Saturday, August 10, 2013


“And for those who resist that idea that we should think about something like these ‘stand your ground’ laws, I just ask people to consider if Trayvon Martin was of age and armed, could he have stood his ground on that sidewalk? And do we actually think that he would have been justified in shooting Mr. Zimmerman, who had followed him in a car, because he felt threatened? And if the answer to that question is at least ambiguous, it seems to me that we might want to examine those kinds of laws.” 
Barrack Obama - President of the United States

“The attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right. To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda.”
Chris Cox - Executive Director of the NRA-ILA

While it is unlikely that the Obama quote is intended as an endorsement of Trayvon Martin’s right to stand his ground, it does call into question the hypocrisy of the implementation of the law. But does the statement, perhaps unintentionally, play into the narrative that Trayon Martin was, and black men (teens, boys) in general are, a potential threat? Whether self-defense is a “concept” or a “right” or some other thing yet undefined by the narrative, the basis for Stand Your Ground laws is FEAR. Fear that one is under threat becomes the motivating factor for using deadly force and more importantly the deciding factor in determining whether that deadly force was warranted. Who is controlling this fear narrative and what is there to gain from it? I have seen the Obama and NRA statements presented in the media as two sides of an argument, but they seem strangely congruent to me in that they both focus on self-defense, rather than on violence or justice. Imagine for a moment how the case might be different if Trayvon Martin were 5 years of age when he was shot and killed rather than 17. Would the Obama statement still make sense if the boy who was shot was clearly incapable of defending himself from a violent assault - incapable of standing his ground? Does the burden of guilt shift here? And to whom does it shift? Are our laws written to protect this boy’s life or to protect the one who takes that life?

The circular logic of this “self-defense” (fear) narrative sees individuals as monsters, violent by nature, incapable of reason, justifying a violent (“defensive”) response. Through this logic, even if Trayvon Martin felt threatened by Zimmerman and acted in self-defense (which would have to be be proven, not simply assumed to be true), Zimmerman’s violent response would still be warranted. It is through this logic that a trial to determine Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence in the shooting of Trayvon Martin is transformed into a case determining the guilt or innocence of the boy who was shot dead. Has Stand Your Ground circumvented presumption of innocence in this case, effectively making Zimmerman judge, jury and executioner? What crime has Trayvon Martin committed here? Unlike other interpretations of self-defense law where an individual must be in imminent danger, it would seem that the Stand Your Ground law in Florida may accept a provoked assault (the person claiming to have acted in “self-defense” has actively provoked the confrontation) as justification for the use of deadly force.

Three things come to mind:

One) The gun industry stands to profit regardless of how this scripted narrative plays out, whether young black men are cast as the threat or they are made to feel that they are under threat. As I pointed out in an earlier post - presenting the narrative as a conflict (cynically capitalizing on existing racial tensions) ultimately serves to reinforce the perception that gun owners are under attack, and strengthens any defensive argument the gun lobby makes. The righteous indignation that follows serves as validation of what I believe is essentially a coldly calculated business decision. Escalating violence and fear insures repeat customers, and the weapons industry is happy to sell to both sides of the conflict. This isn’t about “gun control,” it’s about violence. This isn’t about “self-defense,” it’s about justice.

Two) The NRA did NOT (through intensive lobbying and campaign contributions) create Stand Your Ground to fill some sort of self-defense law void as one might be led to believe. Self-defense law has been common throughout the United States for more than a century. The main difference in these new laws is an expansion of the justified use of deadly force outside of one’s home (the so called Castle Doctrine) to any place that one is legally allowed to be, removing the duty to retreat and codifying civil immunity for the person using this force. In other words, the shooter cannot be sued for damages in a civil lawsuit so long as they are not found guilty of homicide. It remains to be seen if this new legislation will provide civil immunity in cases where victims’ families pursue legal action seeking damages from the gun manufacturers themselves, similar to cases brought against the tobacco industry in the past.

