Zimmerman verdict becomes rallying point for social justice action

“If anything good is to come, this is the time to build a movement,” said national NAACP spokesman Eric Wingerter this weekend as his organization gathered in Orlando, Fla., for its national convention. He was reacting to the “not guilty” verdict Saturday night in the George Zimmerman trial, delivered in the town of Sanford, just 30 miles from where 4,000 delegates from the nation’s oldest civil rights organization were convening.

“Legally, we have to accept a jury’s ruling late Saturday night to acquit former neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Florida teen Trayvon Martin,” the victim’s lawyer Daryl Parks said Sunday on “Face the Nation.” He suggested that Florida’s “horrible shoot-first law” and the instructions given to the jury made its decision come as no surprise.

But NAACP President Benjamin Jealous said, on the same show, that federal criminal charges could still await Zimmerman “for what he has done. There may be a civil action by the family, but there should definitely be criminal charges brought by the Justice Department.”

Jealous said that under the 2009 Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr., Hate Crimes Prevention Act, federal investigators “would have to show that race was a factor in his [Zimmerman’s] decision-making – and there seems to be plenty of evidence that suggests that race may have indeed been a factor.”

The Justice Department issued a statement Sunday saying its investigation into the matter was “ongoing.” A spokesman for the department said it will consider evidence gathered during the federal probe, as well as evidence and testimony from the state trial, to see if it “reveals prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction, and whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the Department’s policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.”

Zimmerman, invoking Florida’s right-wing-backed “stand your ground” law, claimed he shot Martin in “self-defense” during a physical fight with him in a Sanford gated community last year.

Prosecutors played a tape during the trial in which Zimmerman is heard talking to police on a phone after spotting Martin walking in the neighborhood. Martin had just finished a visit with his father and a stop in a store to purchase candy. The unarmed Martin was an A-plus student on his way to college on a scholarship and had donated hundreds of hours to community improvement projects. He was on his way home when he was murdered.

Zimmerman was heard on the tape describing Martin to police as a “f**king punk.” When police ordered him not to pursue Martin he continued to track, stalk, and eventually kill him. “These punks always get away,” he was heard saying when police ordered him to stop his pursuit.

Many have criticized the prosecution for not being vigorous enough in pushing the charges against Zimmerman. The tape mentioned above, for example, was never brought up by the prosecution during its summation.

The prosecution team, which was appointed by Florida’s tea party governor, Rick Scott, was headed by a conservative Republican, Angela Corey, who herself never argued before the court during the Zimmerman trial. Underlings did that work instead. Critics say Corey did not want to anger her right-wing constituents whose support she needs for re-election.

Michael Eric Dyson, a professor and civil rights activist at Georgetown University, said it was clear “the attack was racially motivated from the very beginning.”

“In this 21st century,” Dyson said, “in this so-called alleged sense of a post-racial era, where we know race continues to make a huge difference, Trayvon Martin cries from the grave for us to not only grieve, but to get into action and to motivate ourselves – not only African-American people, but all good-willed and good-intending American citizens – to make sure that his death is not in vain.”

Civil rights leaders have already met and announced that they intend to make the issue a major focus of the Aug. 24, 2013, March on Washington and that there will be major efforts to turn out a huge vote in the 2014 mid-term elections. The hope is to remove from office local right-wing lawmakers and other officials responsible for things like Florida’s “stand your ground” laws.

Photo: Families react after hearing the verdict of not guilty, outside the Seminole County Courthouse, July 13, Sanford, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)


John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik started as labor editor of the People's World in May, 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York. Along with being labor editor, Wojcik is a co-editor of peoplesworld.org.