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'Loud Music' A Case Of 'Testosterone, Guns, And Florida'


I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now, we're going to take some time to talk more about the trial of Michael Dunn. You might have heard this referred to as the "loud music trial." Back in 2012, Michael Dunn fired several shots into an SUV carrying four black teenagers. Both groups were parked at a gas station in Jacksonville, Fla. The altercation apparently started after Dunn told the teens to turn down their music, and they refused. Dunn killed one of the boys, Jordan Davis. On Saturday, a Florida jury found Dunn guilty of three counts of attempted second-degree murder, but they were unable to reach a verdict on the first-degree murder charge.

Now, a number of people have written about this, and many have taken to social media to express their views. So we've gathered just a small group of essayists who have been writing about this, to hear what they had to say. Sherri Day is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board. Mark Woods is a columnist for the Florida Times-Union and the paper's website Jacksonville.com. And also with us is Travis Gosa. He is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, and he wrote about this for TheRoot.com, which is an online publication. Thank you all so much for joining us.

SHERRI DAY: Thank you for having me.

MARK WOODS: Thanks, appreciate it.

TRAVIS GOSA: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Now, Sherri Day, I'm going to start with you because you wrote about this on a very personal level, as the parent of a daughter but also twin boys. Just briefly tell us what you said about this, and how this struck you.

DAY: Basically, I reacted to the verdict with - not with surprise. This has happened before. We've been here before, and as the mother of two young black boys, I'm afraid for them. And I wrote about that. This piece was really my cry; to sort of say, I'm afraid of raising my boys in a world where no matter how they dress or what they say or what they may be doing, there are some people who are going to perceive them as thugs. And I worry about their safety in a society that sees them that way. I'm doing everything I can to help them not live down to the stereotype. But there are some people who still will be afraid of them just because they breathe. That's what I wrote.

MARTIN: And you kind of - you didn't really have an answer for this. But it's just, as you said, this was your cry. I noticed that other people - a lot of people on social media were taking that point of view. Any comments that particularly struck you?

DAY: I guess the ones that struck me the most were from the many mothers of all races who said, we have the same fear for our children; that their behavior would somehow bring them to an unfortunate end. But specifically from black mothers who said, this is the same conversation we were having in my home over the weekend. Thank you for giving us a voice. And then from others who said, I'm a mother, too, but I don't have to deal with this type of situation, and I never thought about this before.

We've always thought about this. This is not a new fear. It's been going on forever. And so that there, in this year, would still be people who say, you know, I never thought about this before, thanks for opening my eyes.

MARTIN: Professor Gosa, you wrote about this - kind of a slightly different perspective. Your piece for TheRoot.com was titled "Why Are White Men Like Michael Dunn So Angry?" And you wrote about it from the perspective of why is it - you know, looking at a number of the cases that have been in the news recently - what is it? Tell us what your reaction was. You're saying that men like Michael Dunn feel that their privilege or standing is somehow threatened by people of color. Tell us a little bit more about your thoughts.

GOSA: Absolutely. For me, Michael Dunn represents a growing segment of angry white men who are angry, irritated - and packed to the teeth with guns. This is not the loving angry white man of Archie Bunker's age; or Al Bundy in the 1980s, the shoeman on "Married with Children." This really represents, for me, a case in which Michael Dunn sees himself as a victim of America, an oppressed minority. And so, for me, this morning's announcement that Dunn sees himself and compares himself to a rape victim underscores the idea there's a growing segment of the American public who is white, male and angry.

MARTIN: What are they angry about, specifically? Tell us a little bit more about that.

GOSA: In many ways, I think there's a trifecta of conditions that lead white men like Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman to feel angry. Part of it is a feeling that they've been left out of the American dream; that they're under siege by thugs, gangsters, immigrants. And in some ways, I think this is a backlash, not just against Barack Obama's nomination and re-election, but also a movement among white feminists like Sheryl Sandberg, who are now leaning in. And really, in ways, this can be seen as emasculating for many white men.

MARTIN: What's your evidence of this, and what's your evidence specifically that Michael Dunn was motivated by this point of view, by this sentiment?

GOSA: In the Michael Dunn case, we have four very rich sources of evidence that show his anger. We have his description of the shooting during the trial, in which he describes being disrespected by these, quote-unquote," mouthy teenagers." We have his prison-house letters in which he writes to his grandmother and his then-fiancee that it's time for good Americans to stand up against thug culture and gangsters who are dominating America. We also have recently released jailhouse audiotapes that show that he envisions himself as a victim in the same ways that women who survived domestic abuse and rape survive and are victimized.

