Podcast: Jordan Davis, Colorblind Prosecutions And ‘Presumed Guiltiness of Black Bodies’
On this week’s episode of Unauthorized Disclosure, Kevin Gosztola and I speak with independent journalist and filmmaker Raven Rakia about the Michael Dunn verdict, Jordan Davis’ defiance of respectability politics, the lack of outrage over police killings, and how structural and implicit racism work together to perpetuate what Raven calls the “presumed guiltiness of black bodies.”
The prosecution’s omission of race from the Dunn trial, explained Raven, “plays to the need for a colorblind society…so people don’t have to take responsibility.”
In the discussion portion of the show, Kevin and I talk about the nuances missing from US media coverage of the protests in Venezuela and Ukraine, the LAPD’s Israel-inspired love affair with drones, the US Border Patrol killing a Mexican man for allegedly throwing rocks at the officers chasing him, a terrible court decision that absolves the NYPD of wrongdoing for spying on Muslims, and the the disastrous implications for press freedom in the aftermath of the David Miranda case.
Below is a transcript of our interview with Raven.
RANIA KHALEK, Dispatches from the Underclass: Can you start off by giving your take, your reaction to the verdict?
RAVEN RAKIA, independent journalist and filmmaker: My reaction to the verdict was a little bit weird because on the one hand I was a little bit surprised by a few of the verdicts, specifically him being guilty for attempted murder and also I was disappointed of course in the mistrial on the murder of Jordan Davis.
What I wrote about in the post, it kind of touched a few different points. At the end I was very concerned with the three boys in Jordan Davis’s car and how they’re going to deal with seeing their friend killed in front of them. And I was also very impressed with Jordan Davis in how he handled his interaction with Michael Dunn.
KHALEK: That was one thing that I found really moving that you mentioned in your post is this idea that, no, Jordan Davis acted totally appropriately and you mentioned you were proud of him for standing up for himself and not turning down his music just because this angry white man was getting in his face about it. And I thought that was really interesting because there’s always this respectability politics happening where you need to be polite, and if you’re black you need to talk to people politely so that you don’t scare them. But in this case, no, he shouldn’t have to bow down because white people are uncomfortable with the music playing. So I don’t know if you want to say something about that.
RAKIA: Yeah, definitely. Of course I was really proud of Jordan Davis. In his interaction with Michael Dunn, which is really the only thing we personally know about him, he rejected respectability politics right off the bat. He refused to turn his music down.
I think what most people forget is that respectability politics, it really has a long history in the US, like the good black person versus the bad black person who’s threatening. The history goes back to slavery and it’s very racist, sort of like the way people dress and the way people interact with white people. If they go out of their way to make white people comfortable back in the day, like saying “yes sir, no sir, yes ma’am, no ma’am,” that was a good black person, versus the black person who didn’t do that was seen as threatening in the fact that they were defying white men.
So in this case Jordan Davis defied Michael Dunn and then ended up dead after that, so it’s a very interesting parallel.
KHALEK: I also wanted to ask you about the situation with the prosecutor. In this case I think it was Angela Corey, the same Florida state prosecutor who prosecuted George Zimmerman, was a part of the prosecution team for Michael Dunn. I just find it really interesting that with the Zimmerman case she failed to secure a guilty verdict and with the Dunn case it was this bizarre—they got the attempted murder guilty verdicts but then he wasn’t convicted of murdering Jordan Davis.
So I find it interesting that this was the same woman who prosecuted Marissa Alexander, who was a black woman who shot the gun in the air to scare off her abusive husband and didn’t hurt anybody and she got 20 years in prison, which I think is being appealed right now. But Angela Corey threw the book at this woman and she’s the same person that’s prosecuting the George Zimmerman’s and Michael Dunn’s.
Do you think it’s wise to rely on a system where people like Angela Corey are the ones prosecuting these situations, to rely on a legal and court system that’s inherently racist and typically never works to secure justice for black people who have been wronged?
RAKIA: I definitely don’t think it’s wise. And it’s important to note that with Zimmerman, he wasn’t even charged at first. There was a long battle just to get him to go to court in the first place. And then of course when he did go to court there was a not guilty verdict.
And then for Marissa Alexander, I mean these are three high profile cases that show a bit of the racial bias with prosecutors and also with stand your ground laws. A lot of people question why she used murder in the first degree for Michael Dunn and I think that’s a good question to ask. It’s a very hard verdict to get, saying it was pre-meditated murder with a person he just met. It would be a little bit difficult to get that verdict.
