“This [Stand Your Ground] law is a menace that has allowed too many killers to walk free. The review was prompted by a national firestorm that erupted after George Zimmerman, a Sanford neighborhood watch volunteer, shot dead Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, on Feb. 26 and was not arrested after claiming self-defense. Initially police cited “stand your ground,” though Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder… Seven years of experience demonstrate the law is dangerous and gives legal cover to people prone to violence, including during road rage and gang shooting incidents. Nearly 60 percent of defendants who have invoked it, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis, had at least one arrest before they killed someone, raising questions about the law applying only to law-abiding people defending themselves. Since the law’s passage in Florida, justifiable homicides increased 192 percent, according to FBI data, with other “stand your ground” states experiencing similar patterns.”
Language is important. Wording. Positioning. Phraseology. Words can move people to embrace both good and evil. This article asks you, the reader, to participate in a national campaign to treat the phrase “Stand Your Ground” — when discussed in relationship to deadly force — with the same disdain as words such as “Nigger”, “Kyke”, or “Honky”.
Policy, in our nation, often follows perceptions. Indeed, this is a hallmark of highly-functioning democratic societies where representatives and referendums reflect the evolving sentiments of the people. America’s histories of women’s suffrage, war and peace, treatment of labor, care for vulnerable citizens, space exploration, and myriad other issues are largely the histories of words and images that sufficiently express, engage, challenge, question, and confront prevailing attitudes.
In the tripartite histories of slavery, black codes, and jim crow, generations of Europeans taught their children that people of African descent were sub-human. Depraved. Lacking in moral and intellectual faculties. These shameful depictions served repressive legal regimes, while attempting to sanitize whites of the gross evils of America’s crimes against humanity. As such, the defeat of these evil systems required voices that challenged this myths, stereotypes, and outright lies. “Ain’t I a woman?”, asked Sojourner Truth during the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention held in Akron, OH. “I am a man”, declared Memphis sanitation workers fighting for justice in employment.
Where Words Mean Power …
Years removed from these histories, many overlook the significance of radical rhetoric in reshaping the American psyche. Even today, social engineers, policymakers, think tanks, and multimedia outlets turn to linguistics to shape public opinion, manipulate, and create outcome (positive and negative) in our nation. So, while Sojourner Truth’s voice has faded with some over the course of time, consider more recent examples:
- “Reproductive Rights” – advanced to reposition the killing of unborn babies as a health/human rights issue.
- “Reversed Discrimination” – negatively cast Affirmative Action statues as constitutional violations.
- “We Make War as Peacemakers” – defies faith notions of making peace to justice violence.
- “Axis of Evil” – wrongly established a moral authority in a world of nations, each known for good and evil.
- “Shock and Awe” – reduced the reckless and bloody realities of killing untold thousands of [innocent] Iraqi people to a videogame conquest. The phrase de-personalized the US invasion of Iraq. This choice of words focused our attention on the [government’s] psychological responses to our invasion of Iraq as opposed to the maiming, burning of flesh, decapitations and dismemberment of women and children, young and old.
- “Marriage Equality” – secularizes the God-ordained institution of marriage and faith origins of civil rights, attaching a new same-gender framework and asserting this attachment as progress in civil rights.
- “Judicial Activism” – casts a shadow over interpreting laws as an organic response to contemporary problems e.g., proactive protection of voting rights, fair housing ideas, access to [higher] education.
- “Prosperity Gospel” – a new ethos in Christendom that moves from sacrificial ideals of faith, as found in The Cross, to more utilitarian views that focus on gaining wealth.
- “Free Markets” – promotes a number of myths about American capitalism and discourages legal restraints that address painful realities (e.g., moral turpitude) that arise out of this economic system.
- “Separate But Equal” – a mythical construct that justified structural inequities in society.
- “Compassionate Conservatism” – the dismantling of social justice ideas and initiatives under the guise of moral intent.
- “Bleeding Heart Liberalism” – an inference that liberal views are the result of irrational emotionalism, lacking intellectual scrutiny.
