ORLANDO — Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. strongly condemned “stand your ground” laws Tuesday, saying the measures “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense” and may encourage “violent situations to escalate.”
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 recalled being pulled over twice by police on the New Jersey Turnpike as a young man and having his car searched, “when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding.” Another time, he said, he was stopped by law enforcement in Georgetown while simply running to catch a movie after dark.
“I was, at the time of that last incident, a federal prosecutor,” Holder said dryly, prompting some in the audience at the Orlando Convention Center to gasp in disgust and others to shake their heads. “We must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.”
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.
When he was a youth growing up in New York, Holder said, his father — an immigrant from Barbados — warned him to act carefully if he was stopped by police. Decades later, after Martin was killed, the nation’s chief law enforcement officer decided he had to have a similar conversation with his own 15-year-old son. “This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down,” he told the delegates.
Turning to address civil rights more broadly, Holder also invoked his late sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, one of two students who, with the protection of the National Guard, walked past Gov. George Wallace in 1963 to integrate the University of Alabama.
“Her story, and others like it, drove me to dream of a career in public service and led me to spend my first summer in law school working for the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund,” Holder said.
He then sharply criticized last month’s Supreme Court ruling that invalidated a critical component of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965. The court said Congress must come up with a new formula based on current data to determine which states should be subject to preapproval by the Justice Department or a federal judge when changing voting laws.
The Justice Department will not wait for Congress to take action, Holder said. Instead, the agency will shift resources in the department’s civil rights division to focus on provisions of the act that were not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling, including Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race, color or language.
In the convention center lobby, though, the conversation on Tuesday was mostly about a slain teenager and the events leading up to and following his death.
Gary Bledsoe, vice chairman of the NAACP’s legal committee, said that he heard enough during Zimmerman’s three-week trial to convince him that race played a role. Martin was unarmed but, according to defense attorneys, initiated a physical fight after Zimmerman began tailing him. Prosecutors said Zimmerman profiled Martin and began the confrontation.
Especially compelling, to Bledsoe, was a statement Zimmerman made in a call to a non-emergency police line after first spotting Martin: “These a--holes, they always get away.”
“There are so many references with clear racial undertones,” said Bledsoe, a Texas civil rights lawyer. “You can break down the language.”
The delegates believe that it will be hard for Holder to ignore an NAACP petition, signed by more than 1 million people, asking for civil rights charges against Zimmerman. “That’s leverage,” Bledsoe said.
And indeed, in his speech, Holder assured the delegates that the Justice Department is investigating Zimmerman for possible civil rights charges. But current and former Justice Department lawyers, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said that bringing civil rights charges against Zimmerman would be extremely difficult, and may not be possible.
Zimmerman’s acquittal has sparked demonstrations in major cities across the country, including protests in Los Angeles and Oakland, Calif., that have had moments of violence. At least nine people were arrested and one man was injured in Oakland on Monday night, and marchers in Los Angeles tore down railings and blocked a freeway.
Music superstar Stevie Wonder, who is African American, said at a concert Sunday in Canada that “until the stand-your-ground law is abolished in Florida, I will never perform there again. As a matter of fact, wherever I find that law exists, I will not perform in that state or in that part of the world.”
But the mood in Sanford, where the trial took place, has been remarkably calm, with small rallies and prayer services rather than fiery protests. And the convention atmosphere was even calmer.
Violence at protests hurts the effort to persuade the federal government to get involved, said Lloyd Thompson, an NAACP district official from northern Louisiana. Thompson said he wants demonstrations conducted in a “quiet, soft manner.”
Horwitz reported from Washington.