COMMENTARY: The character assassination of Michael Brown – by Mervyn Marcano August 26, 2014 4:15PM ET

The New York Times’ disgraceful smear captures America’s unwillingness to give black teenagers equal respect

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It remains unclear why Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson thought it was appropriate to fire six shots into Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old who was, by most accounts, fleeing from the officer. Wilson has not been arrested or charged for any crime.

What is clear, however, is that on the day of Brown’s funeral The New York Times saw fit to print an article proclaiming that he was “no angel.” He was a handful as a kid, had trouble in school, “dabbled with drugs and alcohol” and “had taken to rapping” lyrics that were occasionally “vulgar,” it said.

This disgraceful smear comes a week after the Ferguson Police Department released a video of Brown allegedly stealing cigarillos — which, by the police chief’s admission, was completely unrelated to Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer. As with Trayvon Martin, the unarmed Florida teen who was shot by neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman in 2012, Brown is being demeaned in the press before his killer has even been called to account for his actions.

Martin and Brown’s tragically short lives are being dissected in search of character details that would somehow either justify their fates or grant them posthumous respectability in the court of public opinion. Articles like these that focus myopically on individual character obscure our nation’s long history of sanctioned state violence against African-Americans. These conversations awkwardly try to make sense of unnecessary killings by leaning on tired tropes.

Consider the repeated appeal to culture to explain persistent inequality and violence. We are asked to believe that the major impediments to livelihood and opportunity for black youth are sagging pants and use of the N-word, as Don Lemon fervently stated in a segment on CNN last year. These arguments let government and business leaders off of the hook for generations of carefully planned economic exclusion and exploitation, such as red-lining, discriminatory school funding formulas and a drug war that has torn black communities apart. At the same time that dozens of states across the nation have decriminalized the use of marijuana, the Times suggests that Brown’s and Martin’s alleged marijuana use were contributing factors to their killings — an argument that, in all its insidious fear-mongering, contradicts nearly all published research on marijuana. By continuing to place blame on unarmed teenagers for their shootings at the hands of officers of the law, we dismiss the greater responsibility that sits squarely on this nation’s shoulders.

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Why Obama can’t go there – By TODD S. PURDUM | 8/19/14 8:46 PM EDT

Obama is pictured with protestors and police in Ferguson. | AP Photos

‘But we have not made enough progress,’ Obama says about the issues in Ferguson. | AP Photos

It’s a paradox of Barack Obama’s presidency: The first African-American to run the country finds himself in the tensest racial confrontation of his tenure, but is constrained from addressing the nation’s original sin in anything but the loftiest, most dispassionate terms.

“We’ve made extraordinary progress,” in race relations, Obama said on Monday, addressing the unrest in Ferguson, Mo., over the police shooting of Michael Brown, “but we have not made enough progress.”

That observation is so obvious as to be anodyne, but Obama has good reason to confine himself to Joe Friday generalities in the face of the discordant street demonstrations, belligerent police tactics and unfinished official investigation in Ferguson.

Ever since he first judged that the Cambridge, Mass., police had “acted stupidly” in 2009 by arresting Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own doorway, Obama’s most candid comments on race have been just as likely to inflame a significant segment of public opinion as to soothe it.

(Also on POLITICO: Ferguson mayor: No ‘racial divide’)

Last year, when Obama made the indisputable observation that Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black Florida teenager shot in 2012 by a neighborhood watch volunteer “could have been me 35 years ago,” many conservatives reacted with outrage (whether real or politically inspired). So there is now little practical percentage for Obama in doing anything but balancing his assertion that “in many communities, too many young men of color are left behind and seen only as objects of fear,” as he did Monday with an even-handed warning that giving in to anger “by looting or carrying guns and even attacking the police only serves to raise tension and stir chaos.”

In one sense, of course, such language is quintessentially presidential: neutral, measured and above the fray. But as Obama himself has acknowledged more than once, when it comes to the realities of daily life for African-Americans, he can never – and could hardly be expected to – divorce himself from his own experiences, including his realization that his own beloved white grandmother expressed fear of black men.

So it has fallen to an African-American man with a much smaller megaphone – Missouri Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson – to give personal voice to the feelings of so many black parents at the shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager.

“When this is over, I’m going to go in my son’s room, my black son—who wears his pants saggy, his hat cocked to the side, he’s got tattoos on his arms—but that’s my baby,” Johnson said Sunday night at a memorial service for Brown. “We need to thank Mike for his life and the change that he’s made.”

(Also on POLITICO: Ferguson PD to keep arresting media)

And even Rand Paul, who just four years ago expressed doubt about whether the central provision of the 1964 Civil Rights Act – its requirement that most private businesses serve blacks and whites alike – was constitutional, wrote last week in Time, “Anyone who thinks race does not still, even if inadvertently, skew the application of criminal justice in this country is just not paying close enough attention.”

