By Mike Spies
Soon after the start of his first term as a black lawmaker in the fifth-whitest state in the country, State Representative Ras Smith brought his hoodie to work. For the eleventh year in a row, elected officials in Iowa were going to take up a “stand your ground” proposal, authorizing residents to use lethal means to protect themselves in certain situations. In other states, similar laws have disproportionately justified the fatal shootings of African-Americans.
What was different now, in 2017, was the measure’s likely passage. In November, Republicans, who overwhelmingly support the policy, won a majority in the Iowa State Senate, giving the party control of both the Legislature and the governorship for the first time since 1998.
The new composition made Smith feel that passage was close to inevitable. Yet he still hoped he might be able to stop it, by appealing to the moral imaginations of his Republican colleagues. Smith represents a portion of Waterloo, a city of 68,000 about two hours northeast of Des Moines that has the state’s largest black population. The African-American community has mainly been relegated to the city’s east side, in part a product of discriminatory housing policies from the 20th century.
“Stand your ground” was just one component of a larger omnibus gun bill, which also included a provision allowing citizens to sue local government officials who enforce bans on firearms in public areas. On March 9, before the House voted on the legislation, Smith took the floor to address his fellow lawmakers. He is 29 and six feet tall, a former high-school athlete with a muscular build, close-cropped hair, and earrings. He wore a dark suit, which concealed the tattoos across his chest and biceps, including a picture of a teddy bear that symbolizes his devotion to his 4-year-old daughter.
'Stand your ground' was just one component of a larger omnibus gun bill, which also included a provision allowing citizens to sue local government officials who enforce bans on firearms in public areas.
Smith recounted a story about playing football as a teenager in the rural town of Garwin, which is nearly 100 percent white.
“I was called racial slurs more than 10 times, spit in my face, and told, ‘If I could kill you and get away with it, I would do that,’” he told his colleagues.
Smith’s speech lasted less than four minutes. Toward the end, he reminded the other legislators that there is a history in the United States of whites committing violence against black men, out of hatred and out of irrational fear. To emphasize this point, he brought props. Smith took out his gray sweatshirt, which he pulled over his suit jacket. He flipped the hood up, and then put on a pair of large red headphones. Moments earlier, Smith had been dressed the way that ascendant politicians are expected to dress. Now he looked like Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black Florida teenager who was killed by George Zimmerman in 2012 — the boy who has come to epitomize the perils of “stand your ground.”
“This is that threat you can perceive every day,” Smith declared.
“My colleagues say they respect me,” he told The Trace. “So I wanted to show them what I wear on a daily basis, and to ask: Are they willing to pass legislation that could negatively impact my life?”
For four years, between 2012 and 2016, every state that tried to enact “stand your ground” legislation failed. But now the policy is again finding its way into law. Last year, Missouri became the first state to break the logjam, followed by Iowa this month. Florida is poised to strengthen its law in favor of shooters, shifting the burden of proof in pre-trial hearings to prosecutors, who would have to convince a judge that someone claiming “stand your ground” shouldn’t be immune from prosecution.
Missouri, like Iowa, is now under total Republican control. The GOP has held the Legislature and governor’s office in Florida for two decades. White rural Democrats, once potential allies of minority legislators representing cities, are practically extinct. The overall decline of the party’s power has diminished the ability of black lawmakers to influence policies that directly affect their constituents.
“The states that passed ‘stand your ground’ early on were low-hanging fruit,” said Christopher Mooney, the Director of the Institute of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois. “As Republicans gain strength in states like Missouri and Iowa, the odds of it passing go up.”
It was in Florida that the “stand your ground” movement began, with the National Rifle Association successfully lobbying state lawmakers in 2005 to pass the first such legislation in the nation. Over the next seven years, 21 states followed. “Stand your ground” removes a person’s duty to retreat in the face of grave danger, granting the legal right to use deadly force if the perception of a threat is “reasonable.” (Critics refer to the statutes as “shoot first” laws.) After Martin was killed in 2012, “stand your ground” became a politically toxic phrase, and its expansion stalled.
Defenders of “stand your ground” argue that all it does is enshrine the right to self-defense, ensuring that people cannot be punished for protecting themselves. They say that the law’s built-in standard for assessing a threat — that it must be “reasonable” to necessitate a violent, even deadly, response — prevents abuse.
Defenders of 'stand your ground' argue that all it does is enshrine the right to self-defense, ensuring that people cannot be punished for protecting themselves.
“You can’t claim the defense when it’s clear there wasn’t a threat to your life or safety,” said State Representative Matt Windschitl, a Republican from Missouri Valley and the lead sponsor of “stand your ground” in Iowa.