Three) The common presentation of Castle Doctrine as defense of one’s home (someone breaking into your home is clearly up to no good!) seems misleading to me. This perspective seems to shift the purpose of the law from defending one’s life to defending one’s property. Will “self-defense” under Stand Your Ground ultimately be applied to property in the way that personhood rights have been applied to corporations? What does the Libertarian defense of the right to bear arms look like in this context? Are they fighting for liberty or to secure immunity for those who would steal it from them? As more and more of our public spaces and resources become privatized, we should be vigilant not to allow the “protection of property” to trump our civil rights.

In my previous post I noted how the term “looters” and other similar terms have been used time and again to dismiss the legitimate concerns of people in need, to vilify those that rise up against social and economic injustice. Those who struggle against oppression must be cast as a malevolent force in order to make a defensive response seem reasonable. If they can be successfully cast as a threat, then their oppression appears warranted - the narrative presents this action not as a choice but as a necessary defensive response. When faced with the dualistic framework of fight or flight, there really is only one acceptable option encoded into our (USA) culture - to stand your ground. The mass incarceration of young black males fits into the “self-defense” narrative as a strategy to keep blacks off the streets and off the voter rolls. But it is an offensive strategy as well, generating enormous profit through prison development and maintenance, while supplying cheap labor (less than a dollar an hour) to participating corporations. Are these young men being sold into slavery?
Occupy Wall Street was relentlessly attacked in the media on two fronts, cast as a dangerous threat while being simultaneously marginalized as a bunch of do-gooder trust fund kids with nothing better to do than camp out complaining about their first world problems. The first strategy clearly relates to what I stated prior having been widely used as justification for the forced eviction of Occupy camps, but the second strategy is related as well. One of the central tenets of an OWS occupation is that everyone is welcome to speak, and all voices are honored, no matter what their viewpoint is. This is in stark contrast to a status quo that reinforces conformity by punishing us if we stand out, if we make waves, if we “complain” about (resist) our circumstance. Through the narrative of personal responsibility (another popular one), individuals are made to feel that their problems are theirs alone to deal with. If the problems are too much for them to handle individually, then they are at fault; they are weak, lazy, or unwilling to do what is necessary. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, quit your whining and man up! When individuals get together to share what is on their minds they commonly find that others share their concerns and circumstance, that they are not alone. Through this process we can let go of the idea that our problems must compete for attention, that we must prioritize at the expense of the minority, that we must do battle for the limited resources that are left after most of the pie has already been eaten. We find out that solidarity is not a threat to our individuality but an ally; allowing us to support one another, and be supported, for who we truly are. Most importantly, we can push back against the idea that one must agree with the majority or already be in a position of power to feel justified in speaking out. This knowledge is dangerous, dangerous to the status quo, because it has the potential to redefine the narrative.

Sık bakalım, sık bakalım
Biber gazı sık bakalım
Kaskını çıkar, copunu bırak
Delikanlı kim bakalım

Shoot it at me, shoot it at me
Shoot some pepper gas at me
Doff your helmet, down your baton
Then we’ll see who’s ready to flee

When I first heard this chant/song in Liberty Square it was explained to me as a call for the Turkish police to put down their armor and weapons and join the protestors - a test of their standing as “real men.” What is interesting to me about it is that it seems to celebrate resistance in the face of oppression as a measure of masculinity rather than the machismo that we associate with the concept of “real men” in the United States. I have seen this sentiment brought forward in communities seeking to deal with violence; older men teaching younger men that true strength is not measured through force or dominance, but through taking responsibility for one’s community, as a caretaker for one’s brothers and sisters. I don’t believe the Turkish chant is concerned with self sacrifice, as we seem so obsessed with in our culture, but with an understanding that true freedom cannot be taken away by force and cannot be threatened by oppression.

I had a conversation with a police officer in my dentist’s waiting room the other day. He was talking to me about his son, explaining that he had to be hard on him to prepare him for the adversity that he would encounter later in life. He seemed pretty convinced that this was the only course of action available to him. Here again, as in the self-defense narrative, the action (reaction) appears as a necessary defensive response rather than an actual choice. I inquired, as tactfully as I could manage, if he could somehow change the situation his son would be exposed to (rather than change his son to suit the situation), would he prefer to have a different type of interaction with his son? Perhaps he could choose to be his son’s ally rather than a stand in for a future adversary?

I am reminded of this passage from Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly:

“The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism.”