On March 6th, a clip of Arkansas Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D) on the debate floor went viral. The video shows Flower’s passionate monologue against Senate Bill 484, which would significantly expand the right to use lethal force for self defense in Arkansas. Flower’s remarks drew approval from many progressives, who praised her passionate words and resilience. Her GOP colleagues, however, were less than pleased. Sen. Bob Ballinger, who introduced the SB 484, took to Twitter on March 10th to criticize the Arkansas Democratic Party over Flowers’ “threats.” Sen. Trent Garner (R) had similar objections.
These two criticisms focused only on a brief portion of Flowers’ testimony, in which she warns that the authors of the bill could easily become victims of the violence she believes it would cause. While Flowers’ rhetoric might seem excessive or unbecoming of her political office, it is entirely proportional to the devastating violence SB 484 could have brought to the state of Arkansas, had it not failed in committee shortly after.
“Stand your ground” laws have a bloody and complicated legacy in America. George Zimmerman was famously acquitted for the murder of Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, thanks in part to the generous definition of self-defense under Florida’s “stand your ground” legislation.
Michael Dunn, also a Floridian, used “stand your ground” law as a defense for the murder of Jordan Davis, whom Dunn shot over an argument over loud music at a gas station. Though Dunn’s defense was unsuccessful and he received life in prison, Florida’s generous self-defense laws clearly emboldened him to act more aggressively than he otherwise would have.
Stand Your Ground laws also interact poorly with racial inequality. Because the laws can encourage people to act violently upon their fear, those who believe in racial stereotypes, whether overtly or implicitly, seem more likely to use violence against people of other races. In states with considerable white majorities, like Arkansas, people of color seem especially at risk.
That’s without even mentioning Arkansas’ history of racially-motivated violence. Arkansas has been home to several horrific race riots and massacres. In 1919, an armed white militia in Elaine began killing black Arkansans indiscriminately following an agricultural labor dispute. Flowers’ own great grandfather died in the Howard County Race Riot in 1883.
Given the history of racial violence in Arkansas, and her own connections to it, it isn’t difficult to understand why Flowers would have a visceral reaction to legislation that would almost certainly result in more acts of racial violence.
Some Arkansans might still be offended or uncomfortable with the senator’s specific choice of words, her profanity or her threats, but that discomfort proves how effective her words were. Flowers is forcing powerful and privileged legislators to recognize a portion of the fear that their legislation would impart on others if it were passed.