When the jury arrived with a not guilty verdict on a Saturday night about a case in which an unarmed black teen was shot and killed, we were shocked and angered. But that was in July. During George Zimmerman’s trial, we had endless conversations, wore hoodies, and held hope that there would be justice for Trayvon Martin. And still, Zimmerman walked free. We marched, we wore hoodies in the summer heat, and we learned. We learned that it’s painful to expect justice—and we learned to accept that it might hurt less to accept that white supremacy still thrives.
Still, Michael Dunn’s murder case seemed cut and dry. A white man emptied his semi-automatic into a car full of black teens, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis—then fled the scene and didn’t turn himself in until the following morning. There are, of course, other details, but what happened following Dunn’s arrest speaks volumes to the profound racial preoccupations that the killer holds.
In his letters from jail, Dunn became obsessed with the idea that he was somehow the victim of a system that routinely discriminates against white men. He explained how he was becoming more prejudiced against black people in jail, and proposed killing black people as habit so that “they may take the hint and change their behavior.” Dunn’s letters illustrate that the idea that white men can and should be harsh disciplinarians—and that black people can and should surrender to that power. If black people object, they should be killed as examples, so that others will learn.
On the witness stand, Dunn took what many thought was the unusual position of lacking remorse for killing an unarmed child. He cried, instead, when he talked about his dog. But perhaps more telling are Dunn’s last words to Jordan Davis. He testified that he shouted, “You’re not going to kill me, you son of a bitch.” If Davis is the “son of a bitch,” then we are to understand that Davis mother, Lucia Kay McBath—who was in the courtroom, just a few feet away from her son’s killer—McBath is the “bitch” that Dunn is referring to. She is not a mother who lost the son she gave birth to. She is not a human being who deserves more respect than to be called a dog. She is simply an object of Dunn’s dehumanizing attack.
In the end, Dunn was found guilty not of murdering Jordan Davis, but of the attempted murders of Tevin Thompson, Leland Brunson and Tommie Stornes, who were in the SUV along with Davis the evening that Dunn killed him. We can speculate, then, that if all four youth had been killed, then Dunn may have walked a free man. His only mistake, perhaps, was that he didn’t kill enough black teens to get away with it. Dunn held that he was terrified because he had seen Davis holding a weapon—but that weapon never existed. By not finding Dunn guilty of murder, the jury could not unanimously conclude that one white man’s imagination was worth more than one black teen’s life.
In the six months since Zimmerman’s verdict, we’ve come to expect that if an unarmed black teen is killed, that black teen will the one on trial. We’ve come to expect that, to a jury, the black body itself is a weapon, capable of instilling legitimate fear in the minds of others. We’ve come to expect that black lives are worth little—if anything—in a jury’s hands. We’ve come to accept injustice, because expecting justice would hurt. For days, and for some, even weeks and months following Zimmerman’s verdict, we hoped that something would change. By the time Dunn’s jury went into deliberation, however, we already knew that they had not. Our vision towards freedom is a simple one, and entails a reality in which black people are treated like the human beings that they are. But even that vision seems to escape us.
The news cycle has already moved away from Michael Dunn. It’s winter and it’s cold out. There are no marches, and the images of Jordan Davis are already fading away. It’s easier, and perhaps psychologically more sound, to expect inequity.
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