The right to self-defense is human nature and a fundamental principle of law.
But with a harsh prison sentence handed to a Black mother and the upcoming trial of an elderly Black man — both declared ineligible to claim Florida’s Stand Your Ground law — the truth remains that in America the right to self-defense appears reserved for Whites only.
When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin, it took protests, massive media attention and a national campaign for any charges to be fi led. Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense was quickly accepted. There is no respect for Black right to self-defense as shown in two current Florida cases Trevor Dooley Marissa Alexander as well as historical attempts to protect Black men, women and children, say analysts.
When George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin in late February, it took protests, massive media attention, and a national campaign before any charges were filed. The Sanford, Fla., neighborhood watch volunteer’s claim of self-defense was quickly accepted initially. Following intense media scrutiny, a major campaign and even a statement from the president, Mr. Zimmerman was charged with manslaughter and is out on bail in the highly charged case.
But consider the plight of Marissa Alexander: In August 2010, the Black mother and her parents say she fired a warning shot to stop an attack from her abusive husband. Yet in early May she was sentenced to 20 years in prison under Florida’s 10-20-life law. The bullet she fired hit no one but she was charged under mandatory minimum sentencing laws after firing the weapon. It was ruled a felony.
Consider the case of senior citizen Trevor Dooley: A Florida judge recently denied immunity to Mr. Dooley under Stand Your Ground, which allows citizens who feel threatened to defend themselves, even to the use of deadly force. The judge ruled there was no reasonable belief that deadly force was required when he shot neighbor David James in 2010. The fatal encounter began with a dispute over a youth skateboarding on a basketball court. It escalated into a fight. Mr. Dooley, who was 69 at the time, said he felt threatened by Mr. James and was being choked. The confrontation started after Mr. Dooley had left his home and walked across the street to the playground. It ended with Mr. Dooley fatally shooting the war veteran in front of the victim’s daughter. Jury selection in the Dooley manslaughter trial is set for Sept. 4. A pre-trial conference in the case is set for Aug. 22.
“Thirty states have Stand Your Ground laws or similar and these cases demonstrate without any doubt that no Black person was ever intended to benefit from this law. The difference we see between now and 20 years ago is how blatant the contempt is for us,” said Dr. Ava Muhammad, a lawyer and also national spokesperson for the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam.
Separation as offered by the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and Min. Farrakhan, his national representative, is the only solution but people continue to refuse it as the natural and inevitable outcome, Dr. Muhammad said.
She views the Alexander, Zimmerman, and Dooley cases as classic examples of an enemy’s mischief-making by means of the law. When outcomes look favorable to Blacks, Whites simply change the laws, she argued.
Human right to self-preserve life
“All people have a legitimate right to defend themselves under assault and history is replete with such efforts, dating back to the Haitian Revolution, when the Haitian Army defeated France, Spain and England, the top three militaries of that time,” said Dr. Conrad Worrill, former chairman of the National Black United Front and college professor. It’s not about advocating violence, but the right to self-preservation, he said.
“Non-violence shouldn’t be a way of life. Non-violence is not a belief system. Non-violence is a tactical maneuver in a movement to accomplish a certain set of demands and it has proven to be somewhat effective but even Gandhi engaged in armed struggle himself,” Dr. Worrill told The Final Call. His reference was to the Indian leader whose non-violent civil disobedience movement against British colonial rule inspired the strategy of the civil rights movement.
“The Black Wall Streets, the Rosewoods, all come into context as good examples of we didn’t have a military to defend ourselves when White people dropped bombs on Wall Street. We had an example in Philadelphia in ’84 when Mayor Wilson Goode dropped bombs on the MOVE people. Our history is replete with people using violence against us and we have not been in a position to defend ourselves,” Dr. Worrill continued.
Black Wall Street was a section of Tulsa, Okla., destroyed by Whites in 1921, following false reports of the attempted rape of a White woman by a Black male. There is strong suspicion that the assault on the thriving commercial area was due to White jealousy over Black success. In 1922, there was the destruction of the Black enclave Rosewood, Fla., spurred again by reports of a Black male’s rape of a White woman. Whites burned down the small community, lynching and hunting Black residents. In Tulsa and in Rosewood, Blacks had attempted to defend themselves from White assaults.
