ORLANDO, Fla.— Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, offered a thundering call to arms on Monday during the organization’s annual convention in Orlando, calling for an end to Stand Your Ground laws that initially shielded George Zimmerman from arrest in the killing of Trayvon Martin.
These are times of “great peril… and we see it in the verdict handed down in Sanford,” Jealous said, referring to a jury’s verdict on Saturday that cleared Zimmerman of any wrong doing in Martin’s death.
Speaking 30 miles north of the Florida town where Martin died, Jealous also urged the Department of Justice to charge Zimmerman under federal hate crimes statutes for the killing. Martin was 17-years-old and unarmed when he died. Zimmerman contended that he was attacked and shot Martin in self defense.
“We will bring an end to the scourge of gun violence in this country, not just by the bad guys but by the self-appointed or even the officially appointed good guys,” Jealous told reporters after his keynote speech. “Because the reality is, in this country, the world’s greatest democracy, it should not be the case that a child has to fear the robbers and the cops or the bad guys or the good guys.”
The NAACP contends that Zimmerman racially profiled Martin before the shooting that left him dead. Neither the prosecution nor Martin's parents have said Martin was "racially," profiled. Within an hour of the verdict, Jealous' organization launched a petition calling for Justice Department involvement in the case. As of Monday afternoon, some 550,000 people had signed the petition.
The department has an open inquiry going in the case and said it would continue to investigate whether any federal civil rights laws had been violated. "I want to assure you that the Department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law," Attorney General Eric Holder said Monday in Washington. "We are resolved, as you are, to combat violence involving or directed at young people, to prevent future tragedies and to deal with the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and stereotypes that serve as the basis for these too common incidents." Holder is scheduled to deliver the key note address at the NAACP convention on Tuesday.
Police initially declined to arrest Zimmerman after the killing, citing Florida's controversial Stand Your Ground law which gives wide discretion in the use of deadly force. Zimmerman was arrested 44 days after the shooting and charged with second-degree murder, as outrage over the killing spread nationwide. Zimmerman pleaded not guilty and was acquitted Saturday.
The verdict came just as hundreds of NAACP members and officials were arriving in Orlando for the convention, coincidentally held just 30 or so minutes from where the killing took place.
“It’s been hard to really digest the verdict,” Turner Clayton, president of the Seminole County branch of the NAACP, located in Sanford. Sanford has essentially been a town divided since Martin’s death, and perhaps more so since Zimmerman’s acquittal. Clayton said the NAACP will sponsor a town hall meeting next week to address concerns over the verdict's impact on already frayed relations between blacks, law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Black leaders who gathered in Orlando said they and their followers felt energized to pursue other avenues of justice for Martin's family.
“The young people that came here from all over the country, they cried after that verdict was read,” said Al Hinson, president of the Highland County branch of the NAACP. “But we tell them and push them the same way our elders did us when we had gone through the murder of Emitt Till and so many others. We tell them: keep fighting, keep pushing, become the fight for justice.”
Jealous, speaking to reporters after his speech at the Orange County Convention Center, said he was brought to tears by the verdict. After it was read, he said he walked over to his one-year-old son’s crib to listen to him breathe.
“I realized that [Martin’s parents] will never hear their child breath again,” Jealous said, his eyes welling.