Sunday, April 1, 2012

Defending the Bunker

Trayvon Martin's killing resulted from several social factors, of course. The most resonant one is racial profiling, and Friday's discussion on MPR looked at it from the point of view of black parents, in fear for their sons' lives. It was a moving hour of programming, especially because of the callers and particularly guest Toki Wright, who is a hiphop artist and professor at McNally Smith School of Music.

This weekend's op-ed by Rich Benjamin looked at it from another angle: the gated community, with its "bunker mentality," joined with the Stand Your Ground law.

Benjamin has written a book I've got to read, called Searching for Whitopia: An Improbable Journey to the Heart of White America. He spent two years traversing the country from one gated community to another, taking up residence for short periods of time, trying to get to know and understand the residents.

This must have been interesting, because Benjamin is, as he put it, "a black man, with a youthful style and face."

Here are few snips from his op-ed:

Since you can say "gated community" only so many times, developers hatched an array of Orwellian euphemisms to appease residents' anxieties: "master-planned community," "landscaped resort community," "secluded intimate neighborhood"  [that's my personal favorite].

No matter the label, the product is the same: self-contained, conservative and overzealous in its demands for "safety." Gated communities churn a vicious cycle by attracting like-minded residents who seek shelter from outsiders and whose physical seclusion then worsens paranoid groupthink against outsiders.
Most surprising were the stats:
...more than 10 million housing units are in gated communities, where access is "secured with walls or fences," according to 2009 Census Bureau data. Roughly 10 percent of the occupied homes in this country are in gated communities. Between 2001 and 2009, the United States saw a 53 percent growth in gated housing units.
Of course, in the case of the gated community where Martin was killed, a significant number of the residents are people of color, including George Zimmerman himself. But as several black, male neighbors said, they felt they were suspect if they stepped outside their front doors. So while that particular area may not have been exactly "Whitopia," it had its share of paranoid groupthink.

Minnesota's governor recently vetoed a version of the Stand Your Ground law. When opponents gave examples of ways the law would lead to unjustified killings, it was easy for supporters to pooh-pooh them. That's no longer the case, thanks to the Trayvon Martin tragedy.

The best thing that could come of his death would be the repeal of all of these laws, now in effect in over 20 states.

Update: Here's an excellent piece written by retired St. Paul assistant city attorney Thomas Weyandt, explaining the differences between Florida's law and the law recently vetoed in Minnesota. What a public service.

As Weyandt makes clear, the Minnesota law was much more radical than Florida's, allowing for deadly force in response to "substantial bodily harm," a standard that includes injuries as minor as a black eye. Florida's law requires "great bodily harm," which requires permanent injury or at least a broken bone. And that's just one way in which the Minnesota law was rewritten to allow for even more of a Wild West scenario than the Florida law does.

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