In 1985, police dropped an incendiary device destroying the home of MOVE and 60 houses in a Philadelphia neighborhood. Killed in the fire ignited by the infamous attack on the house on Osage Avenue were 11 people, with five children and MOVE founder John Africa among the victims. Tensions between MOVE and Philadelphia police had brewed since the late 1970s and included an encounter in which an officer was killed and nine MOVE members were jailed. The 1985 massacre occurred under the administration of Black mayor Wilson Goode, who would later admit he feared his own police department.
When the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense invoked the right to openly bear arms in the 1960s, the group was targeted by federal and local law enforcement officials, with members jailed and killed in encounters with police officers. In an infamous example, Chicago Panther leader Fred Hampton and Mark Clark were shot to death in a 1969 police raid on the city’s West Side.
When the Nation of Islam declared the right to self-defense, in particular, as police officers attacked Muslim houses of worship, the movement was falsely maligned for violent hate teachings—though there is no history of Muslim aggression against law enforcement. As early as 1934, Muslims in Detroit were attacked by police, in addition to attacks on temples in Monroe, La. and Los Angeles in the early 1960s, with Minister Troy X Cade beaten and left for dead in a swamp. He survived the attack. In Los Angeles, however, Ronald T. X Stokes was shot to death by police in their raid on the temple. Then in 1972, police attacked the temple in Harlem and an officer was left dead in the attack under a hail of bullets fired by NYPD. In 1994, there was another standoff with armed officers prevented from entering the mosque in New York. Then in 2010 the Nation of Islam mosque in London’s Brixton neighborhood was broken into by officers claiming it was a cannabis factory. Later officials said the policemen did not know the building was a mosque.
John H. White, who was 57 at the time, had a prison sentence for manslaughter commuted in December 2010 by David Paterson, New York’s only Black governor, as he left office. Mr. White had been convicted of manslaughter and criminal possession of a weapon for shooting Daniel Ciccario, 17, on August 9, 2006. A drunken group of White teens had threatened Mr. White’s son, forcing him to leave a party and then came to the family home. The group yelled racial slurs and threats, according to the White family as the father stood at his driveway with a handgun. Though Mr. White argued he was defending his wife and family, he was convicted of the fatal shooting in Suffolk County, N.Y.
A Washington D.C. March 24 rally in support of justice for Trayvon Martin. George Zimmerman, Trayvon’s killer, is free on bond after claiming he was acting under the Florida “Stand your ground” self-defense law. Photo: Ashahed M. Muhammad
Mr. White said the White youth lunged for the gun and it went off. He also testified that the incident reminded him of stories of White mobs, lynchings and KKK destruction of his grandfather’s business in Alabama.
Denying protection to Blacks
According to Akinyele Umoja, historian and Georgia State University professor, laws preventing Blacks from owning guns have existed since slavery. Even when Blacks and Whites were indentured servants, laws still passed denying all Blacks the right to own guns and various things were done to keep Blacks from getting ammunition if they acquired a weapon, he said.
“When you had communities and organizations like the Deacons for Self-Defense and Justice (a Black armed self-defense organization of the 1960s), often times they had to go outside of the community for what they knew would be a sustained battle between White supremacists and defenders of the Black community,” he said.
Prof. Umoja said there’s always been inequality on the issue of gun ownership advocacy for Blacks in America. The Black Panther Party fought for the right to bear arms as a first campaign during their patrols of abusive police in Oakland, Calif., and one of the first acts of the legislature was to create more restrictive gun laws, he said.
The battle for Blacks’ right to defend themselves has resulted in the imbalance in the criminal justice system playing out in the Zimmerman, Dooley, and Alexander cases, activists said.
“It’s like being in a bad dream that we hope we wake up from but unfortunately, it’s reality,” said Helen Jenkins, Ms. Alexander’s stepmother. Ms. Jenkins once saw her daughter and grandchildren almost every day but it’s been a struggle since visits were stripped away as a result of Marissa Alexander’s incarceration.
