We stood in that doorway in Simi Valley, when an all-white jury found the cops who beat Rodney King half to death not guilty.
Now a jury in Florida has found neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman not guilty of murder in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Nothing new here.
“The doorway to a great cause is often a terribly tragic case,” said Benjamin Jealous, chairman of the NAACP.
The jurors in Seminole County would have us believe that Trayvon caused himself to be shot by confronting Zimmerman, who appeared to be stalking the boy. A fistfight ensued, and because Zimmerman felt that he was too fat and out of shape to win fair and square, he was within his right to pull a gun and kill Trayvon.
After the verdict, the NAACP began circulation petitions demanding that the Justice Department file civil rights charges in the case. So far, the effort has garnered more than a million signatures.
“Hundreds of thousands of these people also signed up with the NAACP,” Jealous said. “In addition to pushing for federal charges to be filed, they’ll also be pushing for anti-racial profiling legislation, for repeal of ‘stand your ground’ gun laws and reforms to the criminal justice system. And we still have our voter registration efforts underway nationally.”
Jealous noted that “the petitions were being signed at a rate of 100 a minute,” reflecting intense dissatisfaction with the Florida verdict. And yet, at the very same time, Obama and Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. have been signaling that making a federal case of the killing is not likely to happen.
In an address to the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in Washington following the verdict, Holder said he was trying to “alleviate tensions” and “promote healing.” Obama, in his statement, acknowledged that the case had stirred “strong passions,” then went on to say, “But we are a nation of laws, and the jury has spoken.”
So what happens to all that spirit of activism if the petition drive fails? Does the door to the great cause slam shut yet again? Probably — except that this time a confluence of events will likely keep it ajar awhile longer.
The Supreme Court decision to strike down a critical section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the Trayvon Martin verdict amount to a tag team gut punch to black America — from the high court and the low. In the same month that the nation’s oldest black service sorority gathered in the nation’s capital to mark its 100th anniversary, and a month before a gathering on the Mall to mark the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, it feels like a legalized spit in the face.
A little less than 3 percent of black-on-white homicides taking place in circumstances similar to the Trayvon Martin case are ruled to be justified, according to a study by John Roman, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. But when the races are reversed and whites kill blacks, the percentage of cases that are ruled to be justified climbs to more than 29 percent in non-stand-your-ground states — and almost 36 percent in stand-your-ground states such as Florida, where the law allows people to defend themselves with deadly force, if necessary, if they believe someone is trying to kill or harm them.
This week, the NAACP kicks off its annual convention in Orlando — less than 30 miles from the courthouse where the Martin murder case was tried. Jealous will certainly note these assaults on civil rights as he attempts to rally the troops. But there will also be victories to cite. In the months since Trayvon’s killing first made headlines, law enforcement agencies throughout the country began exploring ways to improve relationships with black youths, particularly males.
More states have passed anti-racial profiling legislation and, for the first time in five years, no state passed a stand-your-ground gun law last year (except for Alaska), Jealous said.
“Already the movement that has been built as a result of Trayvon’s death is showing signs of staying power,” Jealous said. “Another generation has been activated, just as a generation was activated by the beating of Rodney King and another generation before that by the lynching of Emmett Till.”
So where do we go from here — this time? Jealous answers onward and upward, toward a more sophisticated political strategy for enacting progressive legislation. But I’m not sure it’s quite time for “calm reflection.” America, and Obama, need to hear, loudly and clearly, that African Americans are angry and alarmed and will not accept any diminution of the freedoms and protections we’ve fought so hard to achieve.
Don’t toss the hoodies just yet.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.