in the United States, and beneath the surface, it was implicitly part of Mark O’mara’s closing argument when he strategically held up a picture of Trayvon Martin. His argument was not so crass, but in the end Zimmerman’s defense amounted to just an intellectually sophisticated version of set my client free, after all, “he only shot a nigger.” And why not use that defense? For armed vigilante types, it still works in America about half the time.
Keith Brekhus is a progressive American who currently resides in Red Lodge, Montana. He is co-host for the Liberal Fix radio show. He holds a Master’s Degree in Sociology from the University of Missouri. In 2002, he ran for Congress as a Green Party candidate in the state of Missouri. In 2014, he worked as a field organizer for Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick’s successful re-election bid in Arizona’s 1st Congressional District. He can be followed on Twitter @keithbrekhus or on Facebook.