“You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
On August 7, 1930, two young black men were lynched in Marion, Indiana.
A photographer named Lawrence Beitler had a studio across the street from the lynching tree. He came out and snapped what became an iconic photo, which he made into a postcard and sold. It shows Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hanging dead and their executioners, faces clearly visible, milling about as if at a picnic. Though authorities possessed this damning photographic evidence, they never arrested anyone for the crime. It was officially attributed to “persons unknown.”
This was not a unique thing. To the contrary, it happened thousands of times. And African Americans carry this knowledge deep, carry it in blood and sinew, the understanding that the justice system has betrayed us often, smashed our hopes often, denied the value of our lives, often.
This knowledge lent a certain tension and poignancy to the wait for a verdict last week in the trial stemming from the killing of Jordan Davis. Davis was the black kid shot dead by a white man, Michael Dunn, at a gas station in Jacksonville in November of 2012 after an argument over loud music. Dunn’s story was fishy from the beginning.
He claimed Davis pointed a weapon at him. No weapon was ever found. Nor was Dunn ever able to satisfactorily explain why he fired off a second round of shots as the SUV in which Davis was riding tried to retreat. Or why he left the scene and failed to call police. Or why his fiancée, who was inside the convenience store when the shooting started, says he never mentioned Davis’ phantom gun to her.
A guilty verdict would seem to have been a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t.
Indeed, the verdict was mystifying. Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted murder — meaning the three other young men in the SUV with Davis — but the jury deadlocked on the murder charge. It makes no sense: If Dunn is guilty of the three charges, how can he not be guilty of the fourth?
The jury’s inability to hold him accountable for Davis’ death only validates African Americans’ grimmest misgivings about the “just us” system. Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor at Rutgers University, put it as follows on Twitter: “This is not just about jail time. This is about whether white fear legally means more than black life.”
It is an observation pregnant with painful truth, truth that was already old in 1930 when Shipp and Smith were butchered.
Dunn decided Davis was — his word — a “thug” and shot him. And we’ve seen this movie so many times before. George Zimmerman decided Trayvon Martin was a thug and stalked him. New York police decided Amadou Diallo was a thug and shot him. And so on.
These decisions are made independent of anything a man actually is — or does. They are made on sight, out of the same impulse that finds African Americans committing a minority of drug crimes but doing, in some jurisdictions, 90 percent of drug time. They are made, in a word, in fear, the unspoken but clear recognition that black boys and men are our national boogeymen — they threaten by existing — and therefore it is . . . understandable if occasionally one gets shot by accident.
If Davis had been a white kid in an SUV full of same playing their music too loudly, does anyone really think the confrontation with Dunn would have escalated to the point of gunfire? And if for some reason it had, is anyone so naïve as to believe the jury would have failed to convict Dunn of murder?
But Dunn, unlike the killers of Shipp and Smith — and Martin and Diallo — is at least going to jail for something, right? Indeed, at 47, he may spend the rest of his life behind bars. And yes, you could call that progress.
But you could call it some other things, too.