And lastly in this case, we also have interviews with Michael Dunn's neighbors in which they describe him as being depressed, angry, walking around with a chip on his shoulder. And it's the gun, in this case, for angry white men that can restore that feeling of power and privilege that's been taken away in the age of Obama.

MARTIN: Mark Woods, you wrote an interesting piece about this where you reacted as a Floridian. Can you talk a little bit about that? I mean, you've talked about the fact that, you know, that there's something - there was something about seeing the seven simple words used to legally describe it. You're talking about the case now, State of Florida vs. Michael David Dunn. Reflect a little bit more about that; why you felt, as a Floridian, that there was something you wanted to talk about.

WOODS: Yes. I mean, that kind of struck me after all, you know, the hours and thousands of words that we've written, just that simple title of this case and that if the state of Florida lost, I felt like the entire state lost - all of us in this state. If he somehow was able to use this and walk out of the courthouse a free man using self-defense, that it was bad for all of us.

MARTIN: And why is that? Is - that you think there's something about the state of Florida? You know, I do have to, you know, point out that this - the George Zimmerman-Trayvon Martin confrontation. Many people remember that George Zimmerman is a man who's a sort of a self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer, a white male of Hispanic heritage; who shot this unarmed teenager, which also became a huge national story - also in Florida.

And also, recently, a case involving two white men in - where one man shot another man who was texting in the movie theater, and he took offense to that. And both individuals were white, in this case. Do you feel that there's something about Florida, or is it something about the laws in Florida? What are you saying?

WOODS: Well, I've lived here 25 years. And the state has always created its share of news, you know, from hanging chads to Elian Gonzalez and all kinds of wacky crimes that kind of made - Carl Hiaasen and Tim Dorsey have made a living off of, as novelists. But I think in the past, it was often kind of absurd and quirky or glitzy, like "Miami Vice." And, you know, it was almost, you know, in a way, oddly endearing for the state.

But, you know, there is nothing endearing about the cases you just rambled off there. They're sad. They're sickening. They're infuriating. And, you know, we're making headlines all over the world for these things and, you know, this is the state that counts on tourism. And, you know, I read the comments - I read some of the stories that appeared in British papers or Australian papers, and you read the reader comments on those. And it's interesting to see their view of our state.

MARTIN: You know, Mark Woods, if you don't my mentioning that you are white. For the other commentators here today, race is front and center in this. Is it for you as well, or not so much?

WOODS: Well, I think there's no question when you talk about this specific case, that, you know, from the incident itself to the reaction to the trial, you know, race is a part of it. But I mean, I also do think there's something more than race going on here. I mean, as you mentioned, we have that - the texting in a movie theater, and we've had several road rage incidents have - people shot. And often race is not an issue, and the common denominator is testosterone and guns and, sadly, Florida.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about reactions to the Michael Dunn verdict. We're speaking with three writers whose essays about this - or recent writings about this caught our eye. Just speaking now was Mark Woods, of the Florida Times-Union. Also with us, Sherri Day, of the Tampa Bay Times; and Professor Travis Gosa of Cornell University, who wrote about this case for The Root. Sherri Day, I want to go back to your piece. You talk about this in a way that I think some others have, too, which is that we've seen this before. We've seen this before. Do you feel like this is kind of a - like a bad play that we've all seen? What would you like to happen, as a result of this? What would you want to see happen, to kind of have everybody break out of the role they've somehow been assigned?

DAY: You know, what I'd like to see is an honest dialogue and some serious introspection for people. One of the things that - two things struck me. I got an email from a friend who read my piece and said, the advice you're giving your sons about realizing that youthful rebellion for you doesn't mean what it means for people of other races is the same kind of advice my parents gave me in 1955. Now, that's scary. But what I think we need to do is to all check ourselves. Everybody - not just black people, not just white people; people of all races, creeds and cultures - and ask yourself, when you see a group of black men standing on the corner, what are you thinking?

Are you thinking that they are thugs, whether they're wearing hoodies or whatever kind of clothes they're wearing? How do you perceive them? I think we have to start to ask ourselves and check ourselves, in these situations, to make sure that we're not bending to stereotypes, to make sure that we're forcing ourselves to see people as they are; beyond sort of maybe what human nature, in some cases - whether it's been pushed along by what we see in the media - might cause us to want to believe. Everybody deserves to be judged as an individual, and I think that's where it starts.

MARTIN: I can't help but notice, Sherri - just briefly - that there are those who wrote in to respond to your piece who said, you're the racist here. How do you respond to that?

