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Color-coding crime: Stand your ground law and Media’s perception of violence in America

Photo Credit: WashingtonTimes.com

Photo Credit: WashingtonTimes.com

By Joey Pompignano

The Urban Outlook


Jonathan Savage, a childhood friend of mine is held at West Detention Center in Florida, arrested for second-degree murder and burglary with assault or battery with a deadly weapon. Originally held without bond at Palm Beach County Jail, he’s one of many prisoners in a flawed justice system perpetuated by a misguided media.


The Palm Beach Post reported that Savage and two other men, Johnny Vanderwiele and Christopher Kiristy ambushed Anthony Gangarossa at Gangarossa’s house on Labor Day 2011. Gangarossa’s housemate Ross Kollmar grabbed a gun and ordered the three men to leave. As the men fled, Kollmar fired a single warning shot through the front door. That shot from Kollmar killed Savage’s accomplice, Johnny Vanderwiele. And now Savage and Kiristy are both behind bars even though neither one of them pulled the trigger.


Another instance in Florida highlights the 2010 killing of Tremayne Lovett gunned down by Rashad Martinez. Lovett, who had a history of bullying Martinez, showed up at Martinez’s apartment complex looking for a fight over a girl. A physical confrontation between the two resulted in Martinez shooting unarmed Lovett in the back of the head as he ran away. Martinez was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.


Credit: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

Credit: Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence

These are prime examples of “Stand-your-ground,” a law enacted in 24 states, working conveniently or inconveniently for certain groups of people in Florida. Stand-your-ground law states that a person may justifiably use force in self-defense when there is reasonable belief of an unlawful threat, without an obligation to retreat first.


Interesting dynamics associated between both self-defense incidents shows a need for further examination. In the case of Savage, he and all members involved in the incident are white, while both the victim and the perpetrator in the latter scenario are black. Also, unlike the high-profile killing of unarmed black teenager Trayvon Martin by a Hispanic neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman, these two cases received no national attention by the press. Same-race crimes rarely do.


White-on-white violence goes unnoticed by national media unless it’s a unique story that consists of children or an act of “terror” like that of the Boston marathon bombers. Inner-city Black-on-black violence gets referenced often but with an apathetic response toward the victim. Reserving only a single paragraph on page 7 of the daily paper allows the public to accept this crime as the norm.


Journalism professor John Hagan asks his Media Writing students at Cuyahoga Community College a simple yet complex question each semester: “If a person is killed in the affluent white suburb of Bay Village on the same day a person is killed in the poverty-stricken black city of East Cleveland, which incident should receive more news coverage?”


One student will suggest that the media report the crime that occurred in East Cleveland because it’s commonplace, therefore, it’s the media’s responsibility to get to the root of the problem. Another student will insist that the crime committed in Bay Village would be more interesting to report because it’s rare. Students then begin asking more detailed questions about age and race of both the perpetrator and the victim, as well as the uniqueness of the crime. Hagan explains that a person’s life in East Cleveland is just as important as a person’s life in Bay Village—and vice versa—so each incident “should” be covered in a similar manner by the press regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or geographic location.


But, often times that’s not the case as cited in a report titled, “Off Balance: Youth, Race, & Crime in the News” by Lori Dorfman and Vincent Schiraldi. Media’s unbalanced perception of who commits crimes misinforms three-quarters of the public who say they form their opinions about violent crime from the news. African Americans and other people of color are overrepresented as criminals and underrepresented as victims.


homicideThe study also found that the more unusual the crime or violence, the more likely it is to be covered. Although same-race homicides are more common (86 percent of white homicide victims are killed by other whites, and 94 percent of black homicide victims are killed by other blacks), the least frequent killings—homicides between strangers, and interracial homicides—received the most coverage.


This racial misconception of who commits crimes and to whom crimes are committed diverts attention away from the truth and further divides us as a nation. People of all colors experience violence in the roles of both victim and perpetrator, and we need all branches of government along with a fair portrayal of violence in the media to protect us as citizens.


A Tampa Bay Times analysis of nearly 200 “stand your ground” cases found that people who killed a black person walked free 73 percent of the time, while those who killed a white person went free 59 percent of the time. Does the race of the perpetrator matter when claiming self-defense? No one from the “Savage incident” was black. But what if the shooter, Ross Kollmar, was black? Perhaps an ambush of three white males would not be enough for Kollmar to justify his self-defense claim to authorities. Maybe Jonathan Savage would not be sitting in jail for second-degree homicide in addition to his burglary and battery charges.


One cannot help but wonder what the outcomes of both same-race homicides would be if the killings had been interracial. Each case would likely garner national media attention, or at least more media attention than the minimum coverage of one or two stories in the local newspaper. The outcome of Savage’s ongoing trial is yet to be determined, but the case with Martinez shows the ineffectiveness of a self-defense claim under Stand-your-ground law when both the perpetrator and victim are black.


Viewing the mug shot photo of the neighborhood acquaintance from my past takes me back to our teenage years. Aside from the piercing blue eyes and dark brown hair, I hardly recognize him. His scruffy beard and mustache along with a new stingray tattoo on the left side of his neck does not help his case in a society known for basing innocence and guilt on image. The symbol of the stingray represents what was supposed to be a new beginning for Jon, moving to Florida from Ohio. Instead, it’s an ironic twist of his fate, for the stingray’s main characteristic is using its barbed tail for self-defense. His case contradicts with media’s perception of crime in America, exposing the troubling realities of racial attitudes and Stand-your-ground legislation.

About Joey Pompignano

Joey Pompignano is the Black News editor & Education columnist for The Urban Outlook. He received a Bachelor of Science in News Journalism from Kent State University, and is a former reporter with Cleveland's African-American newspaper, The Call and Post. Pompignano is a substitute teacher in Cleveland area schools, and the lead facilitator of Basheer Jones' "Be the Change" youth leadership series.

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