Emotions still are running very high regarding George Zimmerman’s acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin. While frequently the federal government has stepped in when a state court has freed suspects in cases that seemed to be hate-crime-based, much more often, it has decided not to do so, and all of the emotions and sense of injustice connected to the situation have not done any good.
Thus, our collective hopes of federal intervention should be tempered and diligent. The Martin case may not be as legally equivalent to the Rodney King affair as many of us might think, and all that may be done in the case may have already occurred.
Several weeks have already passed since the Zimmerman verdict, and there has not been a definitive position yet taken by the Justice Department on whether it will file criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. That’s neither a positive nor a negative, since the Justice Department regularly takes from six months to two years before making and announcing such decisions.
But it is very clear that the Trayvon Martin case will be brought into the conversation next week during the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington and Dr. King’s now-world famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. Certainly, American society has not yet reached the stage of evaluating its Black citizens mainly by the “content of their character, and not the color of their skin,” as urged by Dr. King, particularly Black youth, and there will be much preachifying and testifying about that situation.
But will the Department of Justice take advantage of the surroundings and announce a decision during the celebrations? Maybe, but most likely, maybe not.
In the relatively recent past, there have been other cases to consider, including two just as puzzling as the Martin case, at least one of which occurred on Eric Holder’s watch.
In 1991, pre-Holder, Soon Ja Du, a Korean-American grocer, was charged in state court with second degree murder/manslaughter for shooting Black teenager Latasha Harlins. Du claimed self-defense and said Harlins was violent and had threatened her because Du had accused Harlins of trying to steal a bottle of orange juice. Du was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, but only received probation and community service as punishment. The community rose up in protest, and the Justice Department looked into it, but demurred in bringing any federal charges against Du.
In 2006, also pre-Holder, Sean Bell, a 23-year-old African American living in New York, and two friends, were driving away from Bell’s bachelor party in Queens, and were cut down by a fusillade of police fire—at least 50 bullets, according to evidence given. Bell and his friends were not armed, nor had they had an altercation with the police. According to the three officers charged in the case, it was thought that Bell and his party were about to commit a drive-by shooting, so the officers acted preemptively.
The three officers charged included one Hispanic, one Black American and one White policeman. The presiding judge dismissed the case, and the federal government, which did look into it, could not find a winnable civil rights violation case to lodge against the three. Three Black men dead, and no one held accountable.
In 2009, during Holder’s first year as attorney general, Oscar Grant, an unarmed 22-year-old African American, was shot in the back by a White transit cop as he lay face down on a subway station platform. For several days following the shooting, the policeman was neither arrested nor charged. Public outrage eventually forced official action, and the officer was brought to trial and convicted of involuntary manslaughter (he said he pulled his service revolver out, instead of the taser he intended to grab, and accidentally shot Grant). He was sentenced to two years imprisonment, but ended up serving only one year. The Justice Department promised an investigation into the case for possible civil rights violations, but has yet to announce a decision on whether to proceed with a federal charge or not.
The Justice Department under Eric Holder is a much more sensitive office regarding discrimination against Black and minority citizens. However, we should still not hold our breath nor expect too much in the Trayvon Martin case. There just may not be a strong enough legal leg to stand on for a federal prosecution.
We just may have to suck it up again, and keep on moving. As we have in the past . . . as we have in the past.
Professor David L. Horne is founder and executive director of PAPPEI, the Pan African Public Policy and Ethical Institute, which is a new 501(c)(3) pending community-based organization or non-governmental organization (NGO). It is the stepparent organization for the California Black Think Tank which still operates and which meets every fourth Friday.
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