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.
In a message posted on the groups’s website and circulated nationally within hours of the announcement of the verdict, NAACP 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 hours of the online posting of the petition late Saturday evening, thousands of Americans had already signed it. Other civil rights groups echoed the demand, with the Rev. CD 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.”
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.
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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.
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 “Castile 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.”