What we learned from Ferguson

The no bill decision returned by the Ferguson, Mo. grand jury reinforces that shooting a black man because you’re scared of him is still an acceptable defense in the United States. Even a police officer, trained to do violence, but also trained to mediate that violence, can rely on the “white fright” defense to avoid prosecution.

What is “white fright”? Unlike “white flight”, where millions of people moved from cities to the suburbs to avoid having to live near people who weren’t exactly like them, “white fright” embodies the idea that I should be able to “stand my ground” if I feel threatened. The “white fright” philosophy assumes that a white person should have a reasonable expectation that a jury will be sympathetic to “white fright” and marginally punish, if punish at all, someone who felt threatened by a minority and acted on their fear.

My Uncle Hap lives on the last 20 acres of the family farm outside of Russellville, Alabama in a single wide trailer provided by his children. The family home had fallen into such dis-repair that cousin Lud and cousin El put together $6,000 a piece to keep their daddy out of the elements. As a young man, Uncle Hap was described as a “go-getter” and a young man who had real potential. After a few ill-conceived business ventures, Uncle Hap didn’t seem to be interested in much of anything except beer and guns. Over the course of fifty years Uncle Hap turned a 300 acre farm into a 20 acre plot with taxes due, over one million beer cans, and the finest gun collection in West Alabama. Uncle Hap was the embodiment of the old joke, “Want to know how to make a million dollars”? “Well first you start with five million dollars and ……”

My Uncle Hap, like so many of his contemporaries, has always been secure in the knowledge that no matter how bad his life has turned, he is better than any minority person, no matter that person’s accomplishments. Even when Uncle Hap was running the “pass and slam” scam (pass a car and then slam on the brakes when you get in front of the mark) to collect meager insurance payouts, he would take his settlement and continue to add to his arsenal. When Uncle Hap “pass and slammed”  the only black attorney in Russellville, he felt doubly blessed. He had outsmarted the “uppity” lawyer, and gotten enough cash to buy his new $10,000 gun safe.

Now Uncle Hap fears that there are many of color who wish him ill, that covet his property. Hap is ever vigilant of his perimeter, waiting, watching for when they will come to take his guns. It could be his government, his neighbors, or the rumored ever marauding bands of “outside agitators” that are legend for stirring up trouble. Hap’s plan is to shoot first and then break a window and drag them inside his mobile home to provide evidence of the home invasion. All Uncle Hap needs to maintain his freedom is a jury with “white fright”. A jury like the one in Ferguson where a white policeman feared for his life from an unarmed black teen one hundred and fifty feet away. A policeman so frightened that he couldn’t think of any other solution but to keep shooting. A policeman so frightened that he couldn’t think of any other solution like, I don’t know, get in your car and roll up the windows and call for help.

Today Uncle Hap feels hopeful for America.

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