Nov 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Bracing for protests over racial justice and “stand your ground”

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

America is bracing for a sequel to the protests ignited after George Floyd's murder, with the focus now less on police and more on the nation's broader criminal justice system and self-defense laws. 

Why it matters: Activists and law enforcement officials warn that two ongoing national trials have the ingredients to reignite racial tensions and public protests when verdicts are handed down.

Driving the news: In Kenosha, Wisconsin, Kyle Rittenhouse, 18, is charged with fatally shooting two men and injuring another during protests against police last summer.

  • In the other case, three white men are on trial for killing Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man shot last year while jogging outside Brunswick, Georgia.

Between the lines: In both cases, the accused are claiming self-defense.

  • Activists worry that acquittals could embolden vigilantes who commit gun violence — especially against people of color — and then claim self-defense.
  • Ronnie Dunn, associate professor of urban studies at Cleveland State University, said, "It's ironic that we're working to get better control and accountability of police officers and their use of force, yet we're expanding the ability for the average citizen to use deadly force."

Zoom in: In the Rittenhouse trial, Slate examined Judge Bruce Schroeder's actions, from his treatment of the prosecutor to his cellphone's ringtone ("God Bless the USA"), in a provocative piece titled, "Don't Blame Judge Schroeder if Kyle Rittenhouse Goes Free."

  • In Georgia, Kevin Gough — the lawyer for William "Roddie" Bryan, one of the men charged in connection with Arbery's 2020 killing — asserted that the Rev. Al Sharpton was influencing jurors: "We don’t want any more Black pastors coming in here."

Zoom out: "Stand your ground" laws, including Georgia's, allow deadly force in self-defense, with no obligation to retreat. Advocates say these cases show how the laws benefit mainly white residents — and the racial disparities deeply ingrained in the judicial system.

  • An Urban Institute report in 2013 found homicides in which the perpetrator was white and the victim Black to be 10 times more likely to be found justified as when it was the other way around — and that the disparity was greater in "stand your ground" states.

The New York Times examined the current trials through the lens of how ubiquitous and protected guns are in the U.S., quoting expert Kimberly Kessler Ferzan in the Texas Law Review: "The problem is that with a citizenry armed with guns, we have blurred every line."

  • The Times noted some states shifted from defendants having to show they acted in self-defense to prosecutors having to show they didn't.

Civil rights lawyer Maya Wiley told Axios' Alexi McCammond that U.S. self-defense laws "really are not keeping pace with where we are in society."

  • That applies to everything from what constitutes the threat of violence, to who is responsible for instigating violence, to law enforcement's role in giving vigilantism "a wink and nod."

What we're watching: Police departments and mayors around the country are keenly aware of the implications.

The bottom line: No matter the outcome of these cases, it's unlikely that states will repeal conceal-carry or "stand your ground" laws, New Mexico State Rep. Antonio Maestas, a Democrat and a criminal justice reform advocate, told Axios. 

  • "We just have so many pressing issues to tackle and no one wants to touch gun laws," he said.
  • "It’s not worth it politically right now."
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