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Why We Still Need Black History Month

Thursday, February 27th, 2014

RosaParksEach year since 1926, February has marked celebrating black history, originally founded by Carter G. Woodson as Negro History week. February was chosen as it was the months of the births of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. And each year, the issue is raised by many people as to why do we need a special month to commemorate black history. Ditto for Hispanic History month, and Women’s History month which follows in March. I struggle with the fact that black history month is necessary in our society.

Black History month was never intended to go on forever. Carter G. Woodson, the original founder of Black, did not intend for it to go on forever. Instead, he hoped that one day, we would not need a Black History Month or any other specific month based on race, gender or nationality. That day has not come yet. So once again, we must wash, rinse and repeat Black History Month. Carter Woodson once said on Black History Month:

“We should emphasize not Negro history but the Negro in history. What we need is not a history of selected races or nations, but the history of the world void of national bias, race hate and religious prejudice.”

Woodson made this comment in 1926. And if we emphasized and practiced what Dr. Woodson said, we would be studying black history fully incorporated into American history, every day of the year in lieu of a month long celebration in February.

Continuing Black History month is first necessary in our country until we do a better job of incorporating black history into American history. Recently the movie, 12 Years a Slave, and through efforts of Montel Williams, will be available as a teaching tool in high schools throughout the country. That is an effort towards a good start. But there must be more of an emphasis on black history, past and present to understand our present and future. As an African American, I am continually surprised at the lack of knowledge of African American history among Americans. Every year I learn new facts about black history—all year long.

And we will know it’s time to forego black history month when racist viewpoints no longer exist. When comments such as slavery was not that bad, that nothing was wrong with the poll tax which prevented Blacks from voting in the Jim Crow south, when hatred expressed towards blacks no longer exist, we will be able to eliminate Black History month from February’s calendar. Until then, we need to start by working towards eliminating laws that discriminate against African Americans such as Stand Your Ground Laws, Stop and Frisk laws and felony voter disenfranchisement laws, to name a few.

Black History Month bears repeating over and over again until those racist remarks and persons spewing racism are eradicated in our society. When we eradicate ignorance of black history and the racial hatred spewed by some who still see African Americans as inferior to whites, we will be able to eliminate black history month. Sadly, we are nowhere close to its elimination.

And so in 2014, as we close out the month of February, we must again commemorate Black History Month as we have yet to rid our society of the need for a specific month recognizing the achievements and sacrifices of African Americans in American history. When we get to the point of not needing Black History Month, in the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. we shall have overcome and reached the mountain top. Until then, we need to wash, rinse and repeat Black History Month until we get it right.

Florida’s License to Kill Law

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

GunI appeared on the Thom Hartmann Big Picture show on Monday to try to demystify and digest the Michael Dunn verdict. As Hartmann points out during the interview, the jury found that Dunn was guilty of shooting at a moving vehicle (the 5th count) but failed to find him guilty of shooting Jordan Davis, an unarmed teen. Dunn also received guilty verdicts of the three attempted murders. After thinking about the verdict, I believe the jury must have found that there was no threat or fear of threat when Dunn fired the last three of ten shots at the car, in which Jordan Davis was a passenger, as it sped away from Dunn. But that still begs the question of why they did not find him guilty of the first seven shots which resulted in Davis’ death.

There were 12 jurors in the room deliberating along with a 13th juror. And that 13th juror resulted in a hung jury. The 13th juror is the subconscious or conscious racial bias of one or more of the jurors assembled. In football, there are 11 players. But often times, sportscasters will talk about a 12th man playing. The 12th man is how the fan crowd noise is referred. And often times, in a football game, the 12th man who is not playing on the field but sitting in the stands loudly cheering for their team will affect the outcome of the game. And the 13th juror obviously affected the outcome of the verdict and resulted in a mistrial. Whatever racial bias existed on the part of one or more of the jurors may have resulted in one or more of them not being able to accept that Dunn’s version of the events was unsupported by everyone at trial, except him.

The state intends to retry Michael Dunn. But there are acts that can be taken by everyday citizens to protest and protect against this injustice occurring. First, Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws must be revisited, revised and/or repealed. And in order to begin the work of doing so, activists and community people who care about justice for all Americans and particularly young black teens, men and women must rally, lobby and vote to effectuate the change. Those who support justice for all the Jordan Davis’s, Renisha McBrides, Trayvon Martins and Jonathan Ferrells must be the change agents. A vigilante must not be allowed to follow innocent black youth or provoke an argument and assert a subjective perceived threat and shoot and kill an unarmed black child. And then be either found not guilty or a hung jury. As CNN’s legal commentator Holly Hughes stated, imagine if it were reversed and older black men were shooting and killing young white youth. The law would be repealed in a flick of an eye.

