Holder Takes on 'Stand Your Ground' in the Wake of the Zimmerman Verdict

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For now, at least, the Department of Justice seems to be foregrounding a condemnation of so-called "Stand Your Ground" self-defense laws in the wake of the Zimmerman verdict as many wait for the department's decision on a pending investigation into filing federal charges in the case. Attorney General Eric Holder spoke to the NAACP on Tuesday in Orlando, where he instructed a supportive crowd to "stand our ground to ensure that our laws reduce violence."

But the state's gun laws are just one of many things on the minds of the NAACP and other critics of the Zimmerman acquittal. Earlier today, the NAACP's petition calling for the DOJ to bring federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman reached over 1 million signatures. Those charges, the NAACP chairman Ben Jealous explained in a statement, are warranted because "it is clear George Zimmerman’s bias played a major role in the events that led to the death of Trayvon Martin," adding that "the law says you must be able to show that race was a factor and that bodily harm was done. We believe there is enough evidence to satisfy this standard.” 

Holder's address to the group didn't illuminate anything on the status of the Department of Justice's investigation into the Zimmerman case, which could eventually result in federal charges. That investigation was tabled when Florida filed state charges against the man who fatally shot Trayvon Martin, but the DOJ announced that they'd resumed work on it upon his acquittal. But as the Atlantic Wire has explained before, it's unlikely that the DOJ will file federal charges against Zimmerman, in no small part due to the unusually high burden of proof required.

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Still, while throwing down some strong words against the "stand your ground" laws in some 30-odd U.S. states today, Holder also touched on the role of race in the national discussion surrounding the trial. Holder suggested to the NAACP, whom he noted were "are deeply are deeply -- and rightly -- concerned about this case," that the connections between race and the Martin case are personal for him, and for many:

Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly -- honestly -- and openly about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised.

Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation -- which is no doubt familiar to many of you -- about how, as a young black man, I should interact with the police, what to say and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way that I thought was unwarranted. Now I'm sure my father felt certain at that time that my parents' generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children...

...Today, starting here and starting now, it's time to commit ourselves to a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality so we can meet division and confusion with understanding, with compassion and ultimately with truth, however hard that is.

And as for the "Stand Your Ground" laws? Holder is careful to frame the issue as "separate" from the trial itself, but that's not how it'll read publicly, or to the NAACP audience he spoke to — "Stand Your Ground," while not used in Zimmerman's defense, was a factor in the jury's ultimate decision to find Zimmerman not guilty, and in the initial decision by police to let Zimmerman go free after Martin's death. Holder said: 

It's time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. (Cheers, applause.) These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if -- and the "if" is important -- if no safe retreat is available. 

But we must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.

The list of resulting tragedies is long and, unfortunately, has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation; we must stand OUR ground to ensure -- (cheers, applause, music) -- 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 full transcript is here)

While many see the Zimmerman case (and trial) as a story steeped in the tensions and history of race in the U.S., that narrative has been a harder sell on some portions of the American public. Take, for example, the jury who decided to clear him of all charges. According to one of the jurors from the trial, none of the six women who deliberated over Zimmerman's case thought that race played a role in Trayvon Martin's death, based on the evidence presented to them in court. To make things even harder for those, like Holder and the NAACP, who would hope that a meaningful national discussion about race might emerge from Trayvon Martin's death, there's a meme emerging in some internet corners asserting that it was Trayvon Martin, and Rachel Jeantel, who are the bigots.  

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.