It didn’t start with Trayvon Martin. Kimani Gray, Kendrec McDade, Timothy Russell, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant and dozens of other of young black men, weaponless, feared, have been gunned down in modern America, their shooters usually freed or facing only minimal sentences.
After George Zimmerman killed Trayvon in Sanford, Florida in 2012, Bruce Springsteen said, “Trayvon Martin is Amadou Diallo,” invoking the unarmed African immigrant gunned down by New York City police in 1999, holding only his wallet, and sang, “you can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
Trayvon’s story bore a chilling resemblance to civil rights icon Emmett Till, the 14-year-old black boy, also returning from a store with candy, who was shot in the head in 1955 in another small southern town by a stranger with easy access to a gun, who, like Zimmerman, raised substantial funds for his legal defense and was quickly acquitted.
It didn’t end with Trayvon Martin. Three months after the 17-year-old’s shooting, John Spooner, an elderly white resident of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was convinced that his 13-year-old African-American neighbor Darius Simmons was a burglar who had stolen his cache of shotguns a few days earlier.
As Darius and his mother collected their family’s garbage cans from the curb, Spooner confronted the boy, gun in hand. Darius put his hands up, and his mother asked Spooner “why he had that gun on my baby.” Security footage shows that the boy quickly moved back, and then Spooner shot him once in the chest. As Darius turned and ran, Spooner fired a second shot at his back. He tried to fire a third shot, but his gun jammed. Darius ran a little further, then collapsed and died in the street in his mother’s arms.
Darius’s home was searched immediately after the shooting. No guns were found. At his trial, Spooner showed no remorse and said that he also had wanted to kill Darius’s older brother, who had run into the street to help Darius after the shooting. Spooner testified that his shooting of Darius was “justice,” and that “I wanted those shotguns back. They were a big part of my life.” Spooner was convicted of first-degree intentional homicide, largely due to the videotape from his own security cameras, which depicted him going after the child without any pretense of self-defense.
Nine months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, four black teenaged boys were in a car stopped at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida. Michael Dunn, 46, complained about the loud music emanating from the boys’ SUV, and a verbal exchange followed. Dunn, who is white, says he thought the boys had a gun, and so he opened fire into their vehicle, killing Jordan Davis, 17. Jordan and his three friends, it turned out, were unarmed.
After the shooting, Dunn went to a hotel, ate pizza and went to sleep. He was arrested the next morning, two hours away from the crime scene. In a letter written from jail as he awaited trial for first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder, Dunn called his shooting victim a “thug” and said the world would be a better place if more people “killed these fucking idiots.” Referring to African-Americans, Dunn said, “the more I am exposed to these people, the more prejudiced against them I become.”
Inexplicably, prosecutors failed to introduce Dunn’s racist letters into evidence, even after the defense opened the door to character evidence by eliciting testimony that Dunn was “gentle and peaceful.” Dunn was convicted of attempted murder for shooting at the boys’ car as it sped away from his gunfire, but the jury hung on the top charge of murder of Jordan Davis. Dunn awaits retrial.
18 months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, Jonathan Ferrell, 24, was driving home at 2 a.m. in Charlotte, North Carolina, when he crashed his car, causing him to climb out the rear window to escape. He went to a nearby house and banged on the door to summon help. The white woman inside, afraid, called 911. Police arrived and Ferrell ran toward them. A white police officer fired 12 shots at him, hitting him 10 times. Ferrell’s fiancée said, “I feel like if somebody had just taken a step back and really figured out what was going wrong with him, they would have known he didn’t cause a threat to anybody.”
Ferrell, an African-American football player for Florida A&M University, died instantly that night, September 14, 2013. He was unarmed, had no drugs in his system, and had only a small amount of alcohol in his blood, less than the legal limit permitted for driving. The officer was charged with voluntary manslaughter and awaits trial.
20 months after the shooting of Trayvon Martin, another tragedy occurred in a suburb of Detroit, eerily similar to the Jonathan Ferrell shooting that preceded it. In Dearborn Heights, Michigan, 19-year-old Renisha McBride’s car had broken down and her cell phone had died. After knocking on a door for help at 4 a.m., McBride, who was African-American, was fatally shot in the face by a 54-year-old white homeowner who feared she was a burglar.
Prosecutors say the homeowner, Theodore Wafer, opened his front door and fired through his locked screen door. “I can’t imagine in my wildest dreams what that man feared from her to shoot her in the face,” her mother, Monica McBride, said. “I would like to know why. She brought him no danger.”
For nearly two weeks, no arrest was made, though the shooter was known immediately and McBride, while inebriated, had no weapon. After community outcry and national media attention, Wafer was charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and felony firearm possession.
Theodore Wafer’s trial begins on Monday. Wayne County Judge Dana Hathway said it’s up to Wafer to prove he “had honest and reasonable belief of death” when he fired the shotgun, as “someone knocking on your screen door does not create a self-defense.”
What do all these cases have in common?
Widespread, implicit racial bias, the American enthusiasm for unrestricted gun ownership, and expansive Stand Your Ground laws combine to enable the continued shootings of African-American young people who are taking out the trash, knocking on a door, or stopping at a gas station.
It’s no longer just the police who are accused of racial profiling. A prolifically armed citizenry now stands ready to back up its suspicions with gunfire. In my recent book “Suspicion Nation,” I explain how these three potent, pernicious forces are the powder kegs underlying these horrific tragedies. Each case is shocking. But it’s time to stop being shocked and start taking action to combat our fears of our black neighbors, to rein in gun violence, and to repeal Stand Your Ground laws which significantly increase deaths, especially of African Americans.
Do we value human life? Do we want to fully embrace African-Americans as equals under the law? Or do we want to continue to pretend that these cases have nothing in common with one another and are just stand alone tragedies? Do we want to save the next Trayvon, the next Renisha, or do we want to blame them, as their shooters always try to do, for walking while black? Does anyone really think that Theodore Wafer would have shot me if I’d been knocking on his door seeking help in the night?
In his final speech before he was assassinated by a white shooter, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “All we say to America is be true to what you said on paper.” On paper, we despise racism and violence. It’s up to each of us to be true to those core American values by standing against them and pushing for legal reforms that bring us closer to the people we want to be.
If we don’t, we can only brace ourselves for the next shooting, the next grieving mother, the next victim-blaming killer, the next unsatisfying attempt by the legal system to bring justice in a case where the forces are much bigger than can be contained by one courtroom.