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Bloomington Herald-Times

August 9, 2013

Discussion of 'stand your ground' law leads to questions about fear and race

By Jon Blau

Leading a conversation about George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin and "stand your ground" law, Jeannine Bell, a law professor at Indiana University, stood before a group of about 20 people in the Coaches Bar and assured them that she had a good feeling about Bloomington's stance on matters of race.

A black woman before a group of progressive, middle-aged white men and women, she reiterated that she was "in print" with quotes about her love for Bloomington. And while she had written a book noting hundreds of incidents of hate crimes, Bloomington did not appear in any of those narratives.

But she had to ask a question, a proposition that forced the audience to put aside their hope that their town may be different enough to not have to worry about how a man who shoots a teenager dead would fare before a jury of their peers, but rather deal with what a "stand your ground" law, like one in Indiana, would provide a defendant who said they were in "reasonable fear" for their life.

"Say this precise encounter happened in Bloomington," Bell asked. "Would the jury do the same thing?"

It was a difficult subject, but a conversation this group was hungry to tackle. As part of an event put on by Democracy for Monroe County, the group was devoid of color, besides Bell and one other local attorney. But they were all confident that, if they were on the jury, Zimmerman wouldn't have walked free.

Bell, however, outlined Indiana's "stand your ground" law, which she explained is very similar to Florida's, and showed how the jury was able to come to a conclusion that Zimmerman, a white man, feared for his life when he came to blows with a young, black teenager.

In fact, Bell said, the best way of changing the law, which offers leeway in cases like this, would be adding a provision that states such a fear can't be driven by the age, race, gender, religion or sexual orientation of the other person.

Bell, who has written the book "Hate Thy Neighbor," outlined how the case of Zimmerman and Martin is steeped in traditions of racial segregation that still exist today. According to Bell, the "average" white person today lives in a community that is 75 percent white, while the average black person lives in neighborhoods that are 34 percent white.

This division, she said, has produced troubling results for people of color who step into whiter areas. When they come to these places, Bell found, minorities can often feel isolated when they experience a hate crime; for example, they might have a slur scrawled on their home -- and the white people in the neighborhood say nothing, causing the victims of these crimes to think such an act is supported by everyone in the majority group.

Eventually, these acts can escalate to a cross burning in a yard, and, at that point, people who experience that kind of hatred are bound to move away rather than deal with the aftermath. Society, Bell said, has to do a better job of confronting racism, not after the cross burning but after the slur has been written or said.

The group at the Coaches Bar had its own ideas. R.E. Paris railed against "white privilege," saying that white people have to do more to "shame" the more prejudiced among them. Nowana Schroeder had the rest of the room nodding in approval when she talked about people who start sentences by saying "I'm not racist, but ... ."

A conversation that started with Zimmerman and Martin became much more than that -- a look in the mirror that showed there is still much more to this discussion than could be had in one hour or in one town.

Bell scoffed at the notion that Indiana's "stand your ground" law would ever be repealed.

"There's lot of support for 'stand your ground,'" Bell said, "and lots of Americans think justice was done in this case."