California Has Its Own Version of Stand Your Ground
Photos by Dave Schilling
The aftermath of the Zimmerman verdict has been a stew; a goulash of slow-cooked racial tension that seems to have hit a boiling point. While this crock pot of civil unrest (Jesus, I’m really hungry) hasn’t yet been weaponized, the ingredients are all there to for it to turn into a full-on riot bomb. While the majority of the protests have been entirely peaceful, there have been some small bursts of vandalism and even alleged violence in Oakland and Los Angeles. Not entirely sure what would happen last Tuesday night, I headed over to Los Angeles’ Leimert Park, the de-facto ground zero for the protests, to witness it firsthand.
Los Angeles is incredibly segregated. Even as a lifelong Angeleno, I’d never driven through the intersection of Vernon and Crenshaw, where the park is located. As I neared the park, I noticed boarded-up windows with “BLACK OWNED BUSINESS” frantically spray-painted as a preemptive defense. The air was electric with uncertainty, anything could happen. I parked my car next to a row of news-vans, eagerly deployed to tell the same exact story to an audience of old people waiting for Leno, and walked into the park.
I was met with what I should’ve been expecting the whole time: roughly 50 people, mostly black, getting motorists to honk their horns. People are mad, and they’re showing it, but they’re not exactly sure what to do other than publicly display outrage. However, I was approached by one young woman, Tiffany Hobbs, handing out flyers. You often get flyers at protests or gatherings of dissent, distributed by large charities or unions, but here was one woman, not affiliated with anyone else, trying to educate and channel the anger into action. Tiffany is working to amend two California state laws: the Provocative Act Murder Doctrine and the Castle Doctrine. These laws allow for the same sort of violence that was perpetrated by George Zimmerman.
VICE: First, tell me a bit about your upbringing.
Tiffany Hobbs: After moving here from New York as a child, my mother and I settled into South Los Angeles, where we stayed for three years. After that, we relocated to a small suburb of LA called Gardena. It’s located in the South Bay, and afforded me an upbringing saturated with cultural diversity.
I went to a predominantly white high school in Torrance, CA, before ultimately switching to and graduating from a predominantly black high school in Westchester, CA. I decided to switch high schools in 10th grade due to a few factors. While I enjoyed my time at Torrance High, I felt a bit out of place, and encountered some prejudicial views that offended me and encouraged me to settle on a more comfortable setting. I was 16 and not at all interested in living out one of the happiest and most formative periods of my life at a place that didn't love me as much as I wanted to love it. Westchester High School was different. Again, predominantly black, but still included a multitude of other races, and was situated near the beach. It was more conducive to my emotional well-being as well as my social life. I felt alive and at home. I graduated in 2001 and continued on to the University of Southern California (Fight On!), where I earned my degree in 2005. I'd had visions of attending an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), or studying in NY, but I stayed closer to home, and I'm glad I did.
When the Zimmerman verdict came through, how did that make you feel? What did you do?
I watched 95 percent of the trial, so I was up to date on all things case-related. I'm a reader and a researcher by nature, so I was trying to prevent the shock that I subconsciously knew was inevitable, by arming myself with as much proof to the contrary as possible. He had to be convicted. Everything I'd read said so. But somewhere deep down, I knew disappointment was coming. I just didn't expect it to be an all-out acquittal. A conviction on a lesser charge? Begrudgingly accepted. At least it would be something, even though the idea of a consolation was still unnerving. But to give him no penalty other than inconvenience was a huge blow. I was saddened. I was angry. I felt helpless because I knew, I could feel, the despair in the community, and I didn't immediately know how to offer anything that would assuage that. We all know someone who could've been Trayvon Martin. Hell, that someone could be you or me. It hit too close to home. An hour after the verdict, a group convened in my neighborhood's center, Leimert Park. Leimert has long been a meeting ground for the community. It's where people go when they need to share feelings, celebrations, and otherwise. I went, and brought my boyfriend's 16 year-old nephew with me. He wanted to be there, too. He needed some sort of comfort. We both did. And for the next two hours, we rallied peacefully in Trayvon Martin's memory. We took to the main street, Crenshaw, and marched, peacefully, within a temporarily broken community. I was given a megaphone, and asked to lead. I did. And it helped me cope at that moment because it reminded me that the fight for justice is an ongoing one, and fatigue has no place in its success. It wasn’t the time to be tired. We had/have work to do.
Where did you get the idea to pass out the flyers? What was the process of researching and making them?
