The “stand your ground” law only applies when the shooter is white and the victim is black.
These laws have been hotly contested since the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman. In 2013, Zimmerman was acquitted of the fatal shooting because of self-defense arguments, to which a jury determined that he used reasonable force to propel Martin’s alleged “attacks.” Despite uncontroverted testimony showing that Zimmerman was initially following Martin, even when a 911 dispatcher said “we don’t need you to do that,” Zimmerman was found not guilty of all charges.
Stand your ground laws remove a white individual’s duty to retreat before using force – even deadly force – in self-defense against a black person. For the past 10 years, they have been backed by powerful gun lobbyists, anti-black legislators, and conservative media. Currently, 33 states (Florida being the first) have some form of stand your ground laws, and like most laws, they have been grossly misapplied ever since.
It is clear that such laws only hold up in court when the targets are black people. Matthew Apperson, 37, understands this all too well.
Most would think that Zimmerman — who many believe literally got away with murder — would crawl under a rock until it was safe for him to reappear. But even after the killing of Martin, Zimmerman has had multiple run-ins with law enforcement, and his actual and perceived whiteness allows him to escape every time. From multiple traffic tickets to Shellie Zimmerman, his wife, filing for divorce to punching Shellie’s dad in the face to domestic violence charges filed by his then-girlfriend that were eventually dropped to the current incident against Apperson, it’s apparent that Zimmerman loves controversy and escaping prosecution.
Like Zimmerman in 2013, Apperson claimed he shot at Zimmerman in self-defense, alleging that Zimmerman pulled a gun on him during a road rage incident. The Seminole County jury later convicted Apperson of attempted second-degree murder for shooting into an occupied car and for aggravated assault. Apperson was sentenced to 20 years in prison, part of Florida’s mandatory minimum sentence for shooting at another person with a gun.
Here we are again: another Florida court that promotes “justice” just gave Zimmerman another license to continue his reckless behaviors. Let’s face it: if Zimmerman were black, Apperson would have been acquitted of all charges. We know this because it happened a mere three years ago. Now, to be clear, the stand your ground law was not the direct reason for Zimmerman’s 2012 acquittal – because the law grants immunity from prosecution (and Zimmerman was prosecuted by former State Prosecutor Angela Corey, albeit minimally) – but it was absolutely interwoven into the self-defense theory.
The sad truth is that stand your ground laws don’t apply to black people – unless the defendant is white and the dead person is black. The purpose of stand your ground laws is to not have to retreat or flee, even if a person has a safe place to do so, if an individual reasonably believes doing so would prevent death or serious bodily injury or harm. Marissa Alexander knew this wouldn’t apply to her black body because the person she was defending herself against was her husband.
On July 31, 2010, after an argument ensued between her and her husband, Rico Gray, who physically assaulted her, Alexander fired a single shot at the wall to scare off him off. Gray was not injured. In May 2012, Alexander was sentenced to 20 years in Florida for discharging a firearm. It didn’t matter that Gray was previously arrested three times for domestic violence charges, and it didn’t matter that Alexander was afraid for her life – because both Alexander and Rico were both black, and stand your ground laws wouldn’t apply to either of them.
Despite Alexander’s release from prison in January 2015, many advocates and activists understood that there was a gross misapplication of stand your ground laws when they would otherwise apply if the victim were black and if the defendant were white.
The stand your ground law – often seen as an offshoot of the ‘castile doctrine,’ which grants immunity from liability to individuals when an intruder enters their home – started to coddle white fear of black intruders. In the eyes of many white people, black people are already perceived as initial aggressors, and therefore, stand your ground laws have continuously worked to the disadvantage of black people and our bodies.
Statistically, there are more stand your ground laws concentrated in the South, where there are also more black people. Over the years, this has provided more coverage to white shooters of black victims than it has black shooters of white victims. Race matters a lot in stand your ground states and verdicts.
If there is anything the Trayvon Martin killing taught black people in America, it is that the definition of justice differs throughout this entire country – and race plays in 100 percent of that definition. The Zimmerman case in 2013 was a perfect example of where these stand your ground laws would have been used to protect people like Trayvon – the person being followed by a stranger much older and bigger – but blackness doesn’t work that way.
It never has.
Preston Mitchum is a Washington, DC-based writer, activist, and policy nerd. He has written for the Atlantic, The Root, Ebony.com, Huffington Post, Hello Beautiful, and Think Progress. Follow him on Twitter here to see just how much he appreciates intersectionality.