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How the NRA and Its Allies Helped Spread a Radical Gun Law Nationwide Stand Your Ground, Explained – By Adam Weinstein | Thu Jun. 7, 2012 2:10 AM GMT

The three legal concepts that turned a reasonable self-defense law into a recipe for vigilante justice.

1. Hell no, I won’t run away.

People who believe they are in danger in public spaces are not required to try to retreat from the perceived threat before defending themselves with force.

The Florida law made infamous this spring by the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin was conceived during the epic hurricane season of 2004. That November, 77-year-old James Workman moved his family into an RV outside Pensacola after Hurricane Ivan peeled back the roof of their house. One night a stranger tried to force his way into the trailer, and Workman killed him with two shots from a .38 revolver. The stranger turned out to be a disoriented temporary worker for the Federal Emergency Management Agency who was checking for looters and distressed homeowners. Workman was never arrested, but three months went by before authorities cleared him of wrongdoing.

That was three months too long for Dennis Baxley, a veteran Republican representative in Florida’s state Legislature. Four hurricanes had hit the state that year, and there was fear about widespread looting (though little took place). In Baxley’s view, Floridians who defended themselves or their property with lethal force shouldn’t have had to worry about legal repercussions. Baxley, a National Rifle Association (NRA) member and owner of a prosperous funeral business, teamed up with then-GOP state Sen. Durell Peaden to propose what would become known as Stand Your Ground, the self-defense doctrine essentially permitting anyone feeling threatened in a confrontation to shoot their way out.

Or at least that’s the popular version of how the law was born. In fact, its genesis traces back to powerful NRA lobbyists and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing policy group. And the law’s rapid spread—it now exists in various forms in 25 states—reflects the success of a coordinated strategy, cultivated in Florida, to roll back gun control laws everywhere.

Baxley says he and Peaden lifted the law’s language from a proposal crafted byMarion Hammer, a former NRA president and founder of the Unified Sportsmen of Florida, a local NRA affiliate. A 73-year-old dynamo who tops off her 4-foot-11 frame with a brown pageboy, Hammer has been a force in the state capital for more than three decades. “There is no more tenacious presence in Tallahassee,” Gov. Jeb Bush’s former chief of staff told CNN in April. “You want her on your side in a fight.”

Written before verdict was announced: ‘Stand-Your-Ground’s Race Problem – Four Blunt Points on the Jordan Davis Shooting By Paul M. Barrett February 13, 2014

Michael Dunn on the stand during his trial in Jacksonville, Fla.

Photograph by Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union via AP Photo
Michael Dunn on the stand during his trial in Jacksonville, Fla.

The jury is out on whether Michael Dunn committed first-degree murder when he shot and killed Jordan Davis at a Florida gas station in November 2012. Whatever conclusion jurors reach, though, the Jacksonville “loud music” case ought to be seen as a reckoning for “stand your ground” laws such as Florida’s, which allow people to use deadly force in response to a reasonable fear their lives are threatened.

Davis’ pointless death—whether or not it’s ultimately deemed the result of premeditated murder—illustrates the need to rethink whether stand your ground encourages racially tinged paranoia likely to lead to the killing of young black men.

1. Dunn’s legal fate should turn on particular facts, not ideology. The deadly encounter began when the 47-year-old software developer asked four black teenagers to turn down the music thumping from their car. They complied, then cranked the volume back up. Davis, 17, cursed at Dunn. The older man claims he thought Davis was armed with a shotgun. Dunn reached into his glove box, pulled out his pistol, and fired 10 times at the teenagers’ car, killing Davis. Police did not find a shotgun or other weapon in the victims’ car.

In crucial testimony, Dunn’s fiancé contradicted him and said Dunn never mentioned to her after the shooting that Davis was armed. Dunn’s behavior after the incident doesn’t help his defense. He and his fiancé drove back to their hotel room, walked his dog, ordered pizza, had a drink, and went to sleep. Dunn learned from a news report that he’d killed someone at the gas station, but still didn’t call police. Instead, he and his companion drove two-and-a-half miles home to Brevard County, where he was finally arrested as the result of a witness having written down his license plate number.

2. Based on those facts, Dunn clearly and unnecessarily precipitated the violence, whatever verdict the jury reaches. Recall the Feb. 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin, which also occurred in Florida. Neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman was acquitted in Martin’s death. I stand by myassessment of that case: Zimmerman bore moral responsibility for Martin’s death, even though the jury had ample reason, based on the murky facts of that case, to find reasonable doubt about the severe criminal charges prosecutors brought. There is a difference between fault and criminal liability. Zimmerman recklessly got out of his vehicle and initiated the confrontation that ended with Martin’s pointless death.