In addition, to fighting to repeal the discriminatory and racially disproportionately unfair Stand Your Ground law in Florida, those who stand on the side of justice must fight for laws to protect life. As much as there is needed a change in Stand Your Ground laws, there must be laws to protect human life. In America, we value human life more than anything. And we need laws that will protect our children against vigilantes who will shoot and kill an innocent unarmed child and then fail to call the police but return to a hotel room to drink and order pizza. As Jordan Davis’ father stated:

We do not accept a law that would allow collateral damage to our family members. “We expect the law to be behind us and protect us. That’s what I wanted the law to do—protect Jordan as we protected Jordan.”

Protecting our youth against armed vigilantes should not be a white or black issue. It is a family values issues. It is an American issue. And we must all fight against any injustices that take away human life where the perpetrator is not held criminally responsible.

My commentary on the Dunn verdict on the Thom Hartmann show on RT American follows below.

UPDATED: February 19, 2014

Michael Dunn Verdict and Jim Crow 2014 Style

Monday, February 17th, 2014

GunIn the aftermath of the Michael Dunn verdict, where Dunn, a white man was allowed to get away with, at least for now, the killing of Jordan Davis, a black 17 year old teen, many ponder what do we do now and how do we respond. In many ways, the criminal justice system in the south is going back to the Jim Crow days where many southern states would not convict a white man for killing a black man. Apparently, in the 21st century, it is still difficult to obtain a verdict against a white man for killing a black teen, if the George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn cases are any indicators. But these cases are not just occurring in Florida.

While the days of Emmett Till and whistling or winking at a white woman and getting killed without any justice may appear to be gone, they have been replaced with blacks being killed for wearing a hoodie while walking home from the store, playing loud music in a car, asking for help in a white neighborhood as in the cases of Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell and in other words for doing nothing. Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride and Jonathan Ferrell were all in a place where they had a legal right to be. Neither of them were doing anything illegal or had a weapon. And just like in Jim Crow days, justice seems elusive for the perpetrators of their deaths.

In the case of Jonathan Ferrell, a partial North Carolina Grand Jury refused to initially indict the white police officer who plowed 12 shots at him while he was running towards the officer, with hands outstretched, to ask for help after a serious car crash. Ferrell was a graduate of Florida A and M and working in Charlotte while engaged to be married. Subsequently, the state resubmitted his case to a full Grand Jury who indicted the officer with voluntary manslaughter. Ferrell’s case and the one of Renisha McBride are pending. McBride, like Ferrell, first came knocking on the door of a white person in a predominately white suburb outside of Detroit, Michigan. For her actions in seeking help when she was also stranded due to car issues, she was shot and killed by Theodore Wafer, a white man, who claimed to be in fear of his life. Michigan has a similar Stand Your Ground law.

During Jim Crow days, blacks were aware of some actions that might trigger a white shooting. Many living in the Jim Crow south knew to never look a white person in the eye when addressing or speaking to them; knew to address all whites even children with sir and mam; never whistle or wink at a white woman; never act uppidity towards whites, whatever that term may have meant to southern whites and never disrespect a white person, for whatever that means. And today, the acts for which a black person will be killed by a white person have no boundaries, just like in the Jim Crow south. It’s as if every act and every black person is open season in the north and the south. And just like whites seemed to justify acts of the Jim Crow era on the laws of segregation, now many whites justify the cowardly killing of innocent blacks on the laws of Stand Your Ground and self -defense.

Just like the Jim Crow laws of segregation, Stand Your Ground laws should not be used as a means for open killing season on young blacks. And, like the Jim Crow segregation laws, the Stand Your Ground laws which vary in about 26 states must be fought. As long as these laws exist and racial bias co-exist in the criminal justice system, these Stand Your Ground laws will be used as justification for many whites saying they feared for their life and shot in self- defense. Florida’s Stand Your Ground law means that as long as a person is in a place where they have a legal right to be, he/she has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he/she reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself/herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.

The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis, Renisha McBride, Jonathan Ferrell must be the focus to move towards ending Stand Your Ground laws, just as much as the Civil Rights era and killing of Emmett Till helped to propel the end of Jim Crow and segregation laws in the south. We cannot let the deaths of young black men, women and teens be in vain. Until we do something to change the law, there will be no justice, no peace for these victims.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer and former prosecutor who has tried murders, attempt murders, robberies, drug, sex offense and economic crimes with a high conviction rate. She provides legal commentary for BET News, TV One, RT America, CBC- Canadian, Sky News and Fox, NBC and CBS affiliates. She also contributes to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.

