Posted tagged ‘Trayvon Martin’

Faith vs. Reason: Stand Your Ground/Violent Crime Edition

March 23, 2012

Last night the PBS News Hour program held a roundtable on the Trayvon Martin murder.  Ta-Nehisi Coates was on, as were Reihan Salem and Donna Britt.  So was Dennis Baxley, the Florida state representative who co-authored the Stand Your Ground law under whose cloak George Zimmerman stalked and gunned down the 17 year old Martin.

Baxley said — and appeared to mean — the right things about Martin’s death, that it was a tragedy, and that nothing in the law he helped enact should be interpreted to authorize someone to pursue, confront and shoot another.  But Baxley rejected the notion that the law itself might have contributed to the catastrophe, arguing instead that it is a force for good, a way, in his words, a law intended “to empower law abiding citizens to stop violent things from happening.”

What’s more, said Baxley, the law has done just that:

Since ’05 to 2012 we have seen a reduction in violent crime in Florida.  And what I’ve learned from it is that if you empower to stop bad things from happening they will and they do and they have.

Except, of course, those bad things that happen because people are able to claim that a “feeling” of danger constitutes authorization to use deadly force more or less at will.

But snark aside, what of the claim about crime rates in Florida.

Here, I’ll take a cue from Rachel Maddow, and say that Dennis Baxler is lying.

Check out Florida’s crime statistics.  Two things stand out.

The first is that the number of violent crimes has not dropped from 2005 through 2010 (where the data series ends); rather it has jostled about in the noise.  From 2005-2008, violent crime totals exceeded the 2004 tally of just over 124,000; in 2009 and 2010 the totals dropped below that figure. If there’s a clear case for correlation with the Stand Your Ground law, it must exist at some much finer grained level that the invoked violent crime catch-all

So what about murder?  That is, after all, the crime of crimes, and the one for which I think most of us would be most comfortable in giving deference to claims of self defense.  Those numbers make Baxley’s story worse:  the murder total in Florida dropped from 946 to 881 from 2004-2005, and have exceeded the 2004 total for each year reported since, peaking at 1,202 in 2007 — or about a 26% hike from the 2004 number.

The shorter: violent crime numbers do not support a claim that the SYG law has consistently reduced violent crime incidence since 2005.

The other key fact to leaps out from this chart:

The slope of the rate/100,000 (blue) line has been pretty consistent for twenty years.  It gets a little steeper from 2008-2010, to be sure, though not as much as it did from 1997 to 1999 or 2000.  But this picture is consistent with the story in the rest of the country: violent crime is a much less severe problem now than it was decades ago. Any explanation for this ongoing process cannot have anything to do with a law enacted in 2005.  That longer history alone makes a mockery any sudden 9mm ex machina explanation for Florida’s recent and welcome continued reduction in rates of violent crime.  And, of course, any monocausal explanation  is almost certain to be wrong.

Hell, I’ll go further and say that a priori, such accounts are always wrong.

Consider instead another story.  Sometime in a leisure-filled future, (hah!–ed) I do plan to blog this really smart Adam Gopnik piece in the New Yorker examining research into  what drove crime rates down in New York City over the last several decades.  But for now in this context, take this home:

Crime ends as a result of “cyclical forces operating on situational and contingent things rather than from finding deeply motivated essential linkages.” [Wrote Franklin E. Zimring]…Curbing crime does not depend on reversing social pathologies or alleviating social grievances; it depends on erecting small, annoying barriers to entry.

All of which is to say that when Baxley asserts that Florida is experiencing a respite from violent crime because it now allows citizens to act as amateur law enforcers, empowered to use deadly force as their judgment drives them, he’s not telling the truth.  He’s lying, saying something that is false as a mundane fact and wrong as a causal inference.

Which is why this from Baxley is a type specimen of moral cowardice:

This kind of very unfortunate situation I think is a misapplication of this statute.

If you enact a law that carries with it a predictable budget of unintended, undesired consequences that result from the application of that law in daily life, then you’re not talking about “unfortunate” events, nor “misapplications.”  You’re talking about a murder that was a probabilistically predictable result of enacting a crap law.

I’m sorry Mr. Baxley.

I’m sure you mean well.

I have no doubt that you did not wish the particular child, Trayvon Martin any harm — how could you? You never knew him.

But what you feel in your heart, that regret that someone didn’t behave under your law as you think they should?  Not an excuse. No absolution.  Trayvon Martin is dead because someone empowered in his own mind by the terms of your law stalked down a street, confronted him, and shot that 17 year old kid down.

You own your part of this.

