On Black Friday 2012, 17-year-old Jordan Davis, who was sitting with three friends in a car at a Florida gas station, cranked up the rap on the stereo. Three and a half minutes later, he was dead, shot at 10 times by Michael Dunn, a middle-aged white man bristling at the black teens' "thug music." In a new documentary, 3-1/2 Minutes, Ten Bullets, director Marc Silver explores the perfect storm of racism and lax gun laws that led to the killing.
Jordan's father recalled a text from Trayvon Martin's dad: "I just want to welcome you to a club that none of us want to be in."
The film, which opened in theaters this month, comes at a time when a lot of racially motivated tragedies have been in the news—the most recent being the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina. Jordan's death wasn't classified as a hate crime, but the film makes an implicit argument for Dunn's racial motivations, zooming in on his testimony and his jailhouse phone calls with his girlfriend, in which he insists the teens were armed and dangerous—no gun was found—and that he acted in self defense. Throughout, the film touches on the murky legal ground at the nexus of bias and self-defense laws: What constitutes a "reasonable belief" that one's life is in danger when that belief may be borne out of racial stereotypes?
The film documents both of Dunn's trials—the first, which ended in a hung jury, and the second, in which he was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to life without parole. Silver follows Ron Davis and Lucia McBath, Jordan's parents, as they go to court each day and wait for the final verdict in their son's death. The pair must maintain their decorum in the courtroom as the defense vilifies their son and his friends—all while wondering whether his legacy will match that of another unarmed Florida teen whose shooter walked free; in one scene, Jordan's father recalls a text he got from Trayvon Martin's dad: "I just want to welcome you to a club that none of us want to be in."
Mother Jones: Tell me a little about why you decided to make this film.
Marc Silver: I saw a tension, a film that would be able to explore this awful moment when two cars happen to pull up next to each other, and within that coincidence this tragedy that consisted of racial profiling, access to guns, and laws that give people the confidence to use those guns. It was unique that you would be able to deconstruct this one tight moment and come out with the big, macro issues. I also felt like it was important to learn about Michael Dunn. I was interested in the idea that there would be audience members who would have some sense of empathy with him at the outset, who also might have felt fear when a car full of young black teenagers pulled up and they start having an argument over music. Through Michael Dunn, you learn about many other people in America who have that same implicit bias, and it might make audiences look at themselves in a different way.
MJ: Jordan's parents, Ron and Lucy, are featured prominently. You capture some heart-wrenching moments. How did you get that kind of access?
In court, people "weren't allowed to talk about race because it wasn't officially declared a hate crime."
MS: I shoot and do sound on my own, so I'm not approaching them with a big crew and lights and all the rest of it. That's the technical answer. There was also a huge emotional relationship. We met about seven months before the trial. By the time the trial came, I asked, "Would you be okay if I did several mornings with you and several evenings? It's really important that the audience gets to see not just you guys sitting there stoically in court, but actually what impact this really has on you." They were very open to that. They could see the bigger picture, in terms of audiences really understanding that, however many shootings and racist incidents there are in the US, that this is the effect.
MJ: It does feel like, since Ferguson, we hear news about the killing of black men almost daily.
MS: I really hope people walk away from the film remembering that there are concentric circles around these events. If you put these on a map and you actually counted the number of people affected, that would be a very different picture. It's not just families; it's communities.
MJ: What was it like documenting Ron and Lucy's trepidation?
MS: That was a horrific journey. We could feel the tension, the exhaustion, the horror of having to sit through the trial. Every day in the courtroom, the judge reminded people that they weren't allowed to show emotion—I presume [because] it might affect the jury. They also weren't allowed to talk about race because it wasn't officially declared a hate crime. That's when I understood this difference between the cold environment of the courtroom and this emotional, every-parent's-worst-nightmare story unfolding outside the courtroom that the public were finding themselves attached to—because clearly it was about racism.
MJ: A second thread in the film touches on stand your ground and gun laws. What made you decide to toggle between those two plotlines?
MS: The 50 pages, or whatever it was, of self-defense laws the judge had to read out to the jury lasted about 30 minutes. That obviously wasn't going to work in the film. And the specifics are really difficult to explain. So we put that across to the audience in the simplest way possible by using the jury—in the way the prosecutor, the defense, and the judge explained self defense. It was essential that we embedded that into the story. Of course, you come up against something really weird: Trayvon Martin wasn't a stand-your-ground case. Jordan Davis' case wasn't a stand-your-ground case. That really complicates stuff.
