The national conversation that has accompanied the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of an unarmed teen has a special urgency in Ohio, where lawmakers are considering a “stand your ground” law similar to the one in Florida.
Advocates of House Bill 203 say it will make Ohioans — including young black teens — safer because most registered gun owners are law-abiding.
“Law-abiding gun owners have the lowest incidents of crime out there,” said State Rep. Michael Henne, R-Clayton, one of the bill’s 15 Republican co-sponsors. “I believe that people have the right to protect themselves, rather than being forced to run.”
But many local black teens and their families say that the verdict — and “stand your ground” laws in general — fan the flames of vigilantism. Under such laws, private citizens are allowed to use deadly force to protect themselves with no duty to retreat first, as long as they think their life is in danger, and are in a place where they are legally allowed to be.
Alisa Vukasinovich of Dayton fears her three sons will be profiled when the family moves to Kettering this fall. Watching the Zimmerman trial with her oldest, 17-year-old Malik Young, prompted a discussion about race, profiling and self-defense. “There are places you will go where they don’t know your name and face, and they look at you as just another African-American male who could just be thuggish and looking to do a crime,” she told him.
Critics are concerned about the ramifications of “stand you ground” laws. In cases ruled as justifiable homicide, private citizens have killed more than 1,330 people in the country since 2007, according to the latest FBI statistics. That is about 650 fewer than the number of people killed by law enforcement officers during the same period.
Jamal Russell, 23, a student at Wright State University, believes he will be less safe if Ohio becomes a “stand your ground” state. “People wouldn’t know I went to a $14,000 per year school if I’m wearing a hoodie at night,” he said. “They will see a black kid who’s looking suspicious and needs to be checked out to make sure he’s not doing anything improper, whereas if that were a man of another race that might not happen.”
“Stand your ground” laws have stirred fresh controversies, protests and nonstop dialogue in the wake of Zimmerman’s verdict. A six-women jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter in shooting death of Trayvon Martin, 17, in Sanford, Fla..
Attorney General Eric Holder called Tuesday for an end to such laws, which have been adopted in 21 states, at the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Orlando. “By allowing — and perhaps encouraging — violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety,” he said.
Avoiding a ‘Wild West’
Doug Deeken, director of Ohioans for Concealed Carry, said his organization has spoken with lawmakers about removing the “duty to retreat clause” that requires a person who feels threatened to try to escape a violent situation before using deadly force. “People said it would be the ‘Wild West’ and blood would run in the streets, when we were proposing concealed carry rights, and that’s not true,” he said. “Most states don’t have a duty to retreat like we do, and blood isn’t running there.”
But Russell believes the broadness of such a law could lead to a rise in the number of crimes committed under the guise of self-defense — and that, because of racial profiling, the most likely victims are young, black males such as Martin. “You have to think about what you’re doing and the way you’re regarding someone,” he said. “When you see a black person on the street, do you lock your doors? Why? Do you instinctively clutch to yourself when you see a large black person on the street? If so, why? Keep that in your mind, think about it, and maybe a couple of instances like this will be prevented.”
Michael Mannheimer, a law professor at Northern Kentucky University’s Chase College of Law, said the verdict does not mean it’s open season on young black males. Given the nature of the jury instructions, as well as Florida law, he said, “It would have been difficult for the jury to convict here, and I’m not sure it would have been upheld on appeal.”
He added, “This case is getting so much attention because it is so unusual. Young black men are being killed in inner cities in far greater numbers over drug deals gone bad, or being subjected to monstrously long prison sentences for minor drug deals. This case is a distraction, because this hardly ever occurs.”
Others argue that being concerned with drug violence does not preclude being concerned with an unequal justice system — that the Martin case, in fact, symbolizes the larger societal problem. Natasha R. Spears, director of the Dayton Boys and Girls Club, brings in police officers to meet the children in the building every week. “We ask them to come in uniform so the kids know who these gentlemen are and see they’re humans just like them,” said Spears, who is on the community Police Relations Committee. Yet she finds it difficult to have these conversations about respecting authority when many youth do not feel the respect in return.
Case sparks dialogue
The verdict sparked protests as well as rallies in 100 U.S. cities Saturday, including an 11 a.m. rally at the federal courthouse in downtown Dayton. It also has launched reflective conversations in the living rooms of countless local families of all races.
Jarred Chase, 14, a freshman at Centerville High School, said he is one of many white students at his school who are outraged by the verdict. “Zimmerman was racially profiling Trayvon Martin,” he said. “I think it’s terrible he got away with it and got his gun back. It sends a message that, according to our court of law, it’s OK to kill someone based on their skin color.”