DAY: You know, I made a decision when I wrote this piece that I wouldn't read the comments on the message boards because I'm writing about something very personal, and I'm writing about my children. But one person did write me an email, and I responded to him by saying, I'm not a racist. You've got that wrong. I teach my children to respect people of all races, of all creeds, culture, sexual preferences, religions. No. What I'm asking for is that people would view my sons in the same way that I'm teaching them to view others. Give them a chance as individuals. View them as Theo Huxtable. Don't assume that they're a character from a gangster movie. That's all I'm asking.

MARTIN: Professor Gosa, what about you? Where would you like this conversation to go from here?

GOSA: Well, I think the first thing we need to deal with is the idea that this goes beyond any one isolated incident of violence; that we see a rising anger and frustration among many Americans. There's research emerging showing that, you know, 50 to 60 percent of white Americans see themselves as being the victims of reverse discrimination, becoming the oppressed minority.

And so that - I think as we move beyond the isolated cases, we have to begin looking at the issues of how that privilege that made people feel safe and secure as they left their house, how has this disintegrated in the last 10, 15 years? How do we restore that sense of civility not just on the streets, but in public discourse?

MARTIN: Mark Woods, I understand that you've heard from some people who empathize with Michael Dunn. What did they have to say? And I also, of course, want to hear from you about where would you like the conversation to go from here?

WOODS: Well, yes. When I first wrote about this, I kind of basically wrote that, you know, heaven help us all if, you know, he is able to successfully claim self-defense. And I would say that response was mostly positive. But I did hear from some people who were very upset. And one guy left me a voicemail just kind of screaming at the phone: Put yourself in that situation, put yourself in that situation. He was talking about putting myself in Michael Dunn's shoes. And he didn't leave his name or number,

I wanted to call back and say, I did put myself in that situation. I remember being 17 years old. You know, you've got your license. You're out with your friends. You crank up music. And I would have been listening to Van Halen or AC/DC but, you know, we would have been driving around with the windows down, cranked-up music. And if somebody had told us to turn it down, I probably would have because I've always shied away from conflict. It's not that I was a perfect kid.

But I could see some of my friends reaching over and going, oh, yeah? You want it turned down? You know, cranking it up a little louder. So that's what I wanted to say to that person. I put myself in that situation. I put myself in the shoes of Jordan Davis.

MARTIN: Did anybody - does anybody see any sense of hope here? That - is there any, you know...

DAY: I...

MARTIN: ...silver lining to any of this? Sherri.

DAY: For me, you know, my children - my boys are 3 years old. They're 3-year-old twins. They don't know anything about racism, and they are blank canvases. I have a 6-year-old daughter. I was teaching her about Black History Month and Abraham Lincoln just last week. And she said, Mommy, is there a White History Month? And just in that moment, I realized how blank she is. And as parents, we get that opportunity to help them write their stories. People are the sum total of every experience that they've had. And so we have a chance. The hope is in our children; that we would teach them to be better than we are.

MARTIN: Travis?

GOSA: Yes, I've been amazed in the last 24 hours to see the possibility of this being a teaching moment, especially through the use of new social media. I've been following the Twitter hashtag #DangerousBlackKids, and I think in these moments we're able to create really a sense of healing and community on these spaces...

MARTIN: How? How?

GOSA: Well, one thing that has really happened is the redefining of this image of black youth and black children as being dangerous, as being thugs. I think in flooding the Internet with these images of kids, it really counteracts both the popular culture stereotypes that we get from gangster rap music, what we get from the media. It really allows people to, I believe, connect in ways and see themselves and family and children in ways that they otherwise wouldn't.

MARTIN: Mark, anything - any silver lining here? Anything giving you hope about this? Even though - as I mentioned, because all of your pieces were essentially kind of cries from the heart in - each in their own way. Anything giving you hope here?

WOODS: Well, I guess there's two things. I think it's started a discussion about, you know, our laws in Florida and the jury instructions and, you know, is there - things that need to be tweaked? You know, it's not going to be easy. It's going to be two sides digging in their heels, but there is that discussion. So that gives me a little hope. And I would say, I think the reaction to this one was different than the George Zimmerman trial.

I heard from plenty of - you know, it wasn't only outrage from liberals or blacks or non-gun owners. I heard from plenty of kind of white conservative gun owners who said they believe Michael Dunn did a great disservice to them by acting irresponsibly with a gun. So I don't know. There are little snippets of hope.

MARTIN: Mark Woods is a columnist for the Florida Times-Union, with us from his office. Sherri Day is a member of the Tampa Bay Times editorial board, with us from the studios at the Times. Travis Gosa is an assistant professor of Africana studies at Cornell University, also with us from his campus. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

DAY: Thank you so much for having me.

WOODS: Thank you.

GOSA: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.