"I understand philosophically the right to self-defense," but "if there wasn't a gun in Michael Dunn's car, Jordan Davis would not be dead."
We really didn't get into gun control because the heart of the film is about race. There are subsequent things in the film that may make you think about gun control without us having to slap you with it. One was the white witness [at the gas station]: He describes the gun in such great detail. To be able to say the name, make, and model of a gun you saw for a split second goes to show how embedded gun culture is in Florida.
MJ: You're from the UK, which treats firearms very differently than the United States does. How did that affect the film's outlook?
MS: I like to think that it gave me a less judgmental perspective. It's always weird coming to the US and seeing how powerful the gun lobby is and how passionate some people are about the use of guns when you come from a place where hardly any of our police have guns. I understand philosophically the right to self-defense and the Second Amendment. But consider what practical effect these concepts have. It's very simple: If there wasn't a gun in Michael Dunn's car, Jordan Davis would not be dead, and Michael Dunn would not be spending the rest of his life in prison. The gun created a totally different narrative.
MJ: You're also white. Did that affect the process in any way?
MS: I didn't feel it hindered my making the film. That's not to say if I was African American, or American, or owned a gun, I may not have told the story in a different way. But being white made me want to explore what proportion of white America Michael Dunn represents.
MJ: Did you find an answer?
"One of the maddest things about Dunn's rant about black fathers not being present was this amazing irony that Dunn had not seen his son in many years."
MS: I always had a suspicion that Dunn's perception of race was wildly skewed. Then we found the prison phone calls. The way he described, as you hear in the film, his conviction that Jordan's friends are thugs, that they won't tell the truth in court, that him killing Jordan actually potentially saved someone else's life because Jordan didn't get to kill somebody else. And that all of this is related to baggy pants, their fathers not being around, and MTV. The belief system he had in place led to Jordan's killing. And there were some things that Michael Dunn said that were, for me, metaphorical of what many white people in America say and how they perceive black men. A lot of people think that MTV is this, or all black fathers are that. I don't know how many people who have those opinions would then reach for their gun. But I think a lot of people have those opinions. Michael Dunn is just one person, but what he comes to represent is much more interesting.
Also, I thought one of the maddest things about Dunn's rant about black fathers not being present was this amazing irony that Dunn had not seen his son in many years and was literally going to his estranged son's wedding that day. So he would be a not-present father, and Ron, Jordan's dad, would be ever-present father. Even in death, Ron is essentially fathering and standing up for his son.
MJ: You started this film before Ferguson got more of America talking about race again. How has the explosion of debate on this topic affected the final product?
MS: I remember we were sitting in the edit suite watching Ferguson erupt on Facebook and in the media. There were moments when we were itching to go out and shoot, not really knowing why. So we held ourselves back. But actually that was the wisest thing. Because Jordan's story held within its DNA all of these layers that not only spoke to what happened specifically to him, but spoke to bigger things that were, and obviously have been happening in the US for many years—this year in particular. All of that had already happened before Ferguson. So technically nothing changed on the timeline. It just resonated more powerfully.
Ferguson happened in between the two [Dunn] trials. Members of the public obviously knew it had happened, and then 12 of those members of the public ended up on the second jury. I've always wondered if some social change had actually occurred. Whether that second jury had been affected by what happened in Ferguson, and they did look at racial bias in a different way and thought, "This isn't self defense." I could never prove that, but I like to think that sometimes.
In mid April, the Republican-controlled House voted to repeal the estate tax, which, despite the GOP's "death tax" messaging, affects only the superrich: Of the nearly 2.6 million Americans who died in 2013, just 4,687 had estates flush enough to trigger the tax. That's because the bar to qualify for the estate tax is quite generous: The first $5.43 million of an individual's wealth is exempt from the tax, and that amount goes up to $10.86 million for married couples. After that point, the tax rate is 40 percent.
The Center for Effective Government (CEG) calculated how much the 25 richest Americans would save if this repeal on the estate tax were to become law. The final tab: $334 billion.
Center for Effective Government
That's a lot of cash! CEG calculated that $334 billion in taxes would be enough to:
Cut the nation's student debt by one-third: The total could be distributed by giving $25,000 in debt relief to each of the 13 million Americans trying to pay off student loans.
Repair or replace every single deficient school AND bridge in America: Give kids more resources for a better education, and get the country's structurally deficient bridges up to snuff.
Give every new US baby a chunk of change: $1,000 at birth, and then $500 a year until their 18th birthday, making a $10,000 nest egg to put toward education, a home, or other opportunities.
