Discussing a Florida jury’s acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin last year, Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said Tuesday that he opposes so-called “stand your ground” laws:
The statutes, which have been enacted in more than 30 states, have become the focus of a complicated national debate over race, crime and culpability since the shooting of Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, by a neighborhood watch volunteer in Sanford, Fla. The volunteer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted of murder charges Saturday.
Zimmerman’s attorneys did not try to get the case dismissed based on Florida’s stand-your-ground law, which says people who feel threatened can defend themselves with deadly force and are not legally required to flee. Still, the jury was instructed that as long as Zimmerman was not involved in an illegal activity and had a right to be where he was when the shooting occurred, “he had no duty to retreat and the right to stand his ground.”
“These laws try to fix something that was never broken,” Holder told cheering delegates of the annual convention of the NAACP, which is pressing him to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman. “The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent.”
The attorney general, who is the first African American ever to hold that position, drew parallels between his own life and the claims of many here that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin after spotting the teenager walking through his father’s neighborhood in a hooded sweatshirt. Martin was African American. Zimmerman’s father is white, his mother Peruvian. . .
Holder’s comments were the most extensive discussion of the Zimmerman verdict by a member of the Obama administration so far. His personal stories and his denunciation of “stand your ground” laws brought the audience to its feet. But administration officials say that there is little the Justice Department can do to actually change the laws, because they are state, rather than federal, statutes.
Like Holder, President Obama is the first African American to hold his current office, and the racial dimensions of Zimmerman’s case have proved to be an unusual challenge for him:
President Obama’s history with the politics of race — his own, and the way it is lived in this country — has been both beneficial and vexing over the course of his public life.
Racial identity was at the heart of his best-selling memoir, commissioned after he was elected the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review.
It helped distinguish him from more experienced Democrats in the 2008 presidential primaries, then nearly doomed his candidacy after his close relationship with a provocative black pastor was revealed. Once in the White House, his race often appeared to be as much a burden for him as an asset.
Now as he confronts public anger about the acquittal of George Zimmerman for fatally shooting an unarmed black teenager, Obama is being challenged again to meet the unique demands that come with being the nation’s first African American president.
Obama’s handling of the verdict’s aftermath reflects some of the hard-learned lessons of the past four years. Rather than criticism, he has chosen a tone of consolation, avoiding the issue of race directly to help cool the country down.
On Sunday afternoon, Obama issued a short statement asking “every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son,” a 17-year-old named Trayvon Martin.
“And as we do, we should ask ourselves if we’re doing all we can to widen the circle of compassion and understanding in our communities,” he continued, citing gun violence rather than racial mistrust as a specific issue to be considered.
In a guest column, Janet Langhart Cohen calls on the president to speak directly about the country’s racial tensions:
On multiple occasions, Obama has asked blacks to understand the high wire he is forced to walk on the subject of race. He has pleaded that we cut him some slack. Most have done so even as conditions in the black community have become more desperate.
We have waited and watched the president address issues of importance to women, gays and lesbians, Latinos and the security of our allies. We praised his boldness in speaking to the issue of sexual orientation during his visit to Africa.
For the past four years, we have remained silent; some have been satisfied that Obama being the first black president was reason enough to seal our lips and muffle our voices. But most were convinced that, once he entered his second term, Obama would be liberated from the racial harness that politics forced him to wear.
During this period of self-imposed silence, we have watched our criminal laws become racialized and our race criminalized. Blacks continue to be faced with punishing unfairness and inequalities. Soaring rates of unemployment, discriminatory drug laws, disproportionate prison sentences, unequal access to health care and healthy food, unfair stop-and-frisk policies and “accidental” shootings of unarmed black men by the police — these and more are treated with indifference or contempt. We’re told to stop complaining, to get over it. No one cares.
But that’s just the point of living in the United States. Somebody is supposed to care. Our elected officials, beginning with the president, are charged with the responsibility of listening to the needs, the grievances, the voices of the people — including people of color.
I say this with respect: To use Dr. King’s phrase, there is a fierce urgency of now for the president to talk boldly and truthfully about race and racism and why it still matters in the United States. I hope that President Obama will speak not just to black people or just to white people but to the good people in America. We can never have racial reconciliation without discussing the truth.
Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former secretary of state, avoided speaking directly about the trial in remarks on Tuesday:
“In a week that I know has brought heartache – deep, painful heartache to many across our country, the solidarity and solace you find here is all the more important,” the former secretary of state said at a conference hosted by the African American Delta Sigma Theta sorority in Washington, D.C. “My prayers are with the Martin family and with every family who has lost someone to violence. No mother, no father should ever have to fear for their child walking down a street in the United States.”
Clinton made only passing mention of potential civil rights charges being brought against Zimmerman, as many on the political left and in the black community are calling for. She did not weigh in on so-called “Stand Your Ground” laws, which Attorney General Eric Holder spoke out against Tuesday.
“As we move forward as we must, I hope this sisterhood will continue to be a (beacon) for justice and understanding,” Clinton said.
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