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Anticipation is what attendees at this year’s NAACP national convention felt as they filed in for the night’s keynote speaker. Anticipation for what the country’s top cop, Attorney General Eric Holder, would say in the wake of the George Zimmerman trial verdict. Signals were already hitting the air waves about a possible charge against Zimmerman for violating Trayvon Martin’s civil rights. If the crowd expected fire and brimstone, they came away disappointed. The speech by Mr. Holder was calm and measured, if you were a fan; tepid if you were not.
He began his speech recounting the relative calm and order most supporters of the Martin family have shown in their protest. Despite a few incidents in Oakland, CA and Los Angeles, the anger has been nonviolent. The protesters to the verdict are not just blacks. Many white American also find the verdict unjust. Holder took time in the beginning to expound on this fact, and how it belies the idea that only blacks are angered. He also thought it showed a measure, a key distinction here, a measure of change has occurred with regard to race relations in the United States.
“Whites and blacks are protesting the verdict and what happened to Trayvon Martin. We should use this event as an opportunity to better understand each other,” he said.
It is the type of comment that no one can disagree with, but shows there will not be—publicly at least—a strong worded affirmation that the justice department is preparing to go full throttle after Zimmerman. Instead, Holder moved away from the Martin situation to highlight his own profiling troubles. “I remember my father sitting down to talk to me about how react to police officers that may stop or question me for no reason. At the time, my father could not know that I would one day become the Attorney General of these United States, and do so under the first black President.”
Over the rousing applause he received from the crowd at these words, he continued. “But I also remember being pulled over on the NJ turnpike—when I was a federal prosecutor—even though I was not speeding,” he finished. This predictably brought somber head shakes as the audience, no doubt relived their own memories with police officers that they may have felt was unwarranted. On one hand, there is no doubt that cops have disproportionately in the past profiled black drivers, especially on the NJ turnpike. On the other hand, one has to ask, how being a federal prosecutor at the time he felt he was profiled is something the police officer stopping him would have known.
The story served its purpose however. As a backstop for the idea that “We have made progress, but the news of the last few days reminds us that we have more work to go. This is an opportunity to have a conversation about gun violence in our society. We must question laws that dangerously expand the concept of self-defense [Stand Your Ground}. They look to fix a problem that does not exist. We have always allowed people to use self-defense as a justification to use a gun if, IF you cannot retreat. But we should have laws that require someone to retreat if the opportunity presents itself,” said Holder.
This is an interesting thought, given that fear is a much more prevalent emotion in a situation where your life is in danger. It also is interesting given that one example used by many civil rights leaders is the recent case of Marissa Alexander. Alexander, a black female, was sentenced to 20 years in prison for shooting the ceiling above her estranged ex-husband. Alexander had a restraining order against her ex, and a history of domestic violence against her from him. So clearly it shows that blacks do not get equal treatment, since she claimed Stand Your Ground as a defense. However, in this case Alexander left the house—unmolested—and then brought her gun back into the house. It’s a key distinction that is different from the Zimmerman case. She did not do, what Holder suggested should be the standard in this country, and she was punished for it.
Holder punctuated his remarks with the speech line of the night. “We must stand our ground to ensure that our laws do not encourage violence.”
While Holder assured the crowd that the Justice Department is looking at the possibility of civil rights charges, the speech as a whole was a muted affirmation to that end. It is possible that as a head official in the Obama administration, on a subject filled with political implications, Holder is just being cautious, statesman like.
It is also possible, that the tepid speech is a signal that they know a civil rights case against Zimmerman would be hard. The threshold for conviction is higher than the second degree murder charge he just eluded. There is no doubt Holder would like to bring charges, but it is case that the justice department would not win.
Photo Courtesy of The US Department of Agriculture