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Jordan Davis, Tragedy, and Justice

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Last Saturday, as people across the country basked in the bright afterglow of the Supreme Court's landmark decision to legalize gay marriage in all fifty states, the audience at the Nuart Theater in West L.A. wondered aloud why equal treatment of another, even more fundamental kind seems so impossible to enact in even one state.

The state in this case is Florida. On Saturday night the Nuart screened the documentary, "3 ½ Minutes, Ten Bullets," about the killing of 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Jacksonville in 2013. Don't quite remember? Understandable, given the sheer number of young black males who've been cut down in recent years by police and vigilante-minded white men who've deputized themselves in the heat of confrontation. Jordan was killed by white shooter Michael Dunn at a gas station after he and Davis argued about the high volume of the rap music playing in the truck Davis was riding in with his buddies. The irate Dunn drew a gun from his car and fired ten rounds, killing Davis. What happened next -- or what didn't happen -- is what really put this case on the map: Dunn drove off with his fiancee to their hotel and ordered pizza. He didn't bother to see if he had struck or hurt anyone during a confrontation that he later described in court as a life-or-death moment that left him no choice but to stand his ground.

The film is presented mainly as a courtroom drama, and it's very effective on those terms; when Dunn is finally convicted of first-degree murder in a retrial, it's dramatic even though we know what's coming. But the trial, the court system that winds up being part of so many black lives one way or the other, is not the real story here. "3 ½ Minutes" hits hardest in its subtle but crucially human portrayal of Jordan Davis as a black everykid whose greatest accomplishment at 17 was being doted on by his parents, Lucia and Ron. He was loved simply for being himself, for being irreverent and quirky and, at times, unfocused, defiant, and occasionally mouthy. Like all teenagers. Yet so often we specifically condemn black teenagers in our heads, even subconsciously, sorting the middling-to-bad ones (loud rap music, saggy pants) from the far fewer good ones (college track, mastery of standard English), thereby reinforcing racism and the idea that only certain black lives truly matter. In fully humanizing but not heroizing Jordan, the film forces us to remember this, and then to examine the part we might play in maintaining a status quo that threatens everybody.

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Jordan's father, Ron Davis, was at the screening on Saturday and spoke afterward. The tragedy of his son's death has made him a great advocate for racial justice, and he's very good at it. He wore a suit and tie like he was working a job. He was poised, passionate but extraordinarily informed about criminal law and about the particulars of this case. Tragedy has taught him a lot, and turned him into a tireless advocate the way that a tragedy befalling a child tends to turn a parent into a warrior for the cause. Usually that tragedy is a disease, or an untimely death caused by drunk driver or the like: an unfortunate and unpreventable circumstance, a freak occurrence. But Jordan's tragedy is not that at all. The point that the movie makes over and over, and that Ron Davis made after the film, is that the black-man fear and loathing that took Jordan's life (and the lives of many others), and the laws that sanction that fear, is a disease of our own making. It is entirely preventable. Ron and Lucy Davis won the battle of the murder charge against their son's killer, but the psychological war against black males that includes but is not limited to gun violence is far from over. And the fact that Jordan died mitigates any sense of victory here. They got some redress, but what they've lost can never be regained or made whole.

Ron Davis knows this. One thing he said in his talk is that Tracy Martin, the father of Trayvon, called him after Jordan was killed to welcome him to a club that nobody wants to belong to. The heartbreak in the theater was palpable. But it struck me that as Americans socialized by racism, we're all in a club that we shouldn't want to belong to, at least not as it's currently constituted. One question posed to Davis by a white audience member spoke to this indirectly -- why, he asked, is this still happening in 2015?

A well-meaning question, but for just about anybody black, a non-question. What's happening now has, alas, always happened. What must happen now is that the club changes the rules so that we all become truly equal members.

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