Stand Your Ground, Self–Defense & Where Do We Go From Here???

/ Wednesday, July 24th, 2013 / No Comments »

I have been teaching self-defense to women and kids through the Karate Women School that I founded in 1978 and over many years since I have been at POV. I helped develop our Women’s Self-Defense & Safety Program, which has been utilized across California and the nation. This trauma-informed and resiliency-focused empowerment model is based on women teaching women.  Our model was created by women, for women, and is steeped in the real life experiences of women. Its aim is to assist women and girls to deal with the fears that are instilled from early age about being raped and their actuality that it does and can happen and that there are ways to participate in your own safety.  Our methodology is geared towards enabling women to think about violence aimed at them in terms of avoiding, resisting, surviving and thriving.  We teach that violence against women is personal and political – and with long historical antecedents.


Due to my priorities as Executive Director at POV, my teaching has been mostly reserved for the instructor trainings, one of which is being held at POV the week of July 29th with 18 new future women’s self-defense instructors.  So during this period of national conversation about self-defense and Stand Your Ground laws, I have been particularly tuned in for many reasons including this imminent teaching opportunity. Self-defense as a legal construct expresses the right of someone to defend themselves against an imminent threat and/or fear of losing their life. The response to such a serious threat has to be a ‘reasonable’ meeting force with force.  Self-defense in principle is not about taking revenge, vigilante behavior or acting out all of life’s grievances in that instant. It is expected that the response is warranted and justified due to the seriousness of the threat to life and limbs. If you can get away, then the law expects you to do so.  If you disable someone’s attack against you, standard self-defense law does not condone excess response. Self-defense up to now has not been a license to kill. Stand Your Ground laws are a bit different and some see these laws like the first one passed in Florida in 2005 as a reckless expansion of self-defense law.  Some view Stand Your Ground as a license to kill. The fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed minor, by George Zimmerman, an armed adult, is seen as an excess of force especially since Zimmerman targeted (and probably profiled) the teenager and followed him after the police told him to not stand his ground but to stand down!  The Florida Senator Durell Peaden who sponsored the Florida law is quoted as saying that he never intended pre-existing self-defense law to provide a defense for those “who pursue and confront people.”


In another Florida case, Marissa Alexander, an African-American woman who shot a gun to stop her husband from attacking her, is now serving a 20-year sentence.  The history of domestic violence in that relationship was documented and she stated that she feared for her life. She presented in front of a single judge under the Stand Your Ground law and the judge rejected her argument and forwarded her to a jury.  She utilized self-defense as a defense in front of the jury and she received guilty verdict. Many battered women are in jail for murdering their husbands/boyfriends due to chronic domestic violence and are not viewed as defending themselves.  Many claim that they were in fear for their lives and many have been abused over long periods of time. While fewer men are being killed by their wives or partners since there are more options available like domestic violence shelters etc., battered women still risk jail if they stand their ground.


Clearly self-defense and Stand Your Ground laws are in the eyes of the beholder: color of skin and gender. How does a country like ours live up to its ideal of equality under the law and equal treatment? When racism and sexism come into play in these scenarios, where is the fairness of the law played out?


The death of Trayvon Martin and the Zimmerman acquittal is a catalyst for deep questions about where we go from here.  The violence that was inflicted started way before Zimmerman’s gun went off.  It started when he got out of his car. It started actually before that when he decided that Trayvon was suspicious.  In fact it started before that when he noticed the color of his skin and his age and decided that he was a threat.  Where did that threat come from? Further back when he bought into the stereotyping of youth and youth of color. Now is the time to have these conversations and yes – even arguments – about race and guns and unhealthy laws and fear and threats. But fundamentally we have a big question to decide: where do we go from here? What kind of country do we want to live in? We will be discussing this in our women’s self-defense and safety instructor training next week. I look forward to it.

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