Still No Justice, No Peace for Jordan Davis

Sunday, February 16th, 2014

GunOn today, February 16 which would be the 19th birthday for Jordan Davis, there is still no justice and no peace for the family of Jordan Davis and those who support justice in our criminal justice system. The jury in the case of Michael Dunn spoke late on Saturday evening with a hung jury for the killing of Jordan Davis by Michael Dunn, after reaching guilty verdicts of attempted murder for the 3 other males. For many, the case was a test of whether a Florida jury would convict a white man for the killing of a black teen. And the question was answered in the negative. The reasons for the jury’s failure to reach a verdict in the Dunn case is not as difficult to understand for many African Americans who experience racial bias but nonetheless are still disappointed and disheartened.

The overwhelming evidence at trial revealed that Michael Dunn fired ten shots in the car in which Jordan Davis was a passenger after complaining about the loud music coming from the vehicle; the other occupants testified that there was no rifle in their vehicle; no weapon was found in the vehicle; Dunn’s fiancé testified that Dunn did not mention a gun or rifle being pointed at him; Dunn did not contact the police but the police had to find him; Dunn left the scene, returned home, ordered a pizza and walked his dog; Someone on the jury still apparently may have believed Dunn’s testimony that he saw a gun and feared for his life. While many persons blame the prosecutors for putting on an inadequate case, for overcharging the case, for failing to submit testimony about Dunn’s hatred of blacks, for not doing a better closing argument, it is the criminal justice system and racial bias that failed Jordan Davis. Racial bias is rampant in the criminal justice system. And it is pervasive when it comes down to a black victim and a white defendant.

No case is a perfect case. And if the prosecutors had done everything that everyone is complaining about, the end result may have been the same due to inherent subconscious or conscious racial bias when it comes to cases involving white defendants and black victims. It is as if the word of a white man is superior to a black man. And there is the issue of how black men, particularly black teens are perceived as menacing or possessing superior strength like King Kong.

Racial bias in the criminal justice system stems as far back as slavery and still persists today. During slavery, a freed black man could not testify against a white man in many state courts. Northup Solomon, the person for whom the movie, Twelve Years a Slave is based on, filed a lawsuit against the two white men who tricked and abducted him into slavery and caused him to become enslaved for twelve years. The case was filed in Washington, DC after his escape from slavery in 1853. But Solomon lost his case as District of Columbia law in 1853 prohibited a black person from testifying against a white man. While these laws no longer exist today, the aftermath can be seen today and in the racial bias in the criminal justice system. Someone on the jury found Dunn’s testimony to be credible, however bizarre and unsupported even by that of his fiancé. The mistrial most likely resulted because some juror(s) still believed Dunn’s word over that of the black teenage friends of Jordan Davis.

Black men are perceived by many whites as menacing black men or as Michael Dunn described Jordan Davis and his friends as “thugs” or “gangstas” who either possess weapons at all times or possess superior human physical strength. In the case of Trayvon Martin, it was superior physical attributes that Zimmerman alleged to be afraid of. With Jordan Davis, it was the possession of a mysterious gun that only Dunn saw. But Michael Dunn also described Jordan Davis as getting out of the car at one point. That image for some whites may invoke the image of what Denzel Washington referred to in his role in the movie Training Day, describing his character as being superior to even King Kong. If a white juror thinks of black men as being King Kong, it fits perfectly for them into the Stand Your Ground defense of being in fear of imminent bodily harm or death at the hands of a black man.

And so as long as racial bias exists in the minds of many white persons who sit on juries, there are going to be cases where a mostly white jury will give the benefit of the doubt to a white man for killing a 17 year old black teen, regardless of how bizarre and unbelievable his testimony sounds to people of reasonable minds. And the benefit of the doubt is not the same as a reasonable (emphasis added) doubt. And as long as racial bias is in the minds of any jurors sitting on juries in cases with a black victim and white defendant, common sense and reason may be cast aside to favor the white defendant.

And so, in the case of Jordan Davis, the quest for justice continues. But for right now, there is still no justice, no peace for Jordan Davis.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, member of the Supreme Court bar and former prosecutor. As a former prosecutor, she conducted Grand Jury investigations, tried murders, attempted murders, robberies, drug and economic crimes with a high conviction rate. As a trial lawyer, she has successfully tried cases across the country. She contributes to the Huffington Post and the Women’s Media Center.

Michael Dunn: Will a Florida Jury Convict a White Man for Killing a Black Teenager?

Wednesday, February 12th, 2014

GunThe sting of the George Zimmerman verdict is not quite healed yet for many and Florida faces another Stand Your Ground case with another white man killing a young black teenager. This time, it’s not about a suspicious person wearing a hoodie but a SUV with black teens playing loud music that caused the death of Jordan Davis, age 17. Defendant Michael Dunn faces murder and several attempted murder charges for shooting into the SUV of Jordan Davis when he asked him to turn down the music. On its face, the case seems simple as even the defendant’s fiancé testified against him. The defendant claims that he shot the Davis multiple times for his own self-defense. Michael Dunn claims that he had to shoot in self -defense because he saw a gun pointed at him and feared for his life. His fiancé states he never mentioned seeing a weapon in Davis’ SUV. No weapon was found in Davis’ vehicle.

