Deconstructing the Dunn Trial: The Weaponization of Blackness vs. White “Fear”

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ICouldBeNextBy Khalid Beydoun. Republished from CommonDreams.

(The Florida Times-Union, Kelly Jordan/ Associated Press)

Jordan Davis was afraid. He wished he was at home with his parents after the first shot – never anticipating that his routine goodbye before a night out with is friends would be his final farewell. The second shot ricocheted off of the red SUV, and eight more would follow from Michael Dunn’s gun.

Davis and his three friends were unarmed. However, their Black skin, amplified by the “thug music” coming from their car, was weapon enough for Dunn to unleash a barrage of shots that killed Davis. Dunn fired three shots as the car retreated with Davis’ dead body within it. Yet it was his “fear” that determined the jury’s verdict on Saturday.

Fear and racism are distinct perspectives, segregated by the line that divides autonomic emotion from ideology. Yet, for Dunn, they were same during his murder trial and on the day he killed Jordan Davis. He imagined a “black man with a shotgun,” but instead, killed an unarmed black boy. Dunn’s “fear” may have been conjured up or constructed by his defense. But it was inarguably code for racism, which armed him with a defense that has so far saved him from a first-degree murder conviction.

Weaponization of Blackness

Hours before the verdict was reached, Aura Bogado wrote: “The Dunn Trial will determine whether or not an unarmed black child’s body is, in and of itself, a deadly weapon.” Like Trayvon Martin, another unarmed Florida youth, the court reaffirmed that Blackness – in and of itself – posed an imminent threat.

Michael Dunn “was not convicted for killing a black boy” as the jury could not agree to first-degree murder charges, thereby establishing that Dunn’s fear was legitimate.

Again, it was Dunn that fired ten shots at an SUV with four youth. It was Davis, and his three friends, who braced themselves with each consecutive shot, not knowing how many shots would come but fearing that the next one could take their life. It was Dunn who chose not to call the police after hearing the “thug music” coming from the SUV, and proceeded to grab his gun from his car.

It was Davis, alone, whose life was taken that day on November 23rd 2012, yet Dunn’s irrational and racist fear of a “black, masculine menace” that steered the trajectory of the trial and determined its verdict.

The Racial Construction of Fear

Jordan Davis could not testify about his fear in court. Dunn’s fear trumped Davis’s, and he unloaded shot after shot until that possibility was still and motionless. Fear did not push Dunn to run or drive away, avoid engagement, or call the police. Rather, it pulled him in the other direction. His imagination, colored by white privilege and anti-black racism, emboldened him to take justice into his own hands.

Criminal courts, time after time, have cleared white assailants and emboldened the vigilante racist killing illustrated by Dunn, and Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman. Beneath the strategic claims of fear is an air of invincibility endorsed by the court, and an institutionalized racism that facilitates the resonance of such absurd defenses that we all, as Americans, are heirs of and have inherited.

The strength of Dunn’s defense was directly proportional to the degree of his racist performance in court. Dunn’s vilified Davis’s Blackness, corroborated it with an indictment of hip hop as “gangster rap,” and constructed the anatomy of the stereotypical black “thug” for the jury.

Mitigating the specific intent necessary for first-degree murder required this robust display of racism, and the concomitant presentation of white victimhood that often accompanies it. Yet, the “victim” was alive in court, and the “threat” dead and buried, highlighting the racial juxtaposition that typically characterizes murder trials involving a white assailant and a black victim. Such trials are also real time exercises that highlight the structural racism embedded in every level of the criminal justice system – from police profiling, school-to-prison pipelines, and surely, criminal trials themselves.

Racism within the courts is neither past nor present – it is always. This imminent threat, I fear, will only embolden and arm more Michael Dunns to shoot down and kill more Jordan Davises, until racism is no longer a viable weapon in criminal trials.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.

Khaled A. Beydoun is a faculty member at the UCLA School of Law where he focuses on immigration law, criminal law, critical race theory, and legal history. Follow him on Twitter @khaledbeydoun.

4 comments on “Deconstructing the Dunn Trial: The Weaponization of Blackness vs. White “Fear”
  1. I am not quite sure how you are meaning “tribalism,” but I see it only as a lever at best in these two situations.

    I think that the situation in Ukraine is a manufactured revolution with the US aiming for “regime change.” It has become yet another pawn situation between Russia and the US, and I would agree that if there was not as much hardship among the people of Ukraine that it would have been much more difficult to bring them to the point they are at.

    Regarding the situation of Dunn… someone should write a book “What’s Wrong With Florida.” I believe that we are seeing “stand your ground laws” being extended to cover “fear” that has no basis other than racism. I do not believe that racism is tribalism. It is much uglier than that.

    There was an analysis last year on the “stand your ground laws” in Florida, and hands down the victims were majority non0white and those claim SYG defense were white. In those cases when a person of coli=or was trying to use SYG as a defense, it was rejected by juries. This is true even in the case of an African American woman who shot her ex-husband who had broken into her house and was attacking her.

    SYG and the “fear” defense are indeed a frightening combination. For it is giving permission for racist “fear” and stereotype to be used as a legitimate reason to murder someone – if you happen to be white.

  2. I am referring to tribalistic thinking a behavior IE e against the “other”. The other being those who are not members of my “tribe” – blacks, liberals, latinos, Native Americans, Sara Palins’ “real Americans” etc.

    It is a kind of thinking, a belief that is very old and ingrained and perpetuated from generation to generation. A lot pf what is going on in the Ukraine has to do with the pro Russian and anti-Russian forces in that country, and Russia and the US are egging it on. But the feelings have been there for a while and both sides are making good use of it.

  3. Tribalism as you define it (and the way it is often used) covers a huge array of destruction. Regardless, underlying the concept is that the hatred and fear of “others” is somehow natural and “instinctive.” As a sociologist, and sometimes student of history, I have problems with that. Namely, if such an instinct existed,none of the Europeans ever would have made it 10 yards off the boat when they got to the “new world.” Trade and exchange between groups would have been impossible. Children are generally curious of human differences (and novel items in general), not afraid, etc, etc.

    I do see what you are saying, but I have to choke on the irony of calling the racism exhibited in using fear of blacks as an acceptable reason to shoot to kill in Florida, “tribalism.” The term implies a high degree of identity and “ethnocentrism.” Or that (white) Dunn was right in acting from fear to kill an unarmed (black) Davis
    I’m not sure it really applies in Ukraine either as the conflict is between the government and those who feel that the government has backed away from “democratic” functioning. However, there is clearly a proxy conflict occurring between Russia and the US, and it is Ukrainian blood in the streets.

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