The Department of Justice Can Stand Up for Trayvon Martin's Civil Rights
Florida failed, so the federal government must step in
July 16, 2013
It was not just the memory of Trayvon Martin that was betrayed when his killer, George Zimmerman, walked free from a Florida courtroom last Saturday. The case was a travesty in which the roles of victim and assailant were somehow reversed, race was deemed to be somehow irrelevant – even though Zimmerman had no reason to pursue Martin but for the prejudices associated with the color of his skin – and nobody was held accountable for the shocking and needless death of an unarmed 17-year-old boy.
Blame for this travesty goes far wider than the six members of the jury in Sanford. Florida, like many other states, has allowed itself to be lobbied and cajoled into passing legislation ostensibly aimed at extending the rights of gun owners, but which, in effect, allows citizens to operate as vigilantes who can shoot first and ask questions later. These so-called "stand your ground" laws are the brainchild of the National Rifle Association and have proliferated across 26 states after becoming a legislative priority of the American Legislative Exchange Council.
This is an intolerable intrusion by corporate interests into the civil rights of each and every American, and it has been exacerbated by the damaging racial stereotypes peddled by news show hosts, TV crime dramas and reality shows like the Fox network's long-running hit "COPS" (now finally out of prime time). It sends a particularly chilling message to young black and Latino men who, in many parts of the country, already suffer from irrational hostility and frequent harassment. It prevents even the most responsible members of the law enforcement community from doing the fundamentals of their job – protecting those at risk of violence and prosecuting the perpetrators of that violence.
The Department of Justice is in a position to stand up to this violation of our basic constitutional protections, because Florida and the other states with "stand your ground" laws have manifestly failed. The DoJ first looked into Trayvon Martin's killing last year and, in the wake of the not guilty verdict, is resuming its investigation. We sincerely hope the federal government will file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman -- because the case itself merits such a response and because, in the face of governmental silence, we will have to brace ourselves for other Trayvon Martins ending up with a bullet in the chest and the shooters walking free.
An America where a gun-toting civilian can kill a blameless teenager and get away with it is an America at odds with its own ideals. We, and our government, can do better than this.