- “Regime” – a subtle term to describe government leaders/administrations, but only those unfriendly to U.S. policies, so as to connect negative imagery e.g., repressive, dictatorial, godless, inhumane.
- “Enemy Combatant” – applied to individuals who oppose foreign intervention by the U.S., where those supportive of our nation’s policies are deemed rebels, freedom fighters, liberators, or patriots.
- “Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)” – subjectively categorizes weapons in non-technical terms to meet political purposes. Hence toxic gases — which are very inefficient in war — are generally considered WMDs while the more destructive weapons such as atomic bombs, nuclear bombs, cluster bombs, and drones are carefully excluded from conversations about WMDs.
- “Death Panels” – the term used by [some] opponents of Heath Care Reform to malign end-of-life counseling provisions.
The list is endless. Terms that flood our media and bombard our senses. Each carrying with it a social, economic, and/or political agenda.
Standing on Shaky Ground …
Currently, political factions that promote deadly force are winning the rhetorical war. Civil rights groups suggest a very different assessment, citing states around the country putting a hold on passage of legal variants of deadly force laws in the aftermath of George Zimmerman’s fatal shooting of unarmed teenager, Trayvon Martin.
Any suggestion that a hold status is retrenchment is a gross mis-reading of the policy winds and one that will ultimately prove fatal to efforts to dismantle these laws. Deeply entrenched in American culture, “Stand Your Ground” that borrows from 19th century American jurisprudence. Laws that follow Stand Your Ground principles are more aggressive expressions of self-defense, holding that individuals can exert deadly forces in situations perceived to be threatening without making a requisite effort to flee or evade the danger. Such laws are riddled with problems. And yet, their connection to our nation’s culture will make extracting these laws a monumental task.
[important]Stand Your Ground dates back to an Indiana case of Runyon v. State, 57 Ind. 80 (1877). In its ruling, the Court noted:
“The tendency of the American mind seems to be very strongly against the enforcement of any rule which requires a person to flee when assailed, to avoid chastisement or even to save a human life . . . [Therefore,] [t]he weight of modern authority . . establishes the doctrine that when a person, being without fault and in a place where he has a right to be, is violently assaulted, he may, without retreating, repel force by force, and if, in reasonable exercise of his right of self-defence, his assailant is killed, he is justifiable.”
Other cases that provided legal precedence include: People v. Lewis (a California case from 1897), Boykin v. People (a Colorado case from 1896), Ragland v. State (a Georgia case from 1900), State v. Hatch (a Kansas case from 1896), and State v. Partlow (a Missouri case from 1887).
The term appeals to a nation born out of standing up to the King of England. It conjures up images of settlers risking their lives to explore new territories. Gun-slingers riding across the wild west, strapped with Colt 45 revolvers. A more agrarian, rural society where farmers would stave-off cattle wrestlers with the family the family shotgun. Indeed, old societal arrangements that gave rise to this standards little resembles today’s America. Rural residents of the late 19th century are now city dwellers in densely-populated areas where errant bullets can easily strike innocent bystanders. Isolated farmers are now urban workers whose safety is secured through patrol cruisers, police stations, 911 emergency lines, and neighborhood watch programs. And while dejure racial discrimination is prohibited, defacto discrimination remains where laws cannot change the human heart. Here, the Dred Scott ruling is not the law of the land, but is written on the hearts of some who will unnecessarily provoke, entrap, and otherwise seduce deadly force situations.
In March of 1857, the United States Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, declared that all blacks — slaves as well as free — were not and could never become citizens of the United States. The court also declared the 1820 Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, thus permiting slavery in all of the country’s territories.
The case before the court was that of Dred Scott v. Sanford. Dred Scott, a slave who had lived in the free state of Illinois and the free territory of Wisconsin before moving back to the slave state of Missouri, had appealed to the Supreme Court in hopes of being granted his freedom.
