I was not surprised when I learned that Michael Dunn hadn’t been charged with first-degree murder. He may have racked up a lifetime in prison, but the jurors refused to attribute any of that time to the murder of Jordan Davis. After all, it was just last year that a jury acquitted George Zimmermann of Trayvon Martin’s murder. And that wasn’t surprising because prior to the Martin incident, black men had been consistent and deliberate targets of violence for hundreds of years in this country.
While I will stand by the statement that none of this should be surprising, I do so reluctantly. When I think of Jordan Davis, I automatically think of every black male that has been a source of guidance and support for me – unjustly robbed of their lives simply because of their sex and skin color. While none of the men in my life have suffered this fate, the possibility is real. I think of the neighbor that called the cops on my uncle for handing out flyers on their street. I think of my father sitting in a taxicab with a cop training a gun on the back of his head as the driver whispered a warning to stay still. I think of every story I’ve heard in between those two extremes and the reality of Davis’ story is painfully clear. Martin’s, Amadou Diallo’s, and Sean Bell’s stories are just as real.
But unlike the cases of Martin, Diallo and Bell, the Davis case is special because there were three black men who survived to tell the tale. They give voice to the humanity of black men. Usually, that voice has already been silenced and then absent from the aftermath as if it was never there to begin with.
Their testimony goes beyond giving a voice to Davis though; it is substantiated by facts that are difficult to interpret against Davis when analyzed closely. The pivotal fact in the case seemed to be that the boys drove away immediately after Dunn fired his gun into the backseat, hitting Davis. This became the foundation for Dunn’s defense – Dunn claimed that Davis had pointed a shotgun at him, so his lawyer argued that the boys could have dropped their weapons in the three minutes they were away from the scene of the crime. This assertion was basically invalidated by the facts that the police never found any of the boys’ weapons and that the only shots fired in the incident came from Dunn’s pistol. But it also doesn’t sit right with me because it completely negates the social hierarchy overlaying the encounter.
There were three key players in the incident: Dunn, Davis and Davis’ friends. The key guide for interpretation is the power dynamic between white men and black men. The basics of the dynamic suggest that Davis and his friends had signaled to Dunn with their “rap crap” that they were an active threat. This was the initial trigger for the encounter. When he asked them to turn it down, Davis invalidated Dunn’s attempt to police their behavior. He decided for himself that Dunn had no right to tell him at what volume they could play the music – and in reality, he did not have that right. This decision was a clear breach of the hierarchy that placed Dunn’s request above Davis’ right. Davis’s refusal to comply was the second, and most important trigger for the encounter. It was a challenge to Dunn’s manhood. The argument that followed, punctuated by Davis’ movements in the backseat, was just the trigger that confirmed/justified Dunn’s final decision to shoot Davis. He was only looking for a little provocation when they turned the music back up – anything to give him an excuse.
If we dig even deeper into the dynamics of this interaction, aided by the testimony of Davis’ friends and Dunn’s behavior afterward, the truth of the situation is ridiculously apparent.
It can’t be ignored that Davis and his friends were definitely warned to avoid situations such as their encounter with Dunn. In a short video released by the New York Times, Davis’ father explained that he’d told Jordan to be wary of how he acted in public. A statement like this is far from extraordinary. For young black boys, learning how to navigate the discrimination they will face is like a right of passage. The Stripes’ own staff editor, Evan Jackson ‘15, explains that his mother told him never to run in public areas like a mall, not to wear his hood outside, and when confronted by the police, to ask permission before he moved his hands. But of course, what black boys do with this knowledge is still up to them.
Davis’ friends testified that Davis had said he was “tired of people telling [him] what to do”. It may sound simple, but Davis was choosing to rebel in a situation that transcends a simple act of teenage defiance. Whether he was thinking about it or not, he chose to ignore the history of being a black man in America. He chose to ignore the danger of his very existence. Davis’ friends weren’t ignoring any of that. In a more pragmatic state of mind than Davis’, they saw the situation escalating and were planning to leave the gas station as soon as one of them returned from the station convenience store. Simply put, they were scared. Then, when they saw the worst possible outcome of the situation play out as shots were fired into their backseat, their fear still told them to flee, not fight. The main point of this analysis is not to incriminate Davis or even to praise his friends’ judgment, but to highlight decision processes that are all valid and unmistakably human.
It’s important to recognize Dunn for what he is, too – human. But unlike the boys, whose humanity is essentially one-dimensional if not erased all together, Dunn had the freedom to layer his actions with the full depth of human emotion. This allowed him to feign remorse during the trial and create possible reasons to dismiss his suspicious behavior. For example, when he left the scene of the crime with his fiancé to return to their hotel and order a pizza, he was simple having an “out of body experience” and not thinking clearly. He also pumped up his self-defense claim with the rhetoric of victimhood, insisting that he was the one who’d been attacked. He even went so far as to compare himself to a rape victim who wore revealing clothes and therefore invited the attack. But in the same way that the boys’ humanity was erased by their blackness, the bullshit (for lack of a better word) lurking behind Dunn’s claims was obscured by his whiteness.
It’s wholly unfair to say that all white people are the same bigoted racists, even if the racialized hierarchy of this country is as implicit in their upbringing as it is in a black person’s. But Dunn opened himself up to the label of “bigot” when he shot Jordan Davis. I don’t think he felt any kind of guilt when he fled to that hotel; he was just trying to avoid the legal punishment for his action. His claim of victimhood is also ridiculous: if he truly believed he was the victim, why didn’t he report his transgressors? Why didn’t he tell his fiancé immediately that he thought he’d seen them pointing a shotgun at him? And how can he really stick with that despicable rape victim comparison when he instigated the entire interaction by asking the boys to turn their music down? Did he maintain his victimhood when he not only fired 10 shots into the backseat, but also got out of his car when the boys’ SUV drove away to fire more shots at them? If that isn’t enough to reveal his true character, Dunn wrote letters to his fiancé in prison that documented his bigotry. For example, he suggested that more people should kill thugs (read: black people) so that “eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”
Dunn saw Davis and his friends as “thugs,” basically a waste of life. What would’ve happened had a car full of white boys rolled up next to Dunn, blasting loud music? Would he have even made the effort to roll down his window to engage with them? If he made it that far, would he have thought twice about firing at them, even if they’d displayed the same mouthy behavior as Davis? Would he have seen them as kids instead of hoodlums or troublemakers – someone’s son or brother?
The Twitter hashtag, #dangerousblackkids, became a themed response to the Dunn trial. The Tweets show pictures of young black kids, doing normal things kids do like playing outside or sleeping on someone’s lap. When Dunn looked at Davis and those boys, he didn’t find these images in their faces. I doubt he could even conceive of them.
More than anything, the outcome of the Dunn trial brings me to a conclusion that’s hard to swallow: America is still not ready to consider black people as humans. We started out as 3/5ths of a person and events like these communicate the bitter truth about our progress. It’s not about the fact that Dunn’s emotional states could factor into the trial. If Dunn could exercise the benefit of the doubt and lay claim to guilt and fear as excuses, why couldn’t Davis’ friends do the same? Who gets to be a multi-layered person, with a unique personality and disposition influenced by the social/cultural realities of our country? Who gets to be human, today?
Who gets to cry?