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‘If you’re a young, black man, who you are is threat enough’

On her MSBC show Sunday morning, Melissa Harris-Perry spoke about the murder of Jordan Davis, an unarmed black 17-year-old in Jacksonville, Florida. She was clear that Davis’s murder was different than Trayvon Martin’s because the shooter, Michael Dunn, was arrested the following day. Still, Harris-Perry went on to address the undeniable similarities between the two cases and I applaud her for doing so because it’s a subject that doesn’t receive nearly enough attention.

In the American consciousness, black men are synonymous with criminality, which explains why our prisons are overflowing with a disproportionate number of black men. It also explains why unarmed black men, like Trayvon and Jordan, are so frequently shot by police and self-appointed vigilantes for appearing “suspicious” or “threatening”.

Harris-Perry had some important and heartfelt words about this:

It has been barely a year since the killing of Trayvon Martin resurrected that old angst–long buried, but always there just below the surface. You know that feeling. It’s the one that makes us hear about Trayvon, and now Jordan Davis, and reach back across decades into our history, for the name of another boy named Emmett Till.

Then, it was a whistle at a white woman. Now, it’s a hooded sweatshirt or music being played loudly from a car.

But always, this one thing has been the same–No presumption of innocence for young black men.  No benefit of the doubt. Guilt–not determined by what they did or said–but presumed to be inherent in their very being. They need not wield a weapon to pose a threat. Because, if you are a young, black man, who you are is threat enough. And in yet another case, it seems, that perceived threat is justification enough for someone who would play judge, jury and executioner.

Jordan Russell Davis will be laid to rest today. His father described his son as a typical teenager, who was looking forward to staring his first job, working at McDonald’s. He was saving up to buy his first car. The day before he died, his mother says, he gave the Thanksgiving dinner prayer, where he gave thanks for his family.

But before Jordan could be eulogized at his funeral, the defense team for the man who is accused of killing him was already telling a different story about who this young man was. According to police, Jordan and his three friends were sitting in an SUV at a Jacksonville gas station, when Dunn pulled up next to them and asked them to turn down their music down. Words were exchanged. This is the story Dunn’s attorney, Robin Lemonidis, about why her client felt threatened:

“He sees that much of a shotgun coming up over the rim of the SUV…and all he sees are heavily tinted front windows that are up and the back windows that are down, and the car has at least four black men in it, and he doesn’t know how old anyone is, and he doesn’t know anything, but he knows a shotgun when he sees one because he got his first gun as a gift from his grandparents when he was in third grade.”

Police have found no evidence that Jordan and his friends had any weapon in their car.

But Michael David Dunn, a registered gun owner, did have one. He used his gun to fire eight rounds into the boys’ vehicle. Two of those bullets struck and killed Jordan Davis, who was sitting in the backseat. Dunn fled the scene.

These are the facts as we know them today. As the investigation continues, details will no doubt continue to emerge. But as we watch the case unfold, let us be sure, while we are watching, that we continue to see in Jordan Davis what Michael Dunn did not–a human being, instead of a threat.

She isn’t exaggerating. According to a report by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM), 120 black people were killed by either police, security guards, or self-appointed law enforces (i.e.. George Zimmerman) just in the first six months of 2012. That’s one black person executed every 36 hours! At the time of the report’s release, less than 9 percent of those responsible for the deaths had faced charges (four police officers and six security guards and self-appointed law enforcers), exposing a disturbing lack of accountability for those who kill black victims. 

Though Michael Dunn is being charged for the murder of Jordan Davis, he has invoked self-defense, which has the potential to work under Florida’s infamous “Stand Your Ground” law.

Dunn has said that Davis and his three friends, all black and unarmed teenagers, had cursed and even threatened him when he asked that they turned down their music. After shooting eight to nine shots at the boys, he claims that he and his girlfriend took off because they feared the black teens were gang members. Later, he swore that Davis and his friends pointed a gun at him, a gun which police were never able to find. Isn’t it strange how often shooters, whether they be police or civilians, seem to always think they see a gun when the target is a person of color?

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