Repair all leaking wastewater systems, sewage plumbing, and dams: Thus improving the health of lakes, rivers, and oceans nationwide.
Of course, it's unlikely the tax will actually get repealed. Even if the bill makes it past the Senate, President Obama has promised to veto it. But as the election season heats up with economic inequality at its forefront, the repercussions of the bill are likely to be more political than financial. As Robert J. Samuelson writes at the Washington Post, the GOP has "handed Democrats a priceless campaign gift: a made-for-TV (and Internet) video depicting Republicans as lackeys of the rich."
The number of kids entering the juvenile justice system has declined steadily in recent years, yet girls continue to represent an ever-growing share of those arrested, detained, and committed to custody. In his latest collection of photographs, Girls in Justice, Richard Ross—who has spent the past eight years documenting incarcerated kids—explores the lives of young women in custody. His haunting photos, taken across 250 different detention facilities, illuminate the difficult circumstances (absent caregivers, poverty, physical abuse, sexual violence, etc.) that drive girls into the system and in many cases keep them there.
BN, age 15
"We confine and often demonize a group of kids who have been abused and violated by the very people who should be protecting and loving them," writes Ross, who also won a 2012 National Magazine Award for a photo collection on juvenile justice, in the preface. "These girls in detention and commitment facilities are further abused by an organized system that can't recognize or respond to their history and their needs…Is this the only solution we can offer?"
In the book, for privacy reasons, the girls are identified only by their initials, and their faces are obscured. BN, the 15-year old at right, told Ross how she was forced into prostitution as a child—by her mom: "My mom's 32, a crack and meth addict," she explained. "I think I was in the fourth grade. Once you're in the game, it's hard to get out of it. And I like the money now. I had gonorrhea when I was 12. Nobody wanted to help me. I don't know what they are going to do with me. I would be a mother to my brother and sister. I would do things like pay all the house bills."
SG, age 17
BN also said she was a runaway—sort of: "I really didn't run away, but my mom kicked me out of the house."
Most of the girls Ross interviewed reported that their first arrest was either for running away or for larceny theft, which lines up with the statistics: Girls account for about 60 percent of arrests for running away from home.
Seventeen-year-old SG told Ross that she ended up in detention after being on house arrest; she left the house to go to church. "I was a meth baby," she said, noting that she's used meth too, but had been clean for a year. SG said her father beat her when she was little—he left the family when she was six. He later went to prison for child abuse and drug charges. When she was seven, SG said, she was abused by an adult that worked with kids at a local Boys and Girls Club. She waited six years to tell the police: "I don't think they did anything."
BW, age 18
Eighteen-year-old BW told Ross that her mother used to burn her with cigarettes when she and her siblings were young, and would hit them with extension cords if they got in trouble at school. She also recounted being sexually abused by her stepfather. "My aunt came in and said, 'Did you touch my babies? Did you touch them?' And he said, 'I didn't touch them goddamn kids.' Then he comes in with a gun. He got the gun to her head like, 'Don't you snitch on me, don't you tell the police.' So we're thinking 'My auntie is gonna lose her life right in front of our eyes.'"
These sorts of experiences are common among girls in juvenile facilities: According to the author of a 2009 Department of Justice-funded study of 100 South Carolina girls in detention, 35 of the girls had witnessed a murder, 44 had been sexually abused by an adult, 50 had been abused physically by a caregiver, 54 had a caregiver who served time, and 69 reported having "consensual" sex with an adult.
In the book, Ross points out that involvement in the system can lead to symptoms of post-traumatic stress for girls. The militarized climate of detention facilities is one contributing factor.
A lot of detention facilities have "a very paramilitary framework," he notes in an email. "Hands behind your back, eyes down, arms length." The guards typically come from a military or law-enforcement background. "They treat the kids as little adults, small soldiers. The long hallway and locked doors are typical: 8x10 cells, concrete bed, mattress too flat, bed too hard, pillow too flat, blanket too thin...Their shoes are parked outside the door, indicating 'There is a body inside the cell,' to quote the guard."
One young girl, 15-year-old KN, showed Ross her tattoos. At the time he photographed her, she had been in detention for two months. She said she'd been put in placement—a less restrictive detention option—after being charged with battery and assault of a girl at school, but she kept going AWOL and finally ended up in a lockup situation.
KN, age 15
After her four month stint in detention, she would most likely be sent back to placement. "But mostly, I want to go home," she told Ross. "I have a girlfriend here. And on the outs. My parents are real Catholic. They say God doesn't like you being with girls, but they're glad that I do because that way I won't get pregnant...God thinks I can do better with my life and He knows I will do better."
