At a Thursday night talk in San Antonio, Jeb Bush wanted to talk about Mitt Romney and his brother’s book sales—but an African American father, a Trinity University professor, spoke for many when he told the former Florida governor that the self-defense measure he signed, which has since spread across the country, has had tragic consequences.
Bush’s endorsement of Mitt Romney this week came, as Dave Weigel at Slate pointed out, at a “sub-optimal” time politically, because suddenly Bush’s taste in candidates is hardly the most interesting thing about the former Florida governor. Not when his signature sits at the bottom of Florida’s controversial “Stand Your Ground” law, at the heart of the controversy around Trayvon Martin, the unarmed high school student shot by a neighborhood watchman in Sanford, Fla.
Bush signed the law in 2005 joined by, among others, a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association—the group that helped get similar laws passed in 16 other states, including Texas in 2007. Florida’s current Gov. Rick Scott has launched a task force to reevaluate the Florida law.
While Scott has suggested taking another look at the law, Florida state Sen. Arthenia Joyner has said the Martin killing is exactly the sort of tragedy she warned about when the bill was up for debate. “When we passed the law, we said it portends horrific events when people’s lives were put into these situations, and my worst fears came to fruition,” Politifact recalled Wednesday. In 2005, they pointed out, state Rep. Ken Gottlieb warned that, “In a few years, you will be back trying to fix this bill.”
Between backing Romney for the nomination and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio for VP, Bush hasn’t had much to say this week about “Stand Your Ground.” So at a speaking event Thursday night at San Antonio’s Trinity University—a broad-strokes chat about his fondness for Mexico, his tennis game and America’s place in the world—I asked him whether Martin’s killing had shaken his trust in the self-defense law he signed, given that the warnings that preceded the bill’s passage seem to have been proven right.
Bush said, first, that there weren’t any warnings like that before he signed the bill, and second, that—though it’s impossible to know what the grand jury might decide about George Zimmerman—he doubted the self-defense law would apply here, since Zimmerman seems to have pursued Martin, and wasn’t simply “standing his ground.”
Legal experts have argued that, by eliminating a duty to retreat before shooting, the law has broadened “self-defense” to the point where it could apply here. Five years after the law was passed, the Tampa Bay Times reported that the number of justifiable homicides in Florida had tripled.
“Over the last generation of time we’ve had dramatic declines in crime,” Bush said, “violent crime particularly, just as many places in the country, and part of it is that we have laws that are pretty tough.”
After fielding questions from the audience about his speech, a black man in a tan sport coat rose to an audience microphone, and asked Bush to elaborate on his thoughts about Trayvon Martin’s death, and the role of the law he signed. The man told Bush that when he hears Martin screaming in the 911 call, it’s his own sons’ voices that he hears. “It may not be the exact application of the ‘Stand Your Ground’ law,” he said, “but that is a real context that has to be dealt with, and I just want to know how you feel about that,” the man said.
“You’re absolutely right, and so the surprise to me is that this has taken three weeks before it garnered any attention that got the Justice Department or a grand jury to do what, normally, is done in a far quicker period of time,” Bush said, beginning a lengthy answer with a delicate pivot to an unlikely direction:
So by saying that the law is not going to be applied, does not mean that I don’t feel tremendous sadness when these things happen. I think we’ve made significant progress, but we’re not a colorblind society, and there still is racism. There’s no denying of that. And I would add for example that if you have brown skin, in some places these days where state laws have changed, you’ve got a feeling that, you know, this is a little different. So we have to work these things out, and it’s tragic, it’s completely tragic. This is not an isolated case, this happens on the streets of the United States way too much, there’s no question about it.
Now, as it relates to national identity, I think we do have something that other countries don’t, and that’s that we have ideals. And if those ideals are not met, then we need to have a conversation about that. But the idea of having a race-based national identity, like Japan does, or most of the Asian countries do, is a serious problem for them today. Japan is going to be in complete decline because its population is not going to be able to grow. They have a fertility rate that’s closer to one, and immigrants aren’t really allowed because race is their means by which they identify. It’s a beautiful culture, incredible history, but if they can’t open up and create a different standard of measuring nationhood, they’re going to be in serious trouble. I think we have that advantage, and when we go wrong, we should immediately say, ‘That is not an American value that just took place.’ And if we do that, I think we’re in a far better position.
While the crowd applauded, the man walked back to his seat and the next questioner began: “Governor, thanks for being here tonight, you’ve been a big hero of mine for quite some time….”
After the auditorium emptied out, I found the man who’d asked Bush what he thought about the Martin killing, Trinity business law and ethics professor William Burke.
“I felt it was my obligation to be here,” Burke said, “that he needs to know that there is no place where this question should not be addressed. And I think that fortunately he did recognize that it’s more than the application of the law.”
And so, it has to be addressed and it’s a serious problem and it’s just, even today, coming back from church after dropping my son off, I can’t help but look at the black kids walking to school, males, and they have their hoodies on. And this experience makes me look at them and worry about them. So that’s why I just wanted him to feel, it’s more than just an interpretation of a law. I mean, these barriers to survival have an impact on our culture, and the overall culture. You are dismissing contributions of people that can make a difference.
It’s the presumption that I could be just jogging and then if I bump into somebody, I don’t even have to have deadly force, they could use deadly force against me in Texas, and it would be upheld—and if you’re dead, it’s only one person’s word because the one that’s dead, even if they’re unarmed, there’s not a presumption anymore that they weren’t using deadly force or intimidating, even though they don’t have a gun or knife or anything like that.
As the crowd filed past us to the parking lots, Burke said that Bush wasn’t the only one he was trying to reach by bringing up Martin’s killing, or the law that could make it defensible.
“I really hope this is looked at again because I see it as just as vicious at the Emmett Till lynching for whistling at a white woman years ago,” Burke said. “I just think it’s important not only with the governor, but for the audience to know the depth of how this is significant to them.”
It’s exactly the kind of story, Burke said, that makes him worry about his three sons when they all move out of the house and into new cities.
“The kids always ask me, they say, ‘Dad, why are you still in a shirt and tie? … It is an armor. I mean, I wear it till basically I go to bed at the house—and that’s not the way that it should be. You look at Trayvon Martin and here’s a kid who’s intelligent, and just kind soul, A’s B’s loves math. You speak about the future, there’s a future there that’s lost,” Burke said.
“I was just hurt, I felt I had to be here to bring it up. It’s not just looking at the news nonstop. You think about it, and I hear, I hear his screams when he says, ‘No,’ and he shot him. And I think about my kids.”