After reading and hearing so many people virtually begging for a resolution to the injustice of George Zimmerman's acquittal, I began writing out the main problems I had with the overall case. Many of the problems were legislative, and knowing that these laws are written by people, the reality is that they are subjected to scrutiny. I spent hours on law texts and op-ed pieces, and literally, a voice popped into my head. It was the voice of a police officer I'd spoken to at the rally right after the verdict. I was talking to him at the time and reviewing our assembly rights so things didn't get out of hand. He was friendly enough, if not a little agitated by me, this woman in front of him, checking and double-checking the rights of the crowd around me. I'll never forget what he said: "Why do you guys care, anyway? It happened in Florida!" Fast forward back to me in front of my computer pouring over ways to answer the pervasive questions looming. I hear that officer in my head. It was at that moment that I realized, hey, we're here in California, why is it relevant to us? Are we governed by the same laws? So, I began researching California's laws, and found that while we don't have Stand Your Ground here, we do have two extremely problematic doctrines that were sisters to it, and allowed for the same injustices to happen when invoked. I found cases within each law. Statistics. Op-ed pieces. I summarized the most pertinent parts, called a friend who's good with marketing, and our flyer was born.
What are the two doctrines and why are they flawed?
The Castle Doctrine lets you protect yourself if you feel threatened while in your home. Sounds good, but it's tricky. It’s loosely worded. When analyzed, it disproportionately affects minorities like Trayvon who are often misjudged as criminals, and due to the assumption that the shooters’ lives are threatened, it allows the acquittal of law abusers like Zimmerman. This doctrine is dangerous to everyone and takes advantage of self-defense.
The Provocative Act Murder Doctrine is part of Second Degree Homicide. It’s often used when criminals encounter police during a felony act, officers pursue them, and one or more are shot during the encounter. If one of the citizens dies (even if the police officer kills them), it allows the survivors to be charged with murder for provoking it! The law targets gang members, but we know that's code for a specific sector of the population. In addition, while designed to protect the police, all citizens can attempt to invoke this law to justify a killing.
At the rally, you mentioned that you were approached by someone who wants to set up a meeting between you and Congresswoman Maxine Waters. Has that happened?
Not yet. That meeting is being organized by a woman I met who took great interest in my flyer. I was supposed to be contacted but haven’t been yet. If you see my flyer at a press conference with Congresswoman Waters, let me know. I do, however, have a couple of news organizations who believe that these doctrines, as I've outlined them, make for a great side-story to the rallies and marches. We'll see. Regardless, I have a team of distributors passing out the flyers to educate Californians on these two doctrines.
A lot of people right now are angry and don't know how to channel their anger, how would you organize all the passion? Where would you direct it?
I'm angry, too, so I get it. It's hard being fed bullshit. But the key is to educate the community on how legislature works, how it often does sustain systematic -isms and -phobias, and how they can be amended or even repealed, when necessary. Ignorance is a weapon that too many hold steadfast to. The information is accessible and free and yours for the taking if you're concerned with the way things are. Direct the passion there. Petition to have your congresspeople investigate these problematic laws. New Hampshire as a state is working to repeal Stand Your Ground. Many other states have launched investigations into their self-defense laws due to their large and dangerous loopholes. Attorney General Eric Holder has denounced Stand Your Ground and called for the law to be repealed. There are definite flaws within these doctrines and they cause grave mishandlings of justice. Marching is understandable and appropriate, but don't let it be all you do. And for damn sure don't riot and disturb the peace. We can't afford to be negative displays of irony.
Do you have anything else to say about the trial, and the reaction of the community?
If I may quote Tupac, this is essentially, "The rose that grew from concrete." Change often comes from tragedy, and that’s difficult to see. The peaceful rallies and marches have been beautiful, and to see how many people care about what happened to Trayvon Martin reaffirms that humanity isn't as apathetic as it sometimes seems. The people who have brought havoc to the peaceful gatherings have no interest in honoring Trayvon Martin's memory. They are opportunists who looked for a reason to behave badly, and should not in any way be associated with those people, across the country, who are convening to share positive energy. What's being encouraged is legislative reform so that these murders stop occurring, and stop being subsequently justified by taking advantage of messed up self-defense laws. And still, regardless of one's personal feelings on the law, or Zimmerman, or racism, a young man lost his life, and a family is forever changed. I encourage everyone to show their sympathy to Trayvon's family by donating to the fund that they've set up through the Trayvon Martin Foundation. You can do so at TrayvonMartinFoundation.Org.
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