But it also says a lot of things about prosecutors in general. These are the same people who are instrumental to the war on drugs, which is a racist war on people of color, locking up people of color with harsh sentences for marijuana possessions and crack possessions. These prosecutors are the same people instrumental in the war on poverty or the war on poor people, where they lock up usually black or Latino people for petty crimes. When white people do it or white kids do it, it’s seen as growing pains.
So asking for prosecutors to be on our side in getting justice when a racist case like this comes up, it doesn’t really make much sense.
Even with police brutality activism it’s very much focused on getting the police officer indicted and then charged. I’ve seen with police brutality activism in New York, it makes the activists sort of partner with the prosecutors. So the prosecutors agree to do an investigation and then activists sort of back off and they won’t do civil disobedience because they want the prosecutor to continue on with the investigation and eventually indict the police officer.
KHALEK: I totally know what you’re talking about and that plays into what I want to ask you next and that is with the police brutality cases. What Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman did is so outrageous and it should outrage people. They should be very very angry and in the streets about it. But at the same time, it’s really the same mentality that goes into the routine police shootings of unarmed people of color, almost always black people, whether it’s Rekia Boyd in Chicago or Ramarley Graham in New York or Alan Blueford in Oakland, it’s the same mentality, it’s the same “Oh I thought he had a gun. He wouldn’t follow police commands. He wouldn’t do as I said.”
It’s literally the same kind of racial profiling and racism that goes into it, yet police shootings don’t seem to elicit the same kind of outrage that you see with the Trayvon Martin’s and Jordan Davis’s.
And so I guess I’m curious, why do you think that is? Why is it that when someone has a badge it seems to give them an extra layer of impunity from the public?
RAKIA: That’s a good question. I agree that when it’s a stand your ground law or when the person doesn’t have a badge, there’s more outrage and I think there’s more outrage with liberals. I don’t think conservatives are really outraged either way.
Trayvon Martin had the NAACP backing. When I was abroad, his name is known all over the world. And victims of police brutality aren’t. So they had much more media attention, the NAACP was sending out weekly emails to their network about Trayvon Martin and no victim of police killing ever got that from the NAACP to my knowledge.
I think it goes back to being able to scapegoat the problem to individual racism mainly and also liberals not wanting to acknowledge state violence because to acknowledge state violence would mean to acknowledge that it’s a bipartisan effort, it’s not just Republicans or it’s not just conservatives or the outright racist people and it’s not just the southern states.
This also goes into scapegoating Florida and trying to boycott Florida and saying it’s a southern problem. Florida’s a swing state that usually votes Republican and has a Republican governor so it’s very easy for liberals to say that these stand your ground laws in these southern Republican states are the problem. It’s basically an easy target.
KHALEK: That’s a really really good point and I totally agree with you. I did want to ask you what your thoughts on this are: There’s been this analogy that stand your ground laws in particular sort of work as a modern day 21st century version of legalized lynching. I wanted your take on that. Do you think it’s an appropriate analogy? And if so, what are the parallels?
RAKIA: I definitely understand the analogy and there are a lot of similarities between the two. It’s hard to make a direct comparison just because lynchings were very gruesome.
But the similarities are that it’s done with impunity. No one goes to jail afterwards and no one went to jail when black people were lynched and no one even tried to stop it. So when law enforcement heard about lynching before they were going to happen—because it was always announced—no one ever tried to stop the lynchings. It just happened and then they shrugged their shoulders and no one went to jail over it.
So that’s one comparison to now, when people like George Zimmerman and police officers are getting not guilty charges or even not getting indicted sometimes.
Another comparison is the reason why people were lynched.
Investigative journalism from Ida B. Wells during that time shows that lynchings, usually the false pretense was that a black man raped a white woman. But it was actually like under 20 percent of the lynchings even had that accusation and usually it was because a black person had defied a white person in some way, like we talked about before, or a black person was getting too economically successful and the white people felt like their wealth was being threatened. So those are two similarities that I can think of.
And then of course the difference would be that lynchings were mobs of two or three people. The definition of lynching is two or three people or more have to participate in it for it to become a lynching.
KHALEK: The part that you said near the end about white people being jealous if a black person got economically successful sort of reminds me of the sentiment among middle class more conservative white men. With the economic downturn things are a little bit harder for them so if they see black or brown people around them doing well it’s suddenly like “Ah, Reverse racism is happening!” That’s kind of an interesting parallel
RAKIA: I can’t say this is definitely the case but when you think of white police officers, which is working class or middle class white men who make a reasonable amount of money but they’re not rich by any means. And then where their racism comes in, I think a lot of times when it’s middle class or working class men, they need something to make themselves better than others or they need something to separate themselves from people they see as less.
KHALEK: Right, that’s a part of their identity. In society in general, it’s like what’s central to their identity is their whiteness giving them privilege even though they deny they have it.