Now that the jury has entered into the deliberations phase of the Michael Dunn trial, it’s difficult to wait and see what the outcome will be. For some, they believe that a guilty verdict is inevitable for a man who shot and killed a black teenager for playing his music too loud in the car. For others, they believe that Dunn should be found not guilty based on the jury instructions and the law on Stand Your Ground. Of course, those voicing opinions online are not sitting on the jury.

Where opinions differ depend on how much subconscious racial bias exists. While many people refuse to see that racial bias exists in just about everything in America, there’s a reason why the jails are mostly filled with black men who make up 6% of the population and yet 40% of the prison population. And that’s the part that concerns me about whether the jury will be able to reach a guilty verdict based on the evidence and lack of credibility on the part of the defendant. Or if the jury will rely on their internal bias and find the defendant not guilty due to Stand Your Ground instructions. Using their common sense would be a great help in reaching a verdict. Mr. Dunn never bothered to call 911 to say he had shot someone. The police found him. Dunn probably never bothered to call the police about the shooting because he thought he had gotten away with murder, while coming home from a wedding with his fiancé in the car. And the second reason is probably because shooting a black youth for disrespecting a white man is not worth reporting in Dunn’s view.

There is no perfect case with all the witnesses testifying the same way. And the Dunn case is no different. As the prosecutor, John Guy stated, yes the same prosecutor John Guy in the George Zimmerman case, a real trial is not like TV where the stories fit perfectly. But at the end of the day, a real trial is one where a jury should use their common sense and set aside their internal bias and find justice.

Finding justice where a young black man kills an older white man is one thing for a majority white jury. The composition of the jury is 8 whites, 2 blacks, 1 Asian and 1 Hispanic. Finding justice on the same set of facts in reverse is where the jury’s internal bias may work against finding a guilty verdict. And justice should be blind. But justice rarely feels blind to many minorities when it comes down to a white person referring to young blacks as “thugs’ and “gangstas”. These are just the new words to replace the “N” word. And how much those subtleties will affect the mostly white jury is where the problem lies. And coupled with the fact that Michael Dunn used all the buzz words to support a Stand Your Ground defense. He stated he feared for his life and he saw a weapon pointed at him. And he reached for his gun and shot and killed Jordan Davis.

The Michael Dunn trial has not been as publicly viewed as the Zimmerman trial. However, the result may end up the same way. Regardless of the outcome of the Michael Dunn verdict, what are we, as a society, going to do about Stand Your Ground laws that give some segments of the population a right to kill others and walk away without a conviction, is one issue. And what are we going to do about race relations in America is the real issue.

Postscript: As of 2:00 PM February 15, 2014, the jury is still deliberating.

Washington, DC based Debbie Hines is a trial lawyer, member of the Supreme Court bar and former prosecutor who addresses gender and race bias in the media. She is frequently seen in the national and international media on BET News, RT America, News One, Sky News, and Fox, CBS and NBC affiliates. She also contributes to the Huffington Post and Women’s Media

Blurred Lines and the Right to Privacy

Thursday, February 6th, 2014

AmericanflagWe face a growing assault on our right to privacy online with presumed innocent sharing to friends and family resulting in government surveillance by the NSA, while many persons only see blurred lines when it comes to online privacy violations. As Alessandro Acquisiti points out in his TED Talk, Why Privacy Matters, {LINK} some people don’t care about online privacy as many think they have nothing to hide. I beg to differ. I think most people don’t understand and don’t connect emotionally with online privacy issues. And once more people come to better understand what their online identity means and also connect on an emotional level, many more people will speak out about their right to privacy and against government intrusion.

As a former prosecutor, I often heard victims of burglaries and home invasions speak with outrage about the violation of their privacy when someone came into their homes and took their belongings without their consent. They understood what happened and they wanted action taken. That same sense of knowledge and outrage is what is missing from Internet online privacy invasions and replaced mostly with apathy or lack of knowledge. For many persons, the concept of online privacy is an abstract one that they can’t see, touch, sense, feel or understand. And while some may understand it quite well, those persons often overly intellectualize the privacy issue, so others don’t feel it on an emotional level. We need to understand online privacy issues but also need to emotionally feel the issue as if someone broke into and invaded our homes, pilfered through our stuff and stole all of our belongings.

For the rest of this article, please click and go to Huffington Post Ted Talks where it first appeared on February 6, 2014 as part of a larger conversation on privacy rights, NPR Radio and Ted Talks.