A march and rally scheduled for May 29 in Jacksonville, Fla., to support Ms. Alexander and to help raise money for her rising legal bills was cancelled however the family’s efforts to support her continue.
Raoul Jenkins called his daughter’s ordeal a mess and finds it difficult to accept. “To be quite honest with you I have issues trying to sleep. I wake up and shake my head in disbelief to things Marissa had to endure in terms of the abuse she had to go through and for it to continue on with being incarcerated,” he said.
“I’m really disappointed in the justice system. I’m not happy with the prosecutor’s office at all. I tried to trust that the justice system would work in our favor once the facts came out. … After the verdict on that day when the halls were cleared, I cried on my parents’ shoulders because I was hurt very badly,” said Ms. Alexander.
Florida prosecutor Angela Corey told The Final Call the Alexander incident was a firearm case and the minimum mandatory sentence was appropriately applied under law. Ms. Alexander’s family and activists say she should have had the ability to stand her ground, particularly because of her history as a battered woman and the active protective order she had against husband Rico Gray. Supporters say the incident happened nine days after the mother of a toddler and twins had given birth. They also point out that Ms. Alexander was a legal gun owner.
States Attorney Corey charged there was no warning shot and Ms. Alexander fired at her husband and his two sons. When asked about Ms. Alexander’s ability to stand her ground compared to Mr. Zimmerman’s use of the law, the prosecutor replied, “There is no comparison.”
“Stand Your Ground” is a procedural process heard before a judge who can dismiss the state’s case if the judge believes a person acted in self-defense, said Ms. Corley.
“We can’t have children being shot at in our community and whether it’s a man or a woman firing a gun it doesn’t matter if they’re not firing it in self-defense,” Ms. Corey told The Final Call in a phone interview. She insisted the state showed mercy to Ms. Alexander and took her background into consideration by offering a three-year deal in exchange for pleading guilty.
Ms. Jenkins says her daughter received no mercy, just cruel and unusual punishment.
Ms. Corey would rather send an innocent person to prison than admit she might have rushed to judgment and made a mistake, said Ms. Jenkins.
According to Ava Muhammad, Whites in Florida are sending a message, which could only happen in a construct of White superiority and Black inferiority. The message is Blacks have no rights that Whites are obligated to respect, she said.
Mr. Jenkins said when he visited his daughter immediately after sentencing, her words were, “Okay. Next step!” Helen Jenkins feels her stepdaughter has become a catalyst for changes in gun laws.
New laws, old legacy of oppression
Professor Marcella Washington of the National Conference of Black Political Scientists said U.S. laws have historically been used as a cover for racism. “This is Jim Crow all over again. This is old wine in a new bottle and new oppression of Black people,” she said.
Part of the issue is federalism, the idea that states can do their own thing, Prof. Washington explained. The issue of power of states over the federal government is what led to the Civil War, the civil rights movement, and Stand Your Ground today, she told The Final Call.
“In the minds of many, these laws are written to protect White people, for White men to have arms. These laws have been written and the way they are applied seems as for Whites only,” Professor Washington added.
Dr. Muhammad feels recent so-called revelations in the Zimmerman case are about conditioning the public’s mindset to accept the lowest possible conviction. There have been reports that evidence released by the police show Mr. Zimmerman had a broken nose and injuries that night he killed Trayvon Martin. “The judicial system in Florida has decided an acquittal may result in what they call rioting and have decided they’re going to need a conviction, though it may be involuntary manslaughter, which is similar to driving recklessly and killing somebody,” Dr. Muhammad argued.
It’s just like the Oscar Grant case where the cop ultimately did 11 months for execution, Dr. Muhammad explained. Oscar Grant was an unarmed, handcuffed Black male shot in the back by a transit cop New Year’s Day 2009, while lying face down on a train platform.
“I want people to understand the futility and really it becomes self-destructive. … It’s not rational. We’ve been doing this not for years, not decades, but centuries. We’re in our fifth century with these people expecting different or better treatment,” Dr. Muhammad said.