So I also wanted to ask you your thoughts on the role of implicit racism. And if anyone who is listening isn’t familiar, implicit racism is something that we all have. It’s the kind of racism that’s not overt. It’s conditioned. We’re all implicitly racist, even those of us who aren’t white, because we grew up in a society where everything around us—the media, books, television shows, movies—teaches us that black men are criminals and that Mexicans are “illegals”—all the stereotypes that come to mind when you think of certain people. We all have those embedded into our heads whether we like it or not.
And so even among those of us who like to think we’re not racist, implicit racism really does play a role in our perceptions and what we fear. It’s the one aspect of stand your ground that seems really difficult to explain to people sometimes, that perception of fear is different that an actual threat you should be afraid of. And even people who aren’t raging bigots (like the George Zimmerman’s and Michael Dunn’s who proudly don’t like black people) may have these fears regardless of whether we hate certain groups of people and how that plays a role in racial profiling.
This is my own take but I think that’s one of the reasons why liberals are so loath to discuss the racial profiling that happens with police and state violence is because they have this implicit racism too and that would make everybody guilty of a really bad system. So what are your thoughts on the role that implicit racism plays and do you think that people are in denial?
RAKIA: Yeah, definitely, I agree with a lot of the things you just said.
I think the most dangerous part of implicit racism is not admitting it exists. When we can’t acknowledge it, it becomes very dangerous. In stand your ground laws, it’s very hard for people to acknowledge that there might be a racial bias and that’s why it’s such an issue.
Implicit racism historically goes back to media propaganda, so what is always being put into our heads about race and what characters are black and what characters are white on TV shows and that sort of thing, like back in the day when there were racist minstrel shows, racist political cartoons saying black people were lazy and so on and so forth, media imposing fear of slave revolts and then black riots, and even from science studies saying black people were biologically inferior. All these things were eventually dismissed but they are what excused massive amounts of violence of black people.
And recently the media propaganda that started with Reagan, with the war on drugs. Images of the black welfare queen taking advantage of the system, the black gang member, drug dealer, the black crack head, all these things, these images that were put into our head over and over again, and they’re still put into our head over and over again from Hollywood to the nightly news. None of these things had any basis in real life but that doesn’t stop us from getting these images in our heads.
So when we see the only black person on a TV show is the crack head or the drug dealer, now it’s normalized because we’ve seen it for 30 years.
What all these images have in common with stand your ground laws is the presumed guiltiness of black bodies. All these people are black and all these people are guilty. And so when stand your ground law comes in or racial profiling comes in, black people are automatically assumed guilty as opposed to white people.
KHALEK: Well said. Kevin, is there anything you wanted to add in?
KEVIN GOSZTOLA, Firedoglake: Well just quickly, listening and thanks it’s been very provocative and important.
I wondered if one of the last things you could address here is the fact that prosecutors seem to go above and beyond to omit racism from bringing these charges. I think that has quite an impact on people understanding these cases when they’re being covered and reported in the media because of course journalists don’t take any cues from the prosecutors that this is a racist case and they don’t talk about that. Like they said with this trial, it’s the “loud music trial” and that completely erases race from the case.
RAKIA: Right, definitely. Prosecutors do this in multiple ways and it even goes on who gets to be on a jury. Prosecutors always try to eliminate racism from being a factor. So in the Michael Dunn case, they’ll try to make sure his racist letters that he sent from prison doesn’t really matter to this case. His racism in the past to whoever it was is separate to the way he handled this case with four black people in the car.
It’s usually so prosecutors can get off and it always plays to the need for a colorblind society, the need to say racism is over let’s move on let’s move forward. It’s usually just so people don’t have to take responsibility. And when we’re talking about the “loud music trial,” I think that goes into trying to say that it’s not about race but I also think that goes into respectability politics again. I think it’s trying to say that “Well, it’s not really that he was black, it was that he was black and playing music.” Like if he was just a respectable black person this wouldn’t have happened. If he had just played his role done what he was supposed to do, maybe Michael Dunn wouldn’t have felt threatened and maybe he wouldn’t have been killed.
KHALEK: I’d love to see a white middle-aged man get as angry over Justin Bieber’s music playing loudly in a car. I want to see young white people a little bit more respectable. If he had just been a little bit more respectable and turned down that NSYNC—oh my god, I’m so old, I just said NSYNC.
RAKIA: Pop music in general is not the best thing ever. It’s always provocative. It’s basically like kids being kids, so it’s a little bit ridiculous that this whole thing is about they were just playing their music a little too loudly.
KHALEK: Exactly. Well thank you so so much for coming to talk to us about these really important topics.
RAKIA: Thank you for having me.