Name unknown, age 11
"Who tattoos this across their fingers? Where can this lifetime commitment to purge and reject love come from?" Ross asks his readers. "'Fuck Love' is the response to a familial trust shattered. A wish to announce that she rejects those that have rejected her."
One of the facilities that Ross visited is Maryvale, a Los Angeles residential treatment center for girls ages 8 to 17. It used to be an orphanage. One of the girls Ross photographed there was only 11. He doesn't know her name and was not allowed to interview her. "Some of them are too fragile," he writes. "They come from abusive homes and the results are the fragile world between dependency and detention." In this facility, the girls are in rooms with real bedspreads and lots of stuffed animals. Ross asked the director why there were so many stuffed animals, even for the older girls. "The response was, 'These kids have never had a real childhood, so we try and allow it at every age.'"
RT, age 16
Black, Native American, and Latina girls are all detained at higher rates than white girls. And the racial disparities in detention have an impact even after the girls leave. Ross cites a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics that shows that detention radically increases the likelihood of early mortality for Latinas. The study found that girls who have been in detention are five times more likely than the general population to die within 16 years of their detention. And for Latinas, the risk is nearly twice as high.
RT, a 16-year-old undocumented immigrant from Guatemala, told Ross that she was working at a packing plant when Immigration and Customs Enforcement raided the place. She was one of many minors working there, she said. "They deported most of the people, but kept some of us to go to court against the owners...All of us were from the same village in Guatemala. We live in houses that the company owns. I think they let me stay because of my baby."
For Americans who like to eat out occasionally, the full-service restaurant industry is full of relatively affordable options—think Olive Garden, Applebees, or Chili's. But these spots aren't exactly a bargain once a hefty hidden cost is factored in: The amount of taxpayer assistance that goes to workers earning little pay.
Food service workers have more than twice the poverty rate of the overall workforce, and thus more often seek out public benefits. A new report published last week by the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United (ROC), a restaurant workers' advocacy and assistance group, calculated the tab and found that from 2009 to 2013, regular Americans subsidized the industry's low wages with nearly $9.5 billion in tax money each year. That number includes spending from roughly 10 different assistance programs, including Medicaid, food stamps, and low-income housing programs like Section 8.
Here's the breakdown per program:
Restaurant Opportunities Centers United
The amounts were calculated by combining Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics figures on the programs' cost and enrollments with the number of Americans working in full-service restaurants.
ROC also found that employees at the five largest full-service restaurant companies alone cost taxpayers about $1.4 billion per year. According to the report, these five companies employ more than half a million of the sector's more than 4 million workers.
Here's another striking statistic: If you add up these five companies' profits, CEO pay, distributed dividends, and stock buy-backs, the total comes to a bit more than $1.48 billion—almost exactly what taxpayers spend on these five companies' workers, $1.42 billion.
ROC's report notes another key point: Polling shows that most Americans want a tax system that requires Corporate America to pull its weight. If customers start realizing that their meal costs a lot more than the check says, they just might lose their appetite.
On Tuesday morning, Indiana's largest newspaper, the Indianapolis Star, published a full front-page editorial calling on Gov. Mike Pence to repeal the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the new bill that has incited national furor because it allows businesses to refuse service to gay people, citing their religious beliefs.
Tuesday's Indianapolis Star. @markalesia/Twitter
By the end of the day, the paper received a heartbreaking letter from Nick Crews of Plainfield. Crews writes about walking his dogs to the local market that morning to pick up two copies of the day's Star, something he never does. He continues:
With the papers under my arm, I walked to Plainfield's Maple Hill Cemetery, and found my brother's grave. My brother, who had been a troubled Vietnam War vet, was gay at a time when being gay was a very difficult thing to be. When he died of AIDS in 1985 in a far-off city, his refuge from his closed-minded native state, some in our family were sufficiently ashamed that his cause of death was not discussed.
At the grave I opened the Star. I said, "Well, Charlie, times have changed, thank God. It turns out you were on the right side of history after all." Then I read aloud as much of the paper's editorial as tears would let me get through.
And today I'm doing what I never thought I'd do. I'm renewing my subscription to the Star. I'm doing this because, if for no other reason, I believe we must all support those who stand against discrimination and for inclusiveness. I do it too as thanks to the Star whose courage and right-mindedness on this issue made this moment of personal closure possible for me.