Protesters hold a sign at a rally on March 25, 2012, in Seattle, Washington. (Courtesy of Flickr.)
The nation’s oldest and largest civil rights group responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with shock, anguish and a call to action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is petitioning the United States Department of Justice to seek justice for slain teenager Trayvon Martin by filing civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
On Sunday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced that the case was under review. "Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,’’ read a department statement that added that the review would determine ‘‘whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.’’
The formal language describes a first step that, while it is encouraging for civil rights organizations, does not assure that a federal case will be initiated.
But the NAACP and other groups are arguing that there are clear grounds for an intervention by the department.
In a message posted on the group’s website and circulated nationally within hours of the announcement of the verdict, the group’s president, Ben Jealous, declared, “We are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin.”
As part of the NAACP campaign to get the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman, Jealous urged Americans to sign a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder that reads,
The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida’s prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.
The most fundamental of civil rights—the right to life—was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.
Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today.
Within three hours of the online posting of the petition late Saturday evening, more than 350,000 Americans had signed it. The response was so intense that the group’s website crashed Sunday morning. But the #JusticeForTrayvon petition drive continued at the MoveOn.org petition site and a refreshed NAACP site.
Other civil rights groups echoed the demand for Justice Department action, with the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore telling reporters, “We will be calling on the federal government to file criminal charges on the basis of civil rights violations. This was done immediately after the Rodney King verdict, and should be done if justice is not rendered by the Florida courts.”
Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Barbara Arnwine said that while the verdict “represents a tragic miscarriage of justice,” she believes “there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin’s surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman by the Department of Justice.”
In addition to pressing for action at the federal level, the NAACP and other groups were turning attention to state capitols in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal.
Jealous, who said civil rights supporters were “outraged and heartbroken” by the jury verdict, coupled his announcement of the petition with a call for the outlawing of racial profiling and a renewed commitment to “fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state.”
Florida passed its “stand your ground” law in 2005. Since then, at the behest of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, variations on the legislation—which allows individuals who say they believe themselves to be in imminent danger to use deadly force—have been enacted by state legislatures across the country. After the killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, as media outlets in Florida and nationally have reported, “Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ law.”
Zimmerman, who faced charges only after a national outcry forced a review of the case, did not mount a specific “stand your ground” defense. But the issue remained a bone of contention before and during his trial; notably, the jury heard from a witness who recalled teaching about Florida’s law in a college course that the defendant completed in 2010. And when jury instructions were made in the case, the judge said: "If George Zimmerman was not engaged in an unlawful activity and was attacked in any place where he had a right to be, he had no duty to retreat and had the right to stand his ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he reasonably believed that it was necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony."
Brendan Fischer, a lawyer with the Center for Media and Democracy, notes that: "This language is nearly identical to that in the Florida Stand Your Ground law and the ALEC "model" legislation. We cannot know if the outcome would have been different had the six jurors been instructed differently — but we do know that Stand Your Ground played a role in the case, even after Zimmerman's arrest."
The sustained outcry over the February 26, 2012, shooting of Martin appears to have led the NRA and ALEC to halt advocacy on behalf of “stand your ground” laws. But the laws continue to influence criminal justice nationwide, as the Center for Media and Democracy has documented.
The NAACP, the Urban League, Color of Change, Common Cause, People for the American Way and MoveOn.org were among many groups that pressed ALEC on the “stand your ground” issue in 2012. Several of these same groups have taken the next step and are urging legislators to strike the laws from state statute books.
“Florida’s dangerous ‘Shoot First’ law allowed Trayvon’s killer to walk free without charges for more than a month. Shoot First legalizes vigilante homicide, has demonstrated racial bias in its application, and has led to an increase in gun-related deaths in the more than two dozen states where it has been passed into law,” argues Color of Change, as part of its campaign to strike down “stand your ground” laws. “These laws give individual gun owners a greater right to shoot and kill than the rules of engagement for our military during times of war grant to soldiers in war zones. ‘Shoot First’ must be repealed now to protect families and communities and prevent senseless deaths.”
Referencing a Texas A&M University study that revealed how “stand your ground” and “castle doctrine” laws do not deter crime but have been linked to increased rates of homicide, Jealous has said that “stand-your-ground legislation does more harm than good.”
“Too often these laws provide cover for vigilantes and hate groups who choose to take the law into their own hand,” argued the NAACP president in 2012. “They have led to an increase in homicides, and people of color seem to always get caught in the crossfire.”