Another Murder Case In Florida Sparks National Outrage : Code Switch The Michael Dunn trial became a flashpoint for ongoing debates about race, criminal justice, and politics that it's not capable of resolving.
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Another Murder Case In Florida Sparks National Outrage

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Another Murder Case In Florida Sparks National Outrage

Another Murder Case In Florida Sparks National Outrage

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

And now let's listen to some of the discussion spurred by the jury verdict in the Michael Dunn trial. Dunn is the white Florida man who shot and killed Jordan Davis, an unarmed black teenager at point blank range. The jury deadlocked on the charge of first degree murder of Davis, but did convict Michael Dunn of lesser charges, including the attempted murder of others who were with Davis at the time in a vehicle with him.

Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team has been following the discussion. He's in our studios. Gene, good morning.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And of course a lot has been said on the news and on social media, but you're trying to get us to a little deeper level here. Who'd you talk with?

DEMBY: So I spoke to two writers who wrote essays that got a lot of traction in the immediate aftermath of the verdict and who talked about a lot of the broader issues surrounding this trial.

JAMELLE BOUIE: I'm Jamelle Bouie. I am a staff writer at The Daily Beast.

TA-NEHISI COATES: I'm Ta-Nehisi Coates. I'm a national correspondent at The Atlantic.

INSKEEP: What do you mean broader issues?

DEMBY: So both Coates and Bouie talked about the role that our history and that race plays in the way a case like this is both talked about outside of the courtroom and in the courtroom. The problem is that a case like this is about the particulars of the case, but the discreet particularities of this case get mashed into all the other similar cases like it. This case becomes about Treyvon Martin. This case also becomes about the shooting of Sean Bell.

It also becomes about the shooting of Amadou Diallo. And so all of those things come to bear in the conversation around this case.

INSKEEP: You raise a good point when you say this is a particular case, it's a particular trial of particular events, but in many cases those specifics do end up getting mashed into the larger discussion of race. We end up hearing about, after the Zimmerman trial, the detail of a hoodie and what does the hoodie mean. In this case it was called the loud music trial.

DEMBY: Right. So just as in the Zimmerman case, where the hoodie became kind of a racial Rorschach, the music that Davis and his friends were listening to in their car became kind of a signifier of their putative criminality.

INSKEEP: So when music gets raised - essentially as a defense. They were playing loud music. I felt threatened. What does that make people talk about?

DEMBY: So the conversation often turns to this idea of respectability - that is, if Treyvon Martin had not been wearing his hoodie or if Jordan Davis and his friends had turned down their music, maybe they could've preempted this suspicion that they were criminals. But both Bouie and Ta-Nehisi Coates shot that idea down.

BOUIE: Respectability politics is both a response of and utterly incompatible with the existence of racism. (Unintelligible) by definition racism obliterates the individual.

INSKEEP: Obliterates the individual. His argument is that in some cases it's not going to matter what you do.

DEMBY: Right. I mean if the conversation becomes about what you're wearing or what you're listening to, then the conversation is about you becoming part of this undifferentiated mass of kind of black menace, right. And Ta-Nehisi Coates offered up a really chilling personal anecdote as a rejoinder to that idea.

COATES: A buddy of mine who was killed, his mother was a radiologist. She made the mistake of being an American and buying her son a Jeep for his 23rd birthday. He went out in that Jeep. The police were out in Prince George's County, were looking for a suspect with a Jeep of this similar make. They ran the tags. The tags came up to this woman in Pennsylvania who was his mother, 'cause that's where it was registered.

They assumed it was stolen, followed this young man through three jurisdictions, and shot him. My friend Prince Jones was a born again Christian. He was going to see his daughter and his fiance. His mother was perfectly upstanding. And her child was taken away. Respectability has nothing to do with this. I talked to Lucia McBath, Jordan Davis's mother.

I talked Jordan about that. It's not like we didn't have a conversation about how to, you know, comport himself when he's out. But that boy is 17 years old. You can't, like, say the way to not get killed is to have the maturity of a 45-year-old. I mean that's just, you know, okay, so then we lose. Like that is actual racist logic because you are not requiring that of white young men.

You're only requiring that of black people. That is racism.

INSKEEP: Powerful story there from Ta-Nehisi Coates. And Gene Demby, this is a reminder that while what we have here is a trial about specific facts, they spread out and there's a story in many people's heads that gets recounted, that they remember, that they tell to other people at a moment like this.

DEMBY: That's absolutely right. Again, this story becomes about a bunch of other stories like this. And these criminal cases are not set up to resolve these other stories, and that's why it gets so messy. These cases can't deal with any of the other issues at play.

INSKEEP: And of course there's also a political issue that gets raised here. For example, the Stand Your Ground law, which has been hotly debated and is going to be again after this trial.

DEMBY: Right. And to go back to the idea of snowballing, the Jordan Davis shooting happens after the Treyvon Martin shooting. The conversation around that case became about Florida's Stand Your Ground law. This case has, again, become a flashpoint for that same conversation. The Stand Your Ground statute is really polarizing. It's really popular among Republicans. It's deeply unpopular among Democrats.

And so Jamelle Bouie was talking a little bit about how this case doesn't really move the political landscape.

BOUIE: To repeal that law, in effect, either means building coalitions with people who support that law or represent constituencies who support that law, constituencies that are mostly white, that are in conservative parts in the state and have the attitudes they have for like grounded historical reasons. So even in that sort of step one, how can we do something about this solution, repeal the law, is almost impossible, right?

Like, it's just not going happen. You know, the way our political system's designed, there's no way to fix that legislatively without the explicit cooperation and support of white Americans. Let's say that only 20 percent of white Americans believe that there are no significant racial disparities in American life. In the American political system, that might as well just mean the majority though.

INSKEEP: Writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jamelle Bouie. Is all this a reminder, Gene Demby, that we just cannot expect too much of a given trial? We cannot expect it necessarily to address these larger issues in a meaningful way?

DEMBY: These trials tend to focus our attention on issues surrounding race in the criminal justice system, but they can't resolve them. The criminal justice system is a really bad proxy for the resolution of these big centuries-old historical issues that may come to bear on the criminal justice system. So there's this really weird paradox that happens in that we're talking about a trial, but we're not talking about the trial itself.

We're talking about everything all at once, and trials just aren't equipped to do that.

INSKEEP: Gene, thanks very much.

DEMBY: Thank you so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's Gene Demby of NPR's Code Switch team. It's NPR News.

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