Taney — a staunch supporter of slavery and intent on protecting southerners from northern aggression — wrote in the Court’s majority opinion that, because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue. The framers of the Constitution, he wrote, believed that blacks “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit. He was bought and sold and treated as an ordinary article of merchandise and traffic, whenever profit could be made by it.“
Referring to the language in the Declaration of Independence that includes the phrase, “all men are created equal,” Taney reasoned that “it is too clear for dispute, that the enslaved African race were not intended to be included, and formed no part of the people who framed and adopted this declaration. . . .”
Abolitionists were incensed. Although disappointed, Frederick Douglass, found a bright side to the decision and announced, “my hopes were never brighter than now.” For Douglass, the decision would bring slavery to the attention of the nation and was a step toward slavery’s ultimate destruction.
with contemporary realities (e.g., civil rights advancements and lingering backlash) that played-out in the George Zimmerman killing of unarmed Trayvon Martin as well as criminal justice lapses that followed.
The Hidden Irony…
The civil rights community has unknowingly been its own enemy by promoting a lexicon relative to proactively use of unnecessary deadly force. The unintended result of using Stand Your Ground as a defining phraseology normalizes the very ethos designed by radical influences to legitimize killing Americans in highly subjective situations. When Stand Your Ground describes these exchanges, it inherently places us in the posture of the party who employs deadly forces. And in the absence of a more deeply-seated countering sentiment — such as views shaped by experiencing racism — this description of proactive deadly force seems perfectly reasonable.
Dismantling unjust laws that foster deadly aggression while phrasing them in ways that imply a just application of them. It is tantamount to accepting the notion that separate structures for whites and blacks in this nation were somehow “equal”. Hence, “Separate and Unequal” was not only a more accurate description of America’s jim crow systems, but also a political imperative to confront America’s myths embodied in segregationist constructs.
An alternative phrase, “Shoot First”, is emerging in social justice circles that are committed to dismantling laws that encourage deadly force on the basis of abstracts notions of fear. This alternative, however, suffers from a fundamental problem and must be replaced immediately. Namely, this terminology does not adequate differentiate Castle Laws from the problems inherent in Stand Your Ground.
The average citizen can imagine countless situations where “shoot first” is a plausible response. Indeed, many have found themselves in the intersection of time and place where using deadly force was not only legally protected but also morally acceptable. For instance, if one were to come home a find an intruder pointing a knife at a child or spouse, shooting first is an understandable reaction. Hence, the term does not accurately separate unjust actions from those that are just. Even well-intended Americans will find it difficult to see the injustice in a legal framework that rightfully protects citizens in these and other circumstances. Americans can readily identify with a shooting in such circumstances. And those political pundits who push the Stand Your Ground will likewise turn to stories that legitimize Shoot First.
An even more murky aspect of Shoot First gets at what I call Bernhard’s Burden, named after Bernhard Goetz (The Subway Vigilante) exonerated in the 1984 shooting of four teenagers on a New York City subway. Reflecting on the Zimmerman murder trial, Goetz said during an interview with William Shatner on Biography on bio, “I’m surprised the same thing is happening 30 years later. It’s a different place, but the prosecution is the same…. “.
Goetz was successful in arguing a sense of fear led him to indiscriminately fire rounds into the young men after one attempted to panhandle five dollars. Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey, and James Ramseur – each African Americans — were cast as the symbol of suspicion to a nation engrossed in what some suggest a Reagan-era backlash to two decades of public policy that advanced the rights for African Americans alike any since emancipation and the early era of Reconstruction.
Bernhard’s Burden became America’s burden. Whites identified with Goetz’s paranoid psychosis that lurking around the corners are black men ready to inflict harm on [white] citizens. Goetz invoked fear to justify shooting black teenagers. The jury in his criminal case accepted the narrative, clearing Goetz. The fear motif was not a new one. It served the basis for numerous lynchings, shootings, jailings, and acts of terrorism (e.g., the destruction of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street).
If one listens closely, Goetz actually sets forth two narratives about the shooting. In the interview with William Shatner, Goetz claims one of the youth asked him for money, with a smile on his face. Then some mysterious “warm feeling” rises up in Goetz. Next… bang bang bang bang. During a separate interview, Goetz claims a more menacing reason — that the young men were attempting to rob him.