Eavesdropping for Effect

March 21, 2012

I haven’t written anything about the Trayvon Martin murder, because I have nothing to say that hasn’t been said.  TNC’s been powerful on this, and I found James Fallows‘ take exactly on point, and what’s been said here speaks for me as well.  If I have any thought it is that if this isn’t our Emmet Till moment, we’re even more desolate as a society than I had feared on my worst nights. (And yes, Charlie Pierce went there, but I was thinking along this line before reading him. It’s hardly an unlikely remembrance.)

Yesterday, though, I couldn’t help but think about Martin’s death after one session of  a conference on the future of documentary.  There, I got the chance to hear, and later to talk to two of the collaborators behind Question Bridge — co-founder Chris Johnson and one of his colleagues, Bayeté Ross Smith.

That project turns on a deceptively simple idea:* find Black men with a question they want another Black man to answer, someone they may not know, someone of a different age, class, location, experience. Have them ask whatever it is while staring straight into a video camera.  The film makers then bring those questions to other men — strangers turned into confidants, who answer.  Again, they speak straight into the lens — or rather, through the camera directly to both the questioner and any eavesdroppers, you, me, whoever decides to click “play.

Here’s a sample:

There are a couple of things to note about the project from in the context of a new media conference.  The first is that this  is incredibly simple film making, as noted above, but that simplicity highlights the rigor of the craft involved, the meticulous attention to what its creators wanted to achieve as an aesthetic (and hence rhetorically) powerful piece of work. Think sonnets:  when you have fewer elements and more formal constraints, whatever you do right or wrong is there for all to see.  Put this another way, as I often preach to my students:  high production values do not mean necessarily expensive production.  It merely means you’ve thought out what you intend to do with great care long before you ever say, “turn over.”

Here’s another taste of the work, from a variant of the project intended explicitly for use in educational settings:

But back to Trayvon Martin.

Certainly, there’s nothing directly linking this project to that tragedy…except, as one of the two presenters yesterday said (I think it was Bayeté, and I paraphrase from memory), that such events are part of the fabric of Black male experience, part of the atmosphere in which Black men move.

In that context, Question Bridge has an explicit mission:  to enable Black men to speak out loud about the experiences and emotions that frame their daily lives.  Big stuff — like the blueprint clip above, or seemingly small (though, I suspect, not really so) matters like the one raised here.  Obviously, when a 17 year old kid is shot down, and the police do worse than nothing, that’s clearly a circumstance in which plenty of questions and answers will resonate — those already asked, and those to come.

Question Bridge is up front and center on this core goal: it aims to connect Black men with each other to address core questions of identity across all the barriers of distance and difference.  But, of course, by its very form as a web/museum/school/socially mediated and sourced effort, it invites others in.  It’s a triangle, built on asymmetries of time and place, questioner at a remove from his respondent, both separated from anyone else in the world who chooses to listen in…all of which adds up to a conversation that can only take place in a documented, enwebbed world.

And speaking now as what I obviously am, a middle-aged white man living a life of great good fortune (so far and mostly), what is likely obvious becomes more so:  there are lots of conversations that I would want to have, that I think our society, our culture needs to have, that in the ordinary course of the way Americans live now are vanishingly unlikely to take place.  But at Question Bridge, they do.  Of course, the exchanges constructed by the artist-film makers involved are just that:  made works of documentary art, constructed out of a whole hierarchy of choices made within the project — and hence anything but a live exchange, with all of the chance and serendipity of face to face talk.

But so what? Or rather, that’s the point.

This work entrains me, anyone, in a chain of thought and reaction, question, answer, argument, that if I were actually in the room would not happen.  And if there is anything to take from Obama Derangement Syndrome, from the seeming mainstreaming of dog whistle racism (and the old fashioned kind) — from Trayvon Martin’s death with its sudden, horrible reminder that possession of skittles can be a capital offense in these United States — then it is that one of the hardest and most vital tasks out there is to allow words that would not otherwise be uttered or heard to find voice and listeners across this wide world.

I don’t want to overclaim.  No video is going to approximate the job of living someone else’s life, and as the men of Question Bridge point out, that’s just as true within a group as varied as Black men as it is outside that particular cut of identity.  But speaking as both a guy living in America right now and as a someone who tries to work with the craft of documentary to shift people’s minds, I have to say that this is one impressive project, a genuinely innovative and (to me, at least) deeply effective use of our new tools to braid human connections that did not exist before they formed in this space.

And with that, I’ll leave you with one last video — the project explainer and pitch:

*recalling, as Richard Feynman put it, that “simple” — or “elementary,” as the physicist put it in the context of an “elementary demonstration” of a proof –does not mean easy. Rather, it means that “very little is required to know ahead of time in order to understand it, except to have an infinite amount of intelligence.”