Dunn is at fault in the death of Jordan Davis, regardless of whether the jury has reasonable doubt about whether Dunn committed premeditated first-degree murder. Dunn initiated an unnecessary confrontation at the gas station. He could have ignored the loud music. He could have stepped out of his car and joined his fiance in the convenience store. Once the teenagers defied his demand that they reduce the volume, Dunn again had an opportunity to take the high ground and just suffer what he considered unpleasant noise. Once he chose violence, Dunn’s conduct suggests a man entirely out of control: He fired a lot of rounds—10—into the adjacent car, and kept firing even after the teenagers pulled away. His bizarre failure to notify the authorities—the dog walking, pizza munching, alcohol imbibing, hotel sleeping, and driving home—undercuts his claim to have been so severely traumatized by the gas station encounter that he felt compelled to blast away with his pistol.

3. However the Dunn case turns out, Florida and other states need to rethink their stand-your-ground laws. What unfolded between Dunn and Davis suggests strongly that gun-toting civilians, as well as society at large, would benefit by an obligation to retreat, if possible, in the face of a perceived–and I stress perceived–threat. Leave to one side the debate about concealed-carry laws that allow gun owners to drive around with their weapons in their glove compartments. Let’s assume for the sake of this discussion that concealed carry is legal (as in fact it is in most of the country). It stands to reason that someone like Dunn would be much less likely to reach for his pistol–as opposed to walking or driving away–if there were no stand-your-ground statute in place to encourage him to escalate a dispute over music volume to a life-or-death confrontation. Surely in his heart of hearts, Dunn today wishes that he’d merely overlooked the sounds from the adjacent car. And obviously Davis’ grieving family wishes he had. Civilization requires tolerance for non-threatening behavior we don’t relish.

4. The Dunn case underscores the unavoidable racial subtext of stand-your-ground. Dunn was annoyed by what he described to his fiance as “thug music.” The word “thug” has become thinly veiled code for black. Can any dispassionate observer contemplate this interaction between a white middle-class man and four arguably rambunctious black teenagers and not see that some combination of fear and animosity on Dunn’s part contributed to the deadly outcome?

Given American history, unease about racial differences is inevitable. Disliking hip-hop or resenting rude behavior by a group of teenagers seems perfectly reasonable. Reaching for a semiautomatic handgun does not. As stand-your-ground has become the justification for deaths such as those of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis, the law undermines decades of hard-earned progress on civil rights.

Sanford police backtrack on neighborhood watch gun restriction November 7, 2013 3:00AM ET

In Florida town where Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, volunteer watch gun ban is scrapped.cecil smith

Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith speaks at a prayer session with community leaders from the area on July 15, 2013. On Tuesday he reversed the police’s stated policy that would have banned neighborhood watch volunteers from carrying guns.
Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP

Police in the Florida city where George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin have backed off a plan to explicitly ban neighborhood watch volunteers from carrying guns while on duty.

Earlier this month, police in Sanford, Florida, announced new rules on how civilian patrols can operate in an attempt to revive the program’s reputation, and was expected to announce Tuesday that neighborhood watch volunteers shouldn’t carry guns or follow suspects.

But now the police department has backtracked on those rules, saying that while it recommends that neighborhood watch volunteers not carry weapons, it won’t formally prevent volunteers from doing so.

Sanford was thrust in the national spotlight last year when Zimmerman, a former neighborhood watch captain, gunned down Martin, an unarmed black teenager. Prosecutors accused Zimmerman of chasing down and killing Martin, but a jury acquitted him in July of murder.

In a phone interview on Wednesday, Sanford Police Chief Cecil Smith refused repeated requests to explain the reversal.

“That was the choice of the chief. That was my decision,” Smith said. “What my thought is unimportant.”

Smith introduced the new rules and a new handbook for the town’s neighborhood watch program at a community meeting on Tuesday.

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Trayvon Martin’s mother testifies on ‘stand your ground’ laws October 29, 2013 10:00PM ET

Senate panel hearing becomes political showdown as midterm election approaches

Stand your ground
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, wipes tears from her eye, during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on “stand your ground” laws Tuesday.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

Sybrina Fulton, mother of slain Florida teen Trayvon Martin, told a panel of senators Tuesday that state “stand your ground” self-defense laws do not work and must be amended, reviving the politically charged gun control issue a year ahead of the 2014 midterm elections.

But little besides politics emerged from the session, held in the Senate’s made-for-television hearing room. Democrats, who hold the majority in the Senate, are trying to keep up pressure on the patchwork versions of stand your ground laws currently in effect in more than half of the 50 states.

“This law is an invitation for confrontation,” said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., who chaired the session.

But Republicans passionately defended the law, saying it was a way for citizens to stay safe without police present.

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