All eyes turned to Attorney General Eric Holder yesterday as he expressed his opposition to the implementation of Stand Your Ground laws, saying they “undermine public safety.” The U.S. Justice Department is considering whether to file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman in the death of Trayvon Martin, but Holder refrained from giving any preview of what might be done in the case.
Holder, the nation’s first black attorney general, who has been a target of Republicans since his appointment by President Obama four years ago, was not shy about blasting away at the Stand Your Ground laws that have been passed in more than 30 states and that proved to be a factor in the jury’s decision to acquit Zimmerman in Martin’s death.
In a speech at the NAACP annual convention in Orlando, Florida, less than 30 miles from the spot where Zimmerman killed Martin in Sanford, Holder said it was time to reconsider the Stand Your Ground laws that have eliminated “the commonsense and age-old requirement” that people who felt threatened had a duty to retreat.
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” he said. “We must stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety. The list of resulting tragedies is long and unfortunately has victimized too many who are innocent.”
Holder faces enormous pressure from his liberal supporters, African-Americans and civil rights guardians such as the NAACP and Rev. Al Sharpton to file federal charges against Zimmerman. But Holder gave no clue about what the Justice Department might do.
“The NAACP and its members are deeply and rightly concerned about this case, as passionate civil rights leaders, engaged citizens and most of all as parents,” he said. “The Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take. But independent of the legal determination, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly and openly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised.”
Holder then became personal, speaking of his own experience with racism.
“Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me, to have a conversation about how, as a young black man, I should interact with the police, what to say and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted,” he said. “I’m sure my father felt certain at that time that my parents’ generation would be the last to have to worry about such things for their children. Since those days our country has indeed changed for the better.
“Yet for all the progress we have seen, recent events demonstrate that we still have much more work to do and much further to go. The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year and the discussions that have taken place since then reminded me of my father’s words.”
Holder said he has had a similar conversation with his own 15-year-old son, “not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront.”
“This is a sad reality in a nation changing for the better in so many ways,” Holder said. “I am determined to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation we engage in as a result of these tragic events.”
Holder praised the way most Americans have shown restraint after the verdict.
“In the days leading up to the weekend’s verdict, some predicted and prepared for riots and waves of civil unrest across the country,” he said. “Some feared that the anger of those who disagreed with the jury might overshadow and obscure the issues. The people of Sanford and for most part thousands of others across America, rejected this destructive path. They proved wrong those who doubted their commitment to the rule of law and across America diverse groups of citizens are instead overwhelmingly making their voices heard through rallies and vigils designed to provoke responsible debate.
“Those who act in a contrary manner do not honor the memory of Trayvon Martin,” Holder said.
After Holder’s speech, Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s office reaffirmed the governor’s support for the law, citing the task force that had been set up by his office to review the statute after Martin’s death.
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“The task force recommended that the law should not be overturned, and Gov. Scott agrees,” Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers said in a written statement.
Chris W. Cox, executive director of the National Rifle Association’s Institute for Legislative Action, said in a statement that “the attorney general fails to understand that self-defense is not a concept, it’s a fundamental human right. To send a message that legitimate self-defense is to blame is unconscionable, and demonstrates once again that this administration will exploit tragedies to push their political agenda.”
Most legal experts say federal charges against Zimmerman are unlikely—a scenario Holder seemed to predict last year when he spoke about Martin’s death in April 2012, 45 days after the shooting.
“For a federal hate crime, we have to prove the highest standard in the law,” Holder said last year. “Something that was reckless, that was negligent, does not meet that standard.
“We have to show that there was specific intent to do the crime with requisite state of mind,” he said.
The White House said President Obama, who urged for calm in a written statement after the decision, would play no role in deciding whether federal charges are filed.
“Cases are brought on the merits and the merits are evaluated by the professionals at the Department of Justice,” White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.
Sharpton and other civil rights leaders gathered yesterday outside the Department of Justice to announce 100 “Justice for Trayvon” vigils outside federal buildings across the country this weekend.
“People all over the country will gather to show that we are not having a two- or three-day anger fit,” Sharpton said. “This is a social movement for justice.”
He also called for a full federal investigation of the Martin killing, saying remarks by Obama and others weren’t enough.
“The president has made a statement of consolation,” Sharpton said. “We don’t need consolation. We need legislation and we need some federal prosecution.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge, the Ohio Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said racial profiling like what Zimmerman did to Martin “continues to make communities of innocent individuals fear a justice system designed to protect them.”
“Men and women wonder if merely walking or driving justifies being followed, stopped or questioned,” Fudge said in a statement Monday. “This practice and the presumption of guilt so often associated with people of color must come to an end.”