A Republican member of Florida's House of Representatives, Dennis Baxley is best known for sponsoring his state's Stand Your Ground law - legislation thrust to the foreground of the sociopolitical spectrum amidst the highly publicized murder trials of Michael Dunn and George Zimmerman. Representative Baxley graciously found time to speak with me on a wide variety of issues including gun laws, hip-hop music, and efforts to improve the educational performance of historically disadvantaged cultures.
Marcus Singletary: I wanted to start off by asking you about your activities with the Florida Council on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys.
Rep. Dennis Baxley: That is a commission authorized by the legislature. It's a Florida statute, and we do the research and try to shape guidance on the issues before the legislature that will help us improve some of the statistics that reflect challenges for young black males and men. So, we look at criminal justice numbers and Department of Juvenile Justice numbers, and also try to go to different communities and hold commission hearings to hear from folks out in the community, where they may have challenges they'd like to bring us [for] an annual report. The intent is a collaborative group of spokesmen from agencies and at large to solve the problem of these challenging statistics when it comes to young black men and their futures.
Primarily, it's our report back to the legislative leaders that is the channel through which we can gather information that can improve their futures. It's been a meaningful piece of work for me, and also helped chip away some of the caricatures that have been built about me.
Q: Tell me why it's a personal cause for you.
A: I'm high profile enough in a couple of things like election law. There were views out there that I was somehow against the African-American community. In my case, [my motives] were to strictly work on the credibility of the election process. I certainly felt really bad that people thought I was trying to depress people's participation. We want it easy to vote and hard to cheat. The participation level - lots of people can help us with that.
No one likes to look at the high number of black men in the negative statistics, and we want to change that so we're looking at real ways to do that. We're working hard…to keep young men from getting deeper in the system, because they do wind up being in the pipeline towards corrections. These things all, in addition to being a human concern, cost money to deal with - money we could use in health care and education [instead of] in corrections and law enforcement.
Q: Why aren't there more college-educated African-Americans?
A: Well, that's a huge question, and it has a large set of reasons. If you don't learn to read well, the world just doesn't open for you, and the academic model can discourage young people in the early part of that.
We all kind of live to expectations for us. There [are also] some concerning numbers about fatherless children, who is leading them, and who is getting involved in their lives to set and support that vision for them. In fact, we know that the most likely predictor for success is a father and mother who are married and committed to each other and to the success of their children.
So, I find it a very meaningful relationship. I had some other stereotypes, regarding the self-defense issues, because of the high profile cases such as Dunn and Zimmerman being tried, and the whole phenomenon that surrounded them.
Q: Do you think there is any cultural predisposition to criminality?
A: I think we're all capable of evil. I don't think we're innately good. We have to be shaped in a positive way, so that those attributes of our character prevail in how we carry out life.
Q: What is your opinion on the Dunn and Zimmerman verdicts?
A: I watched this very closely, and I don't see either one of them related to Stand Your Ground - although that's been the target.
If you empower law abiding citizens to stop violent acts, they can, they will, and the numbers tell us they did. We've seen violent crime go down with a myriad of policies, since we've started confronting these statistics and, amazingly, there's no color line in those statutes. They're actually quite protective, if you look at the numbers. They actually benefit the African-American community twice as often as the general population.
It's really about allowing that law abiding citizen to have a presumption in their favor if they're doing nothing wrong and become a victim of an attack. The law will stand with them, and not treat them like a criminal. Of course, every situation has to have an investigation. [But it] is about laying out a set of conditions under which you are not to be prosecuted. If the facts show that you were not within those boundaries, then you are prosecuted and, in those two particular cases, someone was charged and prosecuted, and juries heard [the cases]. Actually, the defense they offered could be offered in any court.
Zimmerman convinced the jury. In Mr. Dunn's case, he clearly did not. I think he might have been overcharged, [but] clearly the convictions on second degree are merited. You are responsible for your behavior. There is nothing in our self-defense statute that authorizes you to pursue, confront, and provoke other people.
Q: Do you think people are abusing the statute in that way?
A: I think they may well be. Some rulings…are mysterious to me. When I look at what I know the statute says, and what I see happening, I have some questions, myself. For example, prominently mentioned, in much of the conversation, this idea, 'if you feel threatened.' Well, if you read the statute, what's really the test is a 'reasonable man' test. Any reasonable person, if they knew this set of facts, would agree with you that you're in harm's way. That's a much more objective (although still subjective, in a way) format to evaluate that - instead of just 'I felt threatened.' That's not sufficient.
Q: I read somewhere that you actually said you regretted endorsing Stand Your Ground. Is that right?
A: No, I really have no regrets about it. I think about all the people whose lives it saved who were in peril. What most permit holders do is if they're in a situation like that, they show a firearm, the perpetrators leave, and no one gets hurt. It diffuses the situation. And, then, you have a few cases that are always near the foul line. How do you call them? And those will be the difficult ones, and I don't think you'll ever eliminate that completely. There will be some hits right near the foul line of what's in and what's out in terms of appropriate self-defense. And those will wind up in front of juries.
Q: What were the conditions behind the adoption of Stand Your Ground?
A: We really didn't have a statute. This application of retreat was more a principle of common law that gave prosecutors a lot of room of discretion, and if I was a prosecutor, I wouldn't like this statute because it does win. But I didn't do it for the prosecutors, as much as I love them. I did it for law abiding citizens, who I feel should be encouraged to stop violent episodes. No one should be killed simply because they were afraid to act.
It was not controversial in the legislature. It has been controversial in the media - particularly with those who have a strong conviction that the firearm itself is a problem. There's not a firearm in the bill! We have about twenty-thousand laws across the country that deregulate firearms. Overall, I think the numbers are good on it, and that it's good policy. The Trayvon Martin case really pulled back the hide on a broader issue: are we all treated equally before the law?
Q: Does racism still exist?
A: I think it will always exist. I think reverse racism exists. Many times, it involves the minorities not breaking out of their own self perceptions as well as the way other groups of people see them. There are reasons we have stereotypes, and it's hard to break them. They're not fair, but they are the way we shorthand, quickly evaluating all the stimulus that comes into us. So, we have to resist that. Some things have helped improve that - mostly, a shared destiny. If you can get people working together, you find out, 'well, they're just people.' It isn't all about the stereotype. Behind all these labels are just people.
Q: Does hip-hop music reinforce negative stereotypes of African-Americans?
A: I think it does. If you're in a setting, and you hear what's become acceptable in terms of 'gangsta rap' - the types of lyrics, and just the forceful, 'in your face' message it delivers - it sets up people on defense. Whether it's right or wrong, it has that impact [and] analytically, you have to think, 'what is this saying about me, and how does it impact the culture?' Not that I want to regulate it, but I wish folks would wake up and think about the full impact of delivering this specific type of entertainment.