“The event that truly awakened me was the Trayvon Martin case,” the reported manifesto reads. “I kept hearing and seeing his name, and eventually I decided to look him up. I read the Wikipedia article and right away I was unable to understand what the big deal was. It was obvious that Zimmerman was in the right.” So begins the long racist jeremiad believed to be written and uploaded to the Internet by Dylann Storm Roof, the accused Charleston shooter.
Generationally, the 21-year-old Roof should have more in common with Trayvon Martin than with George Zimmerman, the armed vigilante who shot Martin dead not far from the teen’s father’s fiancée’s home one fateful Florida night in February 2012. But Roof and so many other racial paranoiacs have long seen Zimmerman as a kindred spirit, and his ethos of armed self-sufficiency as a guiding principle.
Roof, of course, cannot avail himself of the “Stand Your Ground” law that helped get Zimmerman acquitted of murder charges; he is accused of shooting a roomful of worshipers in cold blood. And yet, there is an inexorable connection between his racism and that broad “self defense” law. Stand Your Ground puts gun owners under no duty to retreat before shooting a person to neutralize a “reasonable fear of imminent peril of death or great bodily harm.” That’s letter and verse from Florida’s laws, but the “reasonableness” standard is a consistent requirement of most similar statutes. Stand Your Ground turns, in other words, on how much fear, and what kind, strikes armed citizens and judges and juries as reasonable enough to justify pulling the trigger and responding with potentially lethal force.
In practice, the legal system generally finds it more reasonable to fear black people than anyone else. A Tampa Bay Times analysis of Stand Your Ground incidents in the state found that in settled cases where the victim was white, their shooter, regardless of race, was found “justified” and granted immunity about 55 percent the time. When the victim was black, however, the shooter was found justified 73 percent of the time. (The figures for whites in this analysis also include Latinos; being found justified in shooting a non-Hispanic Caucasian is harder still.)
One need not be the sort of self-conscious, self-congratulating race warrior that Roof is in order to find the shooting of minorities generally justified. It is a small step from believing, as Stand Your Ground sponsor Rep. Dennis Baxley once told me, that such laws are “about turning back this lawless chaos and anarchy in our society,” to believing chaos and anarchy originate in greater degree from other races, as if in a vacuum. It’s a small step in our society from deputizing the citizenry for crime-fighting, as former Detroit prosecutor and Stand Your Ground–critic Steven Jansen told me, to creating “a new protected set of behaviors that might otherwise be considered hate crimes or vigilantism.”
The trouble with expansive legal protections for citizens who shoot others out of fear is that those protections are only as good as our collective sense of racial fairness. But in a nation that still produces a few Dylann Roofs, we all have reason to wonder about our neighbors’ “reasonable fears.”
[Photo: Flickr user Michael Fleshman]