They Always Get Away | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

They Always Get Away

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Tom Head

Darius Simmons was 13 years old when the old man next door killed him. John Henry Spooner—white, 76, and angry—was sure the black kid had stolen his guns, and even surer when the kid denied it. When Spooner saw Darius taking out the garbage, he stepped outside and shot the boy dead. And while there's a lot to hate about what happened, one cold and terrible message especially stands out for me: John Henry Spooner loved his missing guns more than he loved the child next door, and he didn't mind writing that out in blood.

That's what the American debate over Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws has increasingly become: a question of whether the lives of our young people matter more than our craven and sometimes baseless suspicions that our property will be taken away from us.

When an anonymous website commenter warned earlier this week on the Jackson Free Press website that potential burglars—or, as he called them, "little sh*ts"—would take everything we own if we weren't willing to kill them on sight, I thought of what Michael Dunn wrote in prison as part of a letter to his father. Dunn, a 45-year-old white man, fired into a car full of black teenagers because he thought they were playing their music too loud; 17-year-old Jordan Davis was shot dead, and two of his friends were wounded.

"The jail is full of blacks," he wrote to his father, "and they all act like thugs ... [I]f more people would kill these [expletive] idiots ... eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior." Even after he had killed a teenager, Dunn saw his victim—not himself—as the "thug."

Recent white vigilantism in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict has given us a horrifyingly long list of examples like these. The most recent to get national attention was the death of Renisha McBride, 19, her beautiful face blown off by 54-year-old Theodore Wafer in suburban Detroit because she knocked on his door after surviving a late-night car accident.

The death of 20-year-old Quardious Thomas, mowed down in Jackson for allegedly breaking into an unoccupied car earlier this year, fits the pattern less neatly—the shooter was black, and Thomas wasn't a completely innocent bystander—but local law enforcement's casual response to the shooting sends the message that his life wasn't worth very much.

And when you take into account one police officer's suggestion that a local business owner "buy a gun" to prevent burglaries at his office, it's clear that we've reached a point where we're comfortable with the idea of young people—and, in nearly every case we've encountered, young black people—getting shot down because we think they might break something or steal something.

If we look back at the shooting that started this recent wave of vigilante killings, it's clear that it was motivated by the same kind of thinking. George Zimmerman had chased down 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a kid walking home at night, because "they always get away."

Zimmerman, who had called police 46 times over the previous two years, decided to chase one of "them" down and personally make sure he wouldn't escape. Zimmerman, it is clear, saw himself—and may still see himself—as a hero. The same is certainly true of Dunn, and may also be true of Spooner and Wafer. And it plays into a very well-established American mythology surrounding the glamorous vigilante crimefighter—dating all the way back to Wild West gunslingers, and all the way forward to today's superhero flicks. 

Even if we could completely rely on the accuracy of our suspicions, there's nothing remotely heroic about trading the lives of our young people for material things. The violent fantasies that animate public policies surrounding Stand Your Ground and Castle Doctrine laws aren't rooted in legitimate heroism; they come from our arrogance, greed, and pride. We each only get one life, and it's a horrible fact of our lives that many of us have to do without things that are stolen from us.

But these families have lost their children. And these often innocent and sometimes guilty but confused young people whose very selves are snuffed out by vigilantes—they're not "little sh*ts." They're our dead. And if we can't muster up the courage to grieve for them, we should grieve for our own capacity for tenderness, and the spirit of vengeance, the bloody-minded callousness, that has replaced it.

Tom Head, Ph.D., is a Jackson native. He is author or coauthor of 25 books, including "The Absolute Beginner's Guide to the Bible" (Que/Pearson, 2005, $26.99).

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