John Phillips says that being a white man in the center of a racially charged case has been profoundly eye opening.
Michael Dunn has been charged with first-degree murder in the death of Jordan Davis. (Photo: Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union/Pool /Landov/Reuters)
John Phillips says that his time as the lawyer for the family of Jordan Davis has provided him with an experience that has been life changing in offering a perspective of racial attitudes in America.
“To use the word epiphany would put it mildly,” Phillips said, in an interview with BET.com. “To talk with the Davis family for a year and half and to see the disparity not only in the law, but in the enforcement of the law, is shocking. As a white man, I have learned a lot about the experience of Black Americans.”
Phillips, a 39-year-old lawyer raised in Alabama, added that he has learned firsthand the differences in the most important conversations white parents have with their children, compared with those of Black parents.
“When I ask white parents about the most important conversation they have with their kids, it’s typically about the birds and the bees,” Phillips said. “When I talk with a sister or brother, it’s not about creating life. It’s about sustaining life. It’s about how you have to act, what you have to monitor so that you can stay alive."
For more than a year, Phillips has been at the epicenter of one of the most emotionally charged cases since the Trayvon Martin shooting. He said that he bristled recently when he was described as “a white gun owner from Alabama,” realizing how charged with images that might be for Black people who encountered him.
“All of those things are true, but they don’t represent the respect my parents taught me to have for everyone.”
Yet, he said, he has learned about how quickly people draw conclusions about those from different ethnic backgrounds.
The case centers on Davis, a 17-year-old African-American who, along with three of his friends, stopped at a gas station in Jacksonville, Florida, to purchase cigarettes and snacks.
The teenagers were said to be playing music loudly with they were approached by Michael Dunn, a 47-year-old white man, who was in the car parked alongside the young men. After an argument in which Dunn demanded that the music be turned off, he fired six shots into the vehicle, killing Davis. Dunn is on trial now in Florida on charges of first-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty and claims that he shot Davis in self-defense.
The death of the teenager had reignited a national discussion about Florida’s controversial "Stand Your Ground" law.
“This is an issue of national importance,” Phillips said. “If we’re going to be a civilization, we just can’t stereotype people and let that be the basis of fear and then shoot your way out of a situation that never existed in the first place. I’m beside myself that we’ve gotten to this point.”
Since he has represented the Davis family, he said, “I have seen so much discrimination and so much hate. But I think that Jordan is finally touching a lot of people. There are people who need to understand that, as Abraham Lincoln said, our greatest enemy is not from abroad. It’s from within ourselves.”
He added: “People like to say that Zimmerman was not a 'Stand Your Ground' case or that Michael Dunn is not a 'Stand Your Ground' case. But 'Stand Your Ground' starts before the trigger is pulled. If gun owners have extra rights and somehow a gun is the great equalizer, that’s just not right. That’s not what our forefathers — or God — intended.”
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Follow Jonathan Hicks on Twitter: @HicksJonathan