Yet a persistent problem with the law is that one’s definition of “reasonable” is relative. Evidence suggests that there is a correlation between “stand your ground” and increased homicide rates, and that the law disproportionately protects people who shoot minorities. A 2013 study released by the Urban Institute revealed that in “stand your ground” cases, when the assailant is white and the victim is black, homicides are 281 percent more likely to be ruled justified than if the roles were reversed. Two years later, the American Bar Association published an authoritative report recommending that states repeal the statute because of its “implicit racial bias.”
“If you’re white and not learning the value of minorities, then you’re reacting to your own narrow frame of reference, which is usually soundbites on TV about criminals and drug dealers,” said State Representative Ako Abdul-Samad, a Democrat from Des Moines and one of the black lawmakers who opposed the self-defense law. “If that’s all you have to go on, you will react with fear.”
Across the country, African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of all state lawmakers. Marginalized by political realities they cannot control, there is little they can do to stop the resurgence of “stand your ground.” In Iowa, there are just five black state lawmakers out of 150; in Florida, there are 27 out of 160; and last year, in Missouri, the figure was 21 out of 197. Of all of these black elected officials, only two — one in Florida, and one in Missouri — are members of the GOP. They were also the only two to vote in favor of the legislation.
Across the country, African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of all state lawmakers.
Many African-American legislators see the persistence of “stand your ground” as a consequence of segregation. Black lawmakers say that the lack of diversity in rural and suburban areas breeds fear and ignorance, which can facilitate deadly encounters.
“What a gun means to someone in North Florida is completely different than what it means to someone on the streets of Tampa,” said Representative Janet Cruz, the Democratic minority leader in the Florida House. “Although someone in a rural area may see ‘stand your ground’ as a tool to ensure they’re able to keep their family safe, for many in the urban parts of Florida, they see it as a threat to their family.”
Oscar Braynon, a black Democrat who serves as Florida’s Senate minority leader and represents the Miami-area district where Trayvon Martin’s mother lives, said that the Republicans who serve alongside him aren’t interested in engaging with data that shows “stand your ground” too often protects whites who kill blacks.
“These people don’t understand our struggle,” he said. “Repealing ‘stand your ground’ is one of the top two issues in my district, well before cleaning up the environment or lowering taxes. I live in the reality laid out in the data, while some of these other lawmakers seem to live in a theoretical movie.”
Braynon added: “I’ve heard them argue that African-Americans are committing more crimes than anyone else. So the point of that statement is what? Maybe they need to be shot? That’s the type of thing I hear. They say you need to get control of your people.”
For Representative Smith, it is the assumption whites have often made about him — and their unwillingness to examine the source of those assumptions — that makes “stand your ground” so dangerous; inherent racism distorts perception. He remembers playing basketball as a teenager in Tama, Iowa, which is less than 1 percent black. During the game, as he was preparing to take a shot from the free-throw line, a white referee approached him and said, “Pull up your pants, son. This isn’t East Waterloo.”
“That was an adult asserting himself to a child in that way,” Smith said. “And I didn’t sag my shorts. The truth was opposite. I wore them John Stockton-style,” a reference to the Utah Jazz’s white former point guard, who was famous for wearing shorts that ended well above the knee.
Last year, when Smith was running for office, several police officers confronted him as he finished an event at a church. He was dressed in khaki pants and a white campaign T-shirt that bore his name. The officers told him that he matched the description of someone who had just committed a robbery — a black male wearing a white T-shirt. Despite the fact that the name on his shirt matched the one on his license, he had to submit to a background check.
“What would they have done if the description was white male, white T-shirt?” Smith said. “Even when I’m leaving my own campaign event, at a church, wearing my own campaign T-shirt, I’m still a threat.”
In February, soon after “stand your ground” was introduced in the Iowa House, Smith was taken aback by something he heard on talk radio. At the time, more than half of Iowans supported the legislation, and as he listened to a caller discuss the issue, he realized it might be impossible to change their minds. The person on the line, a white male, said that if wearing headphones and hoodies gives off the impression of menace, then black men should leave those items at home.
“That’s a pretty privileged mindset,” Smith said. “It’s different when your white son wears headphones and a hoodie. Okay. Well, I’ve had pretty negative interactions with white people dressed in camo. Does that mean white people shouldn’t wear camo?
Representative Windschitl, the Iowa bill’s lead sponsor, has been the driving force behind the legislation for the last decade. Elected in his early 20s, he is a 33-year-old gunsmith and railroad conductor whose district is almost entirely white. He says he understands the concerns of his African-American colleagues, but prefers to emphasize the new legal protections the law offers his state’s black gun owners.
“It’s a two-way street when we talk about ‘stand your ground,’” Windschitl said. “This law doesn’t say that if you see a person of color walk into a room you can shoot them. But if a person of color walks into a room, and a white person starts something because he feels threatened by his skin color, then that African-American person, under the law, has a right to defend himself.”
He added, “This law doesn’t start a race war.”