The ultimate white privilege: Darren Wilson and being "afraid for your life"

Claiming you shot someone out of fear of your life can be a "get out of jail free" card -- depending on who says it

Published August 21, 2014 4:45PM (EDT)

                        (<a href=''>jacomstephens</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>)
(jacomstephens via iStock)

On Wednesday, Matt Zoller Seitz shared an anecdote to illustrate how white privilege kept him from getting arrested or otherwise harmed by the police after he started a fight on the street. The full piece is worth your time, since it's a frank accounting of how whiteness protects in the United States, but the most revealing moment in the story comes when Zoller Seitz -- who admits he escalated a confrontation with the stranger, a Hispanic man loitering outside a deli -- talks to the cops who arrived on the scene. After telling the two white officers that he had confronted the guy and punched him in the face after the stranger jabbed him in the chest with his fingers, the cops asked Zoller Seitz if he wanted to press charges for assault:

"I don't think he actually meant to touch me, though," I said, while a voice deep inside me said, Stupid white boy, he's making it plain and you're not getting it.

"It doesn't matter if he meant to touch you, he hit you first," he said. He was talking to me warmly and patiently, as you might explain things to a child. Wisdom was being imparted.

"You were in fear of your life," he added.

By now the adrenaline fog seemed to be lifting. I was seeing things in a more clinical way. The violence I had inflicted on this man was disproportionate to the "assault," and the tone of this exchange with the cop felt conspiratorial.

And then it dawned on me, Mr. Slow-on-the-Uptake, what was really happening: this officer was helping me Get My Story Straight.

Understanding, at long last.

Zoller Seitz's story lays bare a reality that we have seen play out over and over again: A white person can get away with a lot if they claim that they were scared of a person of color. White people and law enforcement are allowed to fear for their lives -- even if that so-called fear is based on racist perceptions about black and brown criminality or, more often, nothing at all.

A grand jury was seated on Wednesday to consider the circumstances surrounding the killing of Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager who was shot six times by Darren Wilson, a white cop. If the case eventually goes to court, no doubt one of the questions that will be put before the jury is whether Wilson could have reasonably feared for his life during his confrontation with Brown. While witnesses to the shooting have indicated that Brown had his hands up in surrender when he was fatally shot, others -- mostly other cops -- have suggested that Brown charged at Wilson and that the "genesis of [the shooting] was a physical confrontation."

It's a strange, sad world where shooting someone four times in the arm and twice in the head could ever be considered a reasonable response to allegedly being lunged at by an unarmed teenager, but that's where we are. We've seen the same argument invoked to defend George Zimmerman, who is white and Latino, after he killed Trayvon Martin. Lawyers for Theodore Wafer tried -- but this time failed -- to invoke the same defense after he shot and killed Renisha McBride, who had arrived on his porch seeking help after a car accident. Wafer's defense argued that McBride's loud knocking so alarmed their client that he felt he had no other choice but to shoot her through a locked screen door.

The lesson of such cases and the many others like them is that the mere presence of a black person is a credible threat in the eyes of the law. And that same racism informs who doesn't present a credible threat. That same racism defines what kind of person can't reasonably fear for their lives.

In the case of Marissa Alexander, a black mother in Florida, a man with a documented history of physical violence, a man who told Alexander that he was going to kill her, did not present a credible threat. Alexander's husband, Rico Gray, broke down the door of the bathroom where she was hiding during a domestic violence incident. He grabbed her by the throat, and choked her as he held her against the floor. Alexander then tried to escape through the garage, but found herself trapped when the door wouldn’t open. She returned to the house having retrieved her handgun from her car and fired at a wall near where Gray stood. No one was harmed. But when Alexander tried to invoke Florida's "stand your ground" law in her defense, she was denied. Twice. According to State Attorney Angela Corey, Alexander was "not in fear" but "angry" when she fired the warning shot. She now faces up to 60 years in prison.

This week also marks the eight-year anniversary of the incident that would put the New Jersey Four behind bars for defending themselves against a homophobic assault. As Victoria Law wrote for Salon this week, the seven women -- all black LGBTQ women -- were confronted and sexually harassed by a man on the street in New York City. "When they told him they were gay, he threatened them with rape and physically attacked them," Law explained. "He threw his lit cigarette at them, ripped the hair from one woman’s head and choked another woman." He is also alleged to have told them he would "fuck them straight." The man was stabbed during the altercation. A jury later sentenced Venice Brown, Terrain Dandridge, Renata Hill and Patreese Johnson to prison terms ranging from three to 11 years. We know a lot about anti-LGBTQ violence in the United States, how often LGBTQ people -- particularly LGTBQ women of color -- are victims of violence. Nonetheless, these women were branded a "lesbian wolf pack" and their claims of fear were rejected by a jury.

CeCe McDonald, a trans woman of color who was assaulted during an anti-LGBTQ attack in Minnesota, faced similar treatment. After being confronted by a group of at least four white people shouting racist and anti-LGBTQ slurs, McDonald had her cheek slit open by a member of the group. McDonald and her friends began fighting back, but eventually tried to escape. McDonald was pursued by one of the men, and stabbed her assailant with a pair of scissors, who later died of his injuries. Despite her adamance that she acted in self-defense, McDonald was charged with two counts of second-degree murder. She would go on to accept a plea offer of second-degree manslaughter and was sentenced to 41-months in a men's prison facility. She was released last year after serving 19 months.

Luke O'Donovan, a white queer activist in Georgia, was last week sentenced to two years in prison and eight years of probation after he used his pocket knife to stab five men who had confronted him in an alleged anti-LGTBQ hate crime in 2012. Donovan was stabbed three times.

Brown's friend Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown at the time he was killed, told MSNBC that the police instigated the confrontation. That they were just walking in the street, and almost home when Wilson approached. “I saw the barrel of the gun pointed at my friend,” he said. “Then I saw the fire come out of the barrel.”

Johnson said he feared for his life. There's no reason to doubt that Brown felt the same way. But are teens like Johnson and Brown allowed to fear for their lives? And who poses a more credible threat? A teenager allegedly armed with a lifted pack of cigarillos or a cop with a gun and a willingness to use deadly force? It seems we are offered the answer to such questions with an alarming frequency. And with the outcome of this week's grand jury hearing on Wilson's decision to shoot and kill an unarmed teen looming, Brown's parents, the residents of Ferguson and the rest of the nation prepare themselves to have that question answered once again.

By Katie McDonough

Katie McDonough is Salon's politics writer, focusing on gender, sexuality and reproductive justice. Follow her on Twitter @kmcdonovgh or email her at

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