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Saturday, December 3, 2016

“You can get killed just for living in your American skin.” — Bruce Springsteen

On Aug. 7, 1930, two young black men were lynched in Marion, Indiana.

A photographer named Lawrence Beitler had a studio across the street from the lynching tree. He came out and snapped what became an iconic photo, which he made into a postcard and sold. It shows Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith hanging dead and their executioners, faces clearly visible, milling about as if at a picnic. Though authorities possessed this damning photographic evidence, they never arrested anyone for the crime. It was officially attributed to “persons unknown.”

This was not a unique thing. To the contrary, it happened thousands of times. And African-Americans carry this knowledge deep, carry it in blood and sinew, the understanding that the justice system has betrayed us often, smashed our hopes often, denied the value of our lives, often.

This knowledge lent a certain tension and poignancy to the wait for a verdict in the Jordan Davis trial last week. Davis was the black kid shot dead by a white man, Michael Dunn, at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, in November 2012 after an argument over loud music. Dunn’s story was fishy from the beginning.

He claimed Davis pointed a weapon at him. No weapon was ever found. Nor was Dunn ever able to satisfactorily explain why he fired off a second round of shots as the SUV in which Davis was riding tried to retreat. Or why he left the scene and failed to call police. Or why his fiancée, who was inside the convenience store when the shooting started, says he never mentioned Davis’ phantom “gun” to her.

A guilty verdict would seem to have been a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t.

Indeed, the verdict was mystifying. Dunn was found guilty on three counts of attempted murder — meaning the three other young men in the SUV with Davis — but the jury deadlocked on the murder charge. It makes no sense: If Dunn is guilty of the three charges, how can he not be guilty of the fourth?