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.
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.