Politics

Marc Caputo: Dream Defenders could enlighten truth-mangling Jesse Jackson

 

mcaputo@MiamiHerald.com

Jesse Jackson inspired generations with his mantra: “I am somebody.”

But these days, as he spouts misleading statistics and over-the-top rhetoric about Florida and gun violence, three alternatives to his famous slogan come to mind:

I am misleading.

I am inflammatory.

I am counterproductive.

While his call to fight racial injustice is righteous, Jackson’s tactics haven’t done much to help the Dream Defenders protestors, who have occupied a part of the Florida Capitol outside Gov. Rick Scott’s office in opposition to Florida’s Stand Your Ground self-defense law.

The Dream Defenders have been smart, sharp and effective, blending the nonviolence of Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi with social media and our modern-day celebrity culture.

Jackson, one of those celebrities, dropped by Tuesday in Tallahassee and referred to the protests and Florida as “the Selma of our time.”

Huh? Let’s review and compare:

On March 7, 1965, more than 500 peaceful demonstrators were savagely beaten by law enforcement as they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala., during a march to Montgomery.

As of Aug. 5, 2013, the Dream Defenders entered their 20th day of peacefully occupying the Capitol, an occupation that began three days after the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin of Miami Gardens. None has been billy-clubbed, tear-gassed or manhandled.

Two days after the July 16 occupation began, Jackson appeared on CNN and talked about an economic boycott of the state to “isolate Florida as a kind of apartheid state given . . . Stand Your Ground laws.”

Scott and Republicans, who control the Florida Legislature, proactively demanded an apology from Jackson. He refused.

Now, Florida political leaders have something to talk about other than the substance of the Dream Defenders’ demands. And Jackson stays on TV and in the newspapers. This is mutually assured dysfunction.

And Jackson’s stats are off. But that’s nothing new.

In April 2012, Jackson said Florida “homicides have increased threefold” under Stand Your Ground. They haven’t. They’ve ticked up by more than 10 percent (not 300 percent), though the homicide rate has dropped about 1 percentage point since the first full year of Stand Your Ground’s implementation, in 2006 (it became law in July 2005, during a hurricane year when crime was at an all-time low).

This year, Jackson went a step further and explicitly injected race into the debate by saying “homicides against blacks have tripled” since Stand Your Ground was enacted. False. Again. They rose 1.5 percent to a total of 532 over six years.

And Jackson’s general claims about clear racial inequities in Stand Your Ground aren’t so clear, either, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis of more than 200 cases last year. The paper, a partner of the Miami Herald, could find no clear racial bias in the self-defense law, which allows defendants to use lethal force more easily in some confrontations.

Those who plead Stand Your Ground in fatal cases involving a dead black person are more likely, by 22 percentage points, to “walk free” when compared to those who kill a white person, The Times’ data show.

But it noted a major reason for the disparity: African-Americans were more likely than Caucasians to be armed or involved with a crime — thereby lending credence to a shooter’s self-defense claim.

Another way to look at the stats: the shooter’s race. And in those Stand Your Ground cases, the law helped black defendants successfully plead justifiable homicide by a slightly higher margin than whites, 7 percentage points.

None of this is to say Stand Your Ground is a good or bad law. And none of this is to say that many of the spooky Trayvon Truthers, who want to dwell on black-on-black crime or denigrate a black teen after his death, aren’t likely bigots.

Beyond race, the Tampa Bay Times analysis showed the law is not applied evenly. In some cases, it appears, hardened criminals and aggressors go free when they probably shouldn’t.

Disregarding nuance, Jackson appeared on MSNBC last week, ducked a question about whether he was being counterproductive, and proceeded to draw a parallel between how “George Zimmerman, a murderer, walks free because of the standards raised by Stand Your Ground laws while . . . a woman named Marissa Alexander is in prison in Jacksonville who shot in the air to deflect the husband from approaching her again.”

But there’s little evidence Zimmerman was freed just “because of the standards” of Stand Your Ground. Zimmerman’s lawyers focused more on a classic self-defense justification independent of Stand Your Ground, although the law played a role nonetheless.

Jackson said nothing about the Lakeland-area case of Orville Lee Wollard. Like Alexander, Wollard fired a warning shot in a dispute in his own home (it was to scare off his daughter’s abusive boyfriend). Like Alexander, he’s doing 20 years in prison as a result.

But he’s white.

To find this out, all Jackson had to do is read Clarence Page’s column in their hometown paper, the Chicago Tribune, a day before Jackson appeared on CNN.

“The enemy in both cases was not racism but mandatory minimum sentencing,” Page wrote of Alexander and Wollard.

Florida’s GOP-led Legislature isn’t interested in changing mandatory-minimum sentences or drug laws, which disproportionately affect African-Americans.

Lawmakers don’t want to be branded as soft on crime, especially in Republican primary elections. Also, the private prison industry is a major campaign contributor. More incarcerated people mean more profits and, therefore, more political donations.

So this isn’t just about black or white, Republican red or Democratic blue. This is also about money, green.

State lawmakers have also done little about healthcare, helping make Florida one of the top states for the uninsured. And they’ve fought expanding Medicaid under Obamacare. Disparities in education have been glossed over in the Capitol as well.

Jackson rightly pointed out all of these problems. He correctly notes that Florida’s laws blocking former felons from voting disproportionately affect African-Americans. Of Florida’s citizens in 2012, 16.6 percent were African-Americans, who accounted for a disproportionate 48.1 percent of the prison population (not the 51 percent Jackson has cited, by the way).

But it’s also notable that Florida is not unique when it comes to racial disparities overall. Jackson’s “apartheid” comments could make Florida sound like a national outlier instead of a bellwether.

For all Jackson’s focus on Florida’s lax gun laws, Chicago has more gun control and a higher murder rate. More than 506 victims (as many as 75 percent black) were murdered in Chicago’s Cook County last year — half the number of total Florida homicide victims and 39 percent more than the combined total for South Florida’s comparable three major urban counties, Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach.

Florida does lay claim to being the first state to pass Stand Your Ground, which spread quickly to other states. And despite a recommendation from a governor’s task force, lawmakers have refused to fund a study of the law to look at issues of “race, ethnicity, gender, application and fairness.”

But the Florida House last week announced it will hold hearings.

That’s a sign of the effectiveness of the Dream Defenders, who have also attracted the likes of Harry Belafonte, activist Kevin Powell and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nan Rich, a tireless kids-rights crusader, to visit their Tallahassee protest. Rap star Talib Kweli, one of hip-hop’s most-thoughtful voices, plans to visit Thursday.

How long the Dream Defenders will occupy the Capitol is unclear. They want a special legislative session to hear their concerns, which are not limited to Stand Your Ground.

Dream Defenders Director Phillip Agnew said the group is just as adamant that the Legislature take up racial profiling and the “school-to-prison pipeline.”

“Those other two pillars are just as important to us,” Agnew said Saturday. “We’ve got some great ideas and we’d like to get them before a committee of lawmakers.”

Perhaps they could also show Jesse Jackson their great way of effectively protesting without mangling the truth.

Read more Marc Caputo stories from the Miami Herald

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