Michael Dunn and Our ‘Dirty Harry’ Epidemic

The narratives of Dunn and Zimmerman reflect a cultural near-consensus on the idea of the threatening black criminal — and the white man who has no choice but to stop him

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Bob Mack / Florida Times-Union / Pool / Reuters

Michael Dunn raises his hands in disbelief as he looks toward his parents after the verdicts were announced in his trial in Jacksonville, Florida Feb. 15, 2014. REUTERS/Bob Mack/Florida Times-Union/Pool (UNITED STATES - Tags: CRIME LAW) - RTX18WUL

In Michael Dunn’s mind, Jordan Davis wasn’t a teenager, goofing with his friends — he was a threat. It’s why, after his confrontation over loud music, he was prepared to shoot. “I’m looking out of the window and I said ‘You’re not going to kill me you son of a bitch,’ ” Dunn testified during his trial, “And then I shot him.”

Of course, as we know from witnesses and evidence from the crime scene, there was no gun, and Davis wasn’t a threat. But when you see yourself as another William Foster standing up against the “thugs” of your imagination, those facts fall by the wayside.

Indeed, if Dunn’s narrative of that night sounds familiar, it’s because of its similarity to George Zimmerman’s version of his confrontation with Trayvon Martin. In Zimmerman’s telling, Martin “emerged from the darkness” and circled his car — like an animal out on the hunt. Zimmerman then left his vehicle to give information to the police dispatcher, at which point Martin appeared and asked “You got a problem.” Zimmerman said no, and Martin replied “You do now,” at which point he punched him in the face and told Zimmerman that he’s “going to die tonight.”

Both stories rely on particular tropes. Martin and Davis aren’t just rude or rowdy teenagers, they are dangerous intruders — aggressive thugs who can turn violent at any moment. And it’s up to the keepers of the peace — Zimmerman and Dunn — to play Dirty Harry and put them in their place. To wit, in one of his letters from prison, Dunn said as much: “This may sound a bit radical, but if more people would arm themselves and kill these (expletive) idiots when they’re threatening you, eventually they may take the hint and change their behavior.”

Of course, these tropes aren’t the inventions of isolated minds. They rely on long-standing ideas of black criminality and the inherent character of young black men, who — throughout America’s cultural history — have been portrayed as uniquely dangerous. I already mentioned Dirty Harry and Michael Douglas’ character from Falling Down, movies where rogue white men are the only ones willing to stop the drug dealers and gang bangers who are destroying our cities. But there are also movies where black men are shown as venal, criminal, and a threat to “white civilization” — like the Death Wish films and going back further to characterizations such as the freed slaves in Birth of a Nation.

You can add to this the countless real life images of young black offenders that are plastered onto local news broadcasts. This, as well, isn’t a new phenomenon. As historian Khalil Muhammad explains in his book The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, 19th century newspapers were rife with reports of black crime, despite the equal prevalence of crime from Irish, Italian, and other ethnic European immigrants. Blacks bore the brunt of enforcement, and it’s from this — skewed perceptions and unequal policing — that we get our stereotypes. As he writes, “Statistical evidence of excessive rates of black arrests and the overrepresentation of black prisoners in the urban North was seen by many whites as indisputable proof of black inferiority.”

As for today? Decades of research on African Americans and media representation has confirmed that black criminals receive disproportionate attention for their crimes. According to one study drawn from news reports in the Chicago area, blacks weren’t just presented in a negative light, they were frequently depicted without a name, which — as the researchers explain — feeds a “tendency to homogenize, to assume there are no significant differences among individual members of the outgroup.” They continue: “When blacks are not given a name in a picture, it suggests the visual representation can be assimilated to a larger, undifferentiated group, in this case the stereotype of a dangerous black male.”

Put simply, the narratives of Dunn and Zimmerman reflect a cultural near-consensus on the idea of the threatening black criminal. And, when trying to explain the verdicts in both cases — Zimmerman’s acquittal and Dunn’s hung jury on the count of first degree murder — it’s worth considering the extent to which they found receptive audiences; jury members who believed their stories, or at least, could empathize with their fear of “thugs.” After all, these are things they see and hear every day, from images in the paper, to hysterical reports of the (widely debunked) “knockout game.”

One last thing. Whenever these shootings are in the news — and whenever the discussion turns to racism — there are calls for commentators to focus on the “real” problem of “black-on-black crime.” Setting aside the fact that there’s no distinct phenomenon called “black-on-black crime” (or, if there is, our concern should also extend to “white-on-white crime”), we should remember two things: First, that black men who kill black men are almost always convicted; and second, that white men who do the same often aren’t.

