More on Trayvon Martin

When I posted on the Trayvon Martin case a few weeks back, I expected I would receive a lot of push-back. I was a little surprised about how few people seemed to be responding to what I actually said. I suppose whenever our preferred narrative is challenged, we human beings tend to react somewhat … reactively.
Anyway, Andrea Smith, a scholar and activist I met through NAITTS, shared the following in an email. I thought it was so helpful that I asked permission to share it. I hope you’ll help disseminate her important insights:

Florida’s standard [for jury instructions] is the same as the majority of states. The standard is most states is that no one has a duty to retreat if they reasonably believe their life is in danger…. Except for in the state of Ohio, once the defense introduces any evidence of possible self-defense, the prosecution must disprove self-defense beyond a reasonable doubt (Ohio, situates self-defense as an affirmative defense to be proven by the defendant). So … Florida’s position is the majority and not the minority position in the United States. Thus, the actual thing that is usually attacked in self-defense is not whether someone retreated, but whether one had a “reasonable” belief. Here, it should have been an “unreasonable belief” in which case, this would have been imperfect self-defense which is voluntary manslaughter. The problem is, what gets constituted as “reasonable belief” is very much based on race, gender and class.
The problem with the legal reform strategy that as the case of Marissa Alexander demonstrates, one cannot presume that laws are uniformly applied. The fiction of legal equality presumes that all peoples are equally situated within this country. Gender, Racial and class distinctions are presumed to be in the realm of “personal” an “private” bias that is supposed to beyond the reach of the law. As the long as the law claims to be neutral, it is not concerned if individuals or systems inequitably apply the law. In fact, as seen in a multitude of Supreme Court cases on discrimination, the law is expressly prohibited from taking systemic inequality into consideration.
Thus, while self-defense laws are interpreted generously when applied to white men who feel threatened by Black men or men of color, it is applied very narrowly to women, particularly women of color who are trying to protected themselves in domestic violence cases. Compare the case of Anthony Simon with Peggy Stewart. Anthony Simon shot and killed his neighbor, Steffen Wong in an unprovoked attack in 1982. His claim of self-defense rested on the ground that because Wong was Asian, Simon was afraid he must know martial arts. Simon was acquitted.
Peggy Stewart, meanwhile was systematically tortured and beaten by her husband. Her husband sexually abused her daughters and put a shotgun to Peggy’s head when she tried to protect her daughters. When she killed her husband, the State Supreme Court of Kansas found she did not have adequate grounds to claim self-defense.
A simple change in self-defense standards will not change the systemic inequity. Thus in terms of short-term legal strategies, it might be more useful to call for an overhaul of U.S. discrimination law. Now, it only addresses cases of discriminatory intent. Instead, we can call on the U.S. to at the very least be consistent with international human rights standards and address discriminatory impact. In addition, currently, the state only has a negative duty to avoid engaging in acts of discrimination. We could call on the U.S to recognize international legal standards that mandate that states take proactive measures to end discrimination.