“It’s unconscionable,” said Jarred’s mother, Ann Wightman of Washington Twp., who worries about the inequities in the American judicial system. “For me, it is a racial issue,” she said. “This country has a long sad history of racism and lynching.”
Wightman also believes the proposed “stand your ground” law will only exacerbate the problem. “The fundamental problem is that people have too many guns and Zimmerman was allowed to drive around in a car with a gun,” she said.
Peter Pullen, athletic director and boys’ basketball coach at Dunbar High School, said that the Martin tragedy struck a chord among all black parents: “It does bother me when I have to have this conversation with my kids, when I have to tell them that something could happen when they’re walking to their car and not doing anything wrong,” he said. “I tell my son there are things that those black males have to do, that he has to watch his ‘P’s’ and ‘Q’s’ and be aware of his surroundings.”
Added his wife, Shawn Pullen, “My son is 22, and I still worry about his going around town. He could be in the right place at the wrong time.”
She could barely stand to watch Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, during the trial. “It hurts my heart whenever I look at her, but she has handled herself with such grace and dignity.”
The Pullens’ son, Jarrod Givens, does not believe he is afforded equal justice under the law. He said he drives a black Lincoln and is often pulled over by police on suspicion that it is a “drug car.”
“It’s always in the back of my mind that I could be targeted because I am a young African-American male,” Givens said. “If I’m wearing a hoodie and jeans at night, it raises eyebrows. African-Americans are always having to prove that they’re innocent in a way that other races do not.”
Malik Young, a senior at Alter High School, observed, “I think instead of changing the law, we need to change the definition of being threatened.”
His mother said the generational gap with her son translates into a difference in views on race. “I’ve experienced what I call racism and profiling, and I’ve learned how to deal with it, ” Vukasinovich said. “I’m not going to say it’s not a big deal, but it’s not worth creating conflict. There are just things about people that won’t change. Time heals all.”
Race has been the central theme in the public discussion of this case since the beginning. Yet it was not admitted into court evidence, and in an interview this week with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, B37 Juror said “race had nothing” to do with the verdict. The juror said she was “101 percent” certain that Zimmerman was justified in killing Martin under the “stand your ground” law. In a statement released Wednesday, four of the other five jurors distanced themselves from Juror B37’s remarks, saying she represented her viewpoint alone.
‘We all have our bias’
For Desmond Winton-Finklea of Dayton, a communications major at Central State University, the juror’s remarks show that many Americans fail to understand the day-to-day reality facing black Americans. As a 10-year-old boy, he said, he was stalked by a gang of young men while walking home from a carnival. He is often stopped by police when driving his father’s older-model Mercedes.
“I try to explain it to my friends, telling them they haven’t seen the uglier side of America,” Winton-Finklea said. “I want them to understand it, but at the same time I don’t want anyone to feel that hatred or paranoia or you shouldn’t be in a certain place at a certain time, because of the color of your skin.”
Concurred Russell, who hopes to attend the rally for Martin this Saturday in Dayton, “‘We Are All Trayvon Martin’ is not just some glitz, activist slogan; there is a real fear and solidarity behind it. People who are suspicious of blacks treat us as this monolith where we have to act and dress in a certain way, and if we act in a thuggish way, we are opening ourselves up to suspicion naturally, rather than looking at what we’ve done. People will say, ‘He had it coming because he was wearing a hoodie and walking around suspiciously,’ and that’s criminalizing a state of being rather than an action.”
Kettering Police Lt. Craig Moore does not believe the stand your ground law will affect how the department handles its job, but does recommend the public think about the responsibilities of gun ownership. “If you want to have a concealed carry weapon, you need to ask yourself if you are ready to take another person’s life,” said Moore, who is also the department’s commander for community relations.
As for the racial profiling, which muddied the Zimmerman trial, Moore said, “That’s human nature, but it doesn’t make it right. We all have our bias, and it depends on whether people act on it.”
Federal law prohibits racial profiling in police work, and Kettering, like most departments, has a system in place to investigate profiling accusations. In three years, Moore said he has received complaints, but never found any of them substantiated. “We have a job to do,” he said. “It’s not personal. We have to work together if we want to make this community better.”
NKU’s Mannheimer acknowledged the inherent tension in accepting the jury’s verdict, even though “the shooting probably wouldn’t have happened if Martin had been white.” He added, however, that protests of the jury verdict are misguided because “the prosecutor didn’t overcome the presumption of innocence and didn’t prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. We’re lucky to be in a system that doesn’t put someone in jail for life without a fair trial.”
Staff writer Randy Tucker contributed to this report.