Anyone who lives in a large city has seen panhandlers. At the time of the shooting, cities by-and-large had not yet prohibited panhandling. And had a police officer arrived after the request, no law had been broken; certainly not an attempted robbery law. And yet, Goetz was never required to reconcile these two. Fear has been codified as a justification to exert deadly force sense the early beginnings of slavery. Bernhard’s Burden renewed white America’s commitment to these codes.
The nation identified with it. Affirmed it. Made the unwritten rules an official precedence in American jurisprudence. And the stage was set for a national tragedy that unfolded on the rainy evening in Sanford FL on February 26, 2012.
A New Lexicon …
A suitable lexicon to challenge Stand Your Ground is root in several notions that speak to basic American values:
- Dignity of life — irrespective of age, race/ethnicity, gender, etc.
- Taking a life carries an awesome burdens, and therefore, must be placed under the highest scrutiny. That is, one must be willing to meet a moral burden of proof, even while the legal burden remains with the state. Indeed, MAC recognizes the obvious that is lost in today’s discussion: that a killer’s account is not the account, but simply a claim. A claim that mandates proof. That society extends, in death, what someone chose not to extend in life. Extend what we noted above — dignity.
A challenge to Stand Your Ground must get at the inherent injustices of these laws.
Consequently, this recommends the adoption of a new term, “Kill and Claim” (or KAC), to describe laws that currently allow American citizens to take a life proactively and without concrete cause. Murder, by definition, is unjust killing. And given the unique aspects of killing, including the inability of the dead to offer his/her account, killing must come with a different moral standard in the eyes of the public.
One question that arises our of KAC terminology is, “What about situations where the person against whom deadly force was applies does not die?”
It’s a fair question as deadly encounters often do not end in death. This lexicon, however, underscores both the extent to which these laws apply (i.e., to cases of a killing). Further, MAC invokes our perceptions as to the magnitude to which we can apply these laws when confronted with a hostile encounter. It is the worst case scenarios that the struggle to change these laws must focus. The Jewish Holocaust did not mean death to every Jewish person who experienced it, but it is death (i.e., the worst case) to which we connect the horrific nature of Hitler’s Third Reich. Not all African Americans in the south were subjected to lynching or the brutality that took the life of Emmett Till. But these worst case applications of jim crow segregation intensified our nation’s cry for change.
The “kill” in KAC is appropriate as it denotes the worst case scenario. In-fact, it parallels the term “deadly” force in that all such force des not end in death but has the capacity for such ending. The worst case scenario, where a voice is unable to offer a conflicting account, draws the public’s attention to the harsh realities and most grievous aspect of these laws. And we tragically have Trayvon Martin as evidence of that worst case upon which to strengthen the struggle for justice.
Community Awareness Campaigning …
Another question that arises out of this idea of a new lexicon is, “How do we diffuse it throughout the civil rights/social justice community and its audience?” While no singular blueprint exists, citizens and organizations can adopt a number of principles and practices that foster public awareness. These include:
- A zero tolerance standard when it comes to misusing the term Stand Your Ground as a legitimate basis for aggressive use of deadly force.
- Propagation of Kill and Claim (KAC) messaging on various formats e.g., paraphernalia, digital graphics, articles, videos, policy statements, etc.
- The every available opportunity to mention and explain Kill and Claim. Borrowing from insights under These discussions should iterate why KAC is a more appropriate description of these laws over Stand Your Ground and Short First. These opportunities emerge in in private discussions, social media threads, conference panels, faith-based and community meetings, and other venues.
- Stay on-message. Moral grounding is the only grounding that ultimately matters. Justice is the defining factor that separates those who promote terrible laws from those who seek to dismantle them. The opposition, whether power politicians or influential think tanks, will surely seek to muddy the waters. But murder is still wrong, even when permitted under prevailing laws.
What do you think? Please post your comments at the end of this article.
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