These laws stand for racism

Elizabeth Schulte looks at the facts about "Stand Your Ground" laws--and the spreading sentiment for doing something about racism in the justice system.

Protesters demand justice for Trayvon Martin in Washington, D.C. (Elvert Barnes)Protesters demand justice for Trayvon Martin in Washington, D.C. (Elvert Barnes)

IF YOU'RE Black, you're guilty, and if you're white, you're defending yourself. That's the racist reality of the various "Stand Your Ground" laws in states across the U.S.

Last year, Sanford, Fla., police waited a month and a half to arrest the man who murdered Black teenager Trayvon Martin--because, police claimed, a Stand Your Ground la prohibited them from bringing charges against George Zimmerman.

Zimmerman's attorneys decided not to invoke Stand Your Ground in their crusade to win an acquittal for the racist vigilante. But that law is nevertheless on trial--as people around the country question how it has been used.

In the face of public outrage over the verdict, even some conservatives are voicing criticisms of Stand Your Ground laws--like Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who said he thought the Florida law should be re-examined, as well as a similar law in his state.

As supporters of the cause of justice for Trayvon Martin point out the overtly discriminatory way these laws are being applied, an important discussion about racism in the justice system--from Stand Your Ground laws to the behavior of police and prosecutors to unjust mandatory sentencing laws--is finally in the spotlight where it belongs.

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SOME 31 states currently have some form of Stand Your Ground laws, which permit the use of deadly force, including firing a gun, if the shooter, according to the Florida version, "reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony." These laws are also called the Castle Doctrine--as in "a man's home is his castle."

Before Stand Your Ground, self-defense laws typically didn't apply beyond people's homes. But the new laws allow for defense with deadly force almost anywhere.

Still, in the case of Marissa Alexander, it didn't matter where she was trying to defend herself.

In 2010, in the midst of a domestic dispute, the mother of three fired a warning shot at a wall to try to scare off an abusive husband, who had been arrested twice in the past for attacking her. But at her trial, she wasn't allowed to invoke Stand Your Ground.

In his deposition, Alexander's husband actually corroborated her story: "If my kids wouldn't have been there, I probably would have put my hand on her. Probably hit her. I got five baby mommas, and I put my hands on every last one of them, except for one...I honestly think she just didn't want me to put my hands on her anymore, so she did what she feel like she have to do to make sure she wouldn't get hurt, you know."

No one was hurt when Marissa Alexander fired a warning shot. But while George Zimmerman was acquitted and set free, Alexander was convicted and sentenced to 20 years in prison.

What makes Alexander different from Zimmerman? She's Black.

Her case is far from unusual. A recent study backs up the racial disparity in the application of Stand Your Ground laws.

In 2012, John Roman, a senior analyst at Urban Institute's Justice Policy Center, examined FBI data for 43,500 homicides from 2005 to 2009. When he narrowed the pool to incidents of "justified" killings involving a single shooter and single victim who didn't know each other--about 5,000 of the cases--Roman found that killings of Black people by whites were far more likely to be considered justified than killings of white people by Blacks.

When PBS's Frontline asked Roman to make the comparison between states with and without Stand Your Ground laws, he found that the disparities in murder convictions depended on the race of the accused assailant tended to be the same, but with one important difference: The race of the victim.

In most states, whites who kill Blacks were 250 percent more likely to be found justified than whites who kill other whites. In states with Stand Your Ground laws, however, that statistic jumps to 354 percent.

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THESE STAND Your Ground laws have been duplicated across the country--in part due to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC, funded by wealthy corporations and individuals like the Koch Brothers, has taken its mission beyond simply lobbying laws to actually writing legislation. ALEC is well-known for its campaign against union and immigrant rights, as well as right-wing social concerns, like opposition to same-sex marriage and abortion.

Stand Your Ground fits in nicely with ALEC's agenda.

Florida adopted its Stand Your Ground law in 2005, due to pressure from the National Rifle Association, and soon after, ALEC used the law as a template for initiatives in other states. After Trayvon Martin's murder in February 2012, ALEC was forced to disavow its support for Stand Your Ground legislation, but that wasn't until after it had helped spread the laws across the country.

Stand Your Ground bills aren't the only racist laws that ALEC has furthered over the years. The group also helped fund campaigns to pass "three-strikes" and "truth-in-sentencing" laws. Corrections Corporation of America--one of the biggest prison contractors in the country--is, by the way, a member of ALEC.

No one who knows anything about ALEC will be surprised that the organization is propagating these deadly Stand Your Ground laws. They go hand in hand with the rest of ALEC's anti-worker, pro-corporate agenda, which puts profits ahead of workers' living standards and freedoms.

In May, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights voted to launch an investigation into Stand Your Ground laws.

The fact that Stand Your Ground laws are now under scrutiny is the product of the huge protests in the wake of Trayvon Martin's death--and now again after the acquittal of his killer. It's significant that civil rights activists are getting a wider hearing when they demand an end to these racist laws. From Jesse Jackson to Stevie Wonder, the call is out to put pressure on Florida to get rid of Stand Your Ground.

If successful, repealing Stand Your Ground in Florida might lead to further repeals of similar laws. But beyond that, demands to abolish these "self-defense" laws should go hand in hand with other demands aimed at the criminal justice system. The Trayvon Martin case has exposed not just the racism in the application of one law, but a whole set of laws and institutions that are failing Black people.

From stop-and-frisk, which is nothing less than racial profiling by police, to the "war on drugs" which primarily targets young people of color, the racism of the criminal justice system--the whole system of laws, police, prisons and courts--is being exposed.