The issue isn’t that whites are the greatest criminal threat to blacks, it’s that when they are a criminal threat, they are more likely to get away with it than the reverse. That is the injustice, and that is why discussions of racism aren’t just necessary — they’re vital.

Jamelle Bouie is a Washington-based journalist and staff writer at The Daily Beast who covers politics and national affairs. He is @jbouie on Twitter.


This month Michael Dunn will be sentenced, hopefully for 60 years plus 15 years without parole.  Michael Dunn will no longer be able to hide in his county jail cell.  He'll be with the general prison population he called "animals."  They aren't exempt from the media and know about the multiple racist and hate comments Michael Dunn has made by phone and mail.  If he's not killed by another prisoner, he'll be subject to beatings, HIV, Hepatitis, gang rapes.  Even though Michael Dunn complained about his county jail cell amongst other things, he'll soon learn it was a picnic compared to what's next for him.  Good riddance to bad trash.  


Does this author even live on this planet? Michael Dunn was just some disgruntled guy who got pissed off at loud music. That happens all the time. 

How does this morph into "a racist was out stalking black kids because he thinks all black boys are criminals?" Is this some kind of victim complex?


The primary antagonists in DIRTY HARRY (1971), MAGNUM FORCE (1973) THE ENFORCER (1976) and SUDDEN IMPACT (1983) were white males. In DEATH WISH (1974) it is a trio of white men (including Jeff Goldblum) who assault Bronson's wife and daughter. In DEATH WISH II (1982) the gang that assaults and kills Paul Kersey's daughter and latina maid are a motley crew of whites and blacks.

The author's point in baseless, moot and specious.


@armandocdll81 those are movies... people who live real life by the example of a movie are in need of reality.  Dirty Harry, would have been not long for the SFPD if he were real. 


white man shooting a black or brown man = justifiable homicide aka self defense

Black or Brown man shooting a white man = criminal homicide.

Not every time but a lot of the time, just saying


One last thought.

As for the Zimmerman verdict.

Did you ever consider, that he may have been aquitted because he was NOT GUILTY?

No, I guess not, if you think hes a murderer, then thats enought to indict all of white society.

Way to go playing the race card.  You can do better.


@DaveDavis or he might have been acquitted because the jury was perverse in its idea of reasonable doubt.

He looks like a vigilante gun nut from here


Oh, and to the author, its starts with you, how about James instead of Jamelle?

IF its part of your african heritage, use that name in Africa.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

My relatives didn't name their child "Davidio" they named him "DAVID" so know one would know that he was Italian American, only that he was AMERICAN.

Isn't it time to start forgetting where you came FROM, and instead, focus on WHERE YOU ARE GOING?

As long your citizenship is hyphenated, you will never TRULY BE AN AMERICAN!


Obviously, the writer is black, and fails to see the truth that blacks commit crimes against whites far more than in reverse.

Further, some blacks do the most they can to incite and provoke violence, by refusing to become mainstream, and instead of trying to mesh with society, they do what they can to keep out of it.

Clothing, language, attitude, names, playing loud music, as in this case, everything SHOUTS look at me, I'm not like you, and that, in itself, scares people.  When you go into a restaurant, take you damn hoodie off, in fact, why do you need to cover your face and head in broad daylight anyway?  Are you muslim women?

Add in what the Rap portrays, rape, gangs, guns, a glorification of gangster culture, what do you expect people to think about them as a race.

And, don't forget the daily MURDERS all over the US, in EVERY black community, blacks can't get along with each other, let alone a race they have been taught to blame for ALL OF THEIR PROBLEMS.

Yes, when I see a black man, who looks like a thug, I check my pistol and make sure its there.  

Not because I particularly fear him, but because I fear what our society has done to make him hateful, and vindictive, when I have done NOTHING to contribute to those problems.

And I know its the truth, because I have seen the hatred in some black peoples eyes, they hate, only because I am white, and they are black, and if thats enough to hate, its enough to make me check and make sure I can defend myself against that hate.

The problems with black society are NOT MY FAULT, and unless the leaders of the black community recognize the truth, and that is THAT THE PROBLEM BLACK SOCIETY HAS, IS OF ITS OWN CREATION, and nothing will change, until you quit seeing yourself as NOT part of society, and do better trying to become part of it.