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The Death of Michael Brown and the Implicit Bias of Stand Your Ground Laws

By Caroline Light

Memorial to Michael Brown
Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie

Three years ago today, Michael Brown, eighteen years old and unarmed, was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri by officer Darren Wilson, who claimed to have fired in self-defense. Missouri is one of thirty-three states with “stand-your-ground” laws which allow the kind of lethal self-defense that took Brown’s life. As Caroline Light explains in the following excerpt from her book Stand Your Ground: A History of America’s Love Affair with Lethal Self-Defense, these gun-carry laws don’t make us safer. They criminalize communities of color while granting only white gun owners the privilege of do-it-yourself protection.


Against the moral absolutism of police violence and DIY-security citizenship, the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements have emerged to call out the deadly consequences of racist, classist, and (hetero) sexist violence. Beyond critiquing police violence, these movements challenge the larger structures that serve white supremacist, patriarchal power. Black Lives Matter, a network founded by three queer-identified women of color, “affirms the lives of Black queer and trans folks, disabled folks, Black-undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all Black lives along the gender spectrum.” This “intersectional” approach to systemic violence considers the simultaneity of identity threat for vulnerable populations, and it is profoundly threatening to the DIY-security citizenship ideal. Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName challenge the epistemic roots of inequality, as well as its maliciously antidemocratic effects.

Today, we witness multiple instances that illuminate the collision course between the armed citizen impulse and intersectional calls for justice. In the summer of 2015, members of an armed group that calls itself Oath Keepers patrolled the Ferguson, Missouri, protests where Black Lives Matter protesters and others marked the one-year anniversary of the shooting death of eighteen-year-old Michael Brown by a white police officer, Darren Wilson. Founded in 2004 by a former US Army paratrooper, Stewart Rhodes, Oath Keepers is a group of former military and first responders claiming to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” Most members are white males. Members of the group began appearing in Ferguson, armed with assault rifles and wearing bulletproof vests and camouflage clothing. Missouri laws allow people with concealed-weapon permits to carry their guns openly, unless they demonstrate an “angry or threatening manner.” Oath Keepers’ media director, Jason Van Tatenhove, explained the purpose of the group: “to protect not only businesses and homes, but the citizens themselves.” According to Van Tatenhove, the presence of this quasi-military organization was vital to maintaining order and safety “during the riots last November and December” that took place in the wake of Michael Brown’s death.

Notably, the group boasted of its protection of good citizens, businesses, and homes, while characterizing the protests for racial justice as riots. This description conflates protesters demanding racial justice with riot-like assaults on public safety, order, and property. Using racially coded language associating Black protest with criminality, the Oath Keepers emphasized the need for armed white militants to defend white property. When counter-protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations insist that “blue lives matter,” they highlight police vulnerability while denying the susceptibility of people of color to police violence. Similar characterizations of protests against police violence as examples of reverse racism proliferate on social media. For example, some gun rights activists have circulated a cartoon, created by George Trosley, featuring a violent Black criminal—whose features are drawn to appear almost simian—protesting his rough treatment by two serene, nonviolent, white policemen trying to handcuff him in the wake of his murderous rampage through a liquor store. This image was among those posted on the Facebook page of Jamie Gilt, the white Florida gun rights activist who achieved notoriety after being shot in the back by her four-year-old.

Urgent cries for armed self-defense in the United States seem to have peaked in the wake of the November 13, 2015, terrorist attacks in Paris. Posts to news blogs confirm the widespread support for armed citizenship. One Yahoo News blog post captures the spirit of many: “If law abiding people in this world were allowed to carry a weapon this wouldn’t happen. If one third of the people in the movie theater had a gun there would have been a lot less innocent people killed.” Campus-wide concealed carry was recently approved for eligible students at Liberty University, a Christian college in Lynchburg, Virginia. On December 2, 2015, there was a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. After the incident, Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, made explicit the usually implicit biases and perceptions of “stranger danger” that fortify the DIY-security citizenship ideal when he stated: “If more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.” The appeal to “good” and “law-abiding” people to serve as their own armed protectors against terrorism not only promises an easy, homegrown solution to our deepest insecurities; it reinforces the idea that a criminal stranger who is a religious and ideological extremist can be immediately recognized on sight.

Fears of terrorism and rampant criminality fuel what historian Jill Lepore foretells will be “an end to civilian life,” when we are all engaged in panic-induced DIY security and “the only good citizen is an armed one.” The United States has experienced close to a thousand mass shootings since the Sandy Hook massacre of December 2012, and many believe that the solution to these acts of mass violence is to continue to build our arsenal. Although the United States accounts for just 4.4 percent of the world’s population, we possess forty to fifty percent of the world’s civilian-owned guns, and the stockpiling of weapons continues. We have indeed become a nation of selectively armed citizens.

But as the Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName movements are teaching us now, our current insecurities will not be mitigated by endowing more citizens with the right to shoot first, and ask questions later. Indeed, eliminating gun restrictions and the duty to retreat has only intensified the violence against our nation’s most vulnerable citizens. It should not surprise us that SYG laws and more liberal gun-carry laws—in spite of their ostensibly race neutral framing—continue to place people of color outside of our nation’s protective boundaries. The deliberate misidentification of criminality and vulnerability is embedded in our very ideals of citizenship.


About the Author

Caroline Light is director of undergraduate studies in the Program in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of That Pride of Race and Character: The Roots of Jewish Benevolence in the Jim Crow South.