U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder Jr., in a much-anticipated speech before the NAACP annual convention in Orlando, took a strong stance Tuesday against what he called “senseless” state stand-your-ground laws, while continuing his neutral position regarding the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
“It’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods,” Holder told a crowd of nearly 2,000 people. “These laws try to fix something that was never broken.”
The NAACP’s 104th annual meeting was held just a few miles from Sanford, the central Florida town where a jury over the weekend acquitted Zimmerman in the shooting death of the unarmed teenager.Zimmerman claimed self-defense even though he was the one who followed the teen, and under Florida’s stand-your-ground statute he had no duty to retreat when confronted.
“There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the ‘if’ is important – no safe retreat is available,” Holder said. “The list of resulting tragedies is long and – unfortunately – has victimized too many who are innocent.”
He called on the NAACP to join in a “collective obligation – 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.” The cheers drowned out him out for a moment.
Holder reiterated a Justice Department statement issued Monday, saying the department is continuing its investigation into Martin’s death.The probe had been suspended during the trial.
“While that inquiry is ongoing, I can promise that the Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take,”Holder said.
Just before Holder began speaking, the NAACP announced that its petition asking Holder’s department to bring federal charges, including civil rights charges, against Zimmerman has reached 1 million signatures.
NAACP president and chief executive officer Benjamin Jealous said following the speech that he was extremely pleased to hear Holder’s “commitment to fully investigate the Zimmerman case, to look at all aspects of his death and to look at whether his civil rights were violated in a way that was criminal.”
Jealous said he expected Justice to focus on “witness number nine” – a female relative of Zimmerman who said she believed Zimmerman’s racism was a factor in his actions. “From the beginning, our faith has been in the justice system,” Jealous said. “And we are only at the end of the first chapter. This needs to go to the end.”
The NAACP leader questioned why pro football quarterback Michael Vick was sentenced to prison for fighting dogs while “Zimmerman gets to walk. I don’t have a good answer for this.”
Jealous also said it was the first time he had heard Holder talk about his personal discussions with his own son. During the speech, Holder said that after Martin’s death he sat down and talked with his son about how to conduct himself if ever confronted by the police.
Holder said his own father had the same talk with him when he was a teenager. “This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down.”
He recalled a time when police stopped and questioned him while he was running to catch a movie in Georgetown. He was a young federal prosecutor at the time. The A.G. said he hoped his would be the final generation that feels the need to have the “how-to-conduct-yourself-with-police chat” with a son.
On another civil rights front, Holder called “disappointing” the U.S. Supreme Court decision last month that struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“Let me be clear: This was a deeply disappointing and flawed decision,” he said. “It dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights.”
After citing recent instances in which the Justice Department had to enforce the act to protect voters from discrimination in South Carolina and Texas, the attorney general pledged that“protecting the fundamental right to vote – for all Americans – will continue to be a top priority for the Department of Justice so long as I have the privilege of serving as attorney general.”
He urged all Americans to call on Congress to consider new legislation restoring and even strengthening voting protections.
But he added that Justice would enforce the law. “We will not wait for Congressional action to refine – and re-focus – our current enforcement efforts. In fact, I am announcing today that I have directed the department’s civil rights division to shift resources to the enforcement of Voting Rights Act provisions that were not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling – including Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race, color, or language.”
Contact Sue Reisinger at firstname.lastname@example.org.