(The Root) — At 4 a.m. Sunday, when some of the nation’s major news organizations and conservative blogs remained on vigilant lookout for riots in the wake of the George Zimmerman verdict, a group of almost 200 people gathered in public spaces and private homes all over the country.
Civil rights and social-justice activists down South, strategists on the East Coast and grassroots organizers out West came together for a hastily organized conference call. A single idea was already taking shape. If Million Hoody marches in New York; Sanford, Fla.; Miami and dozens of other communities had helped to push the state of Florida to arrest, charge and try George Zimmerman, couldn’t those same forces be peacefully mobilized again to demand that the federal government bring criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman?
The federal government — the only entity above the possible blanket civil and criminal immunity that Zimmerman may be able to secure in state court — could investigate and file federal civil rights charges against Zimmerman. Before sunrise, more than 200,000 people had actually co-signed on the idea, attaching their names to an NAACP online petition. So many people visited the NAACP’s website that some time early Sunday morning, the organization’s server temporarily crashed.
“It’s important for people to understand at this time, that this is not over,” said Benjamin Todd Jealous, the NAACP’s president and chief executive officer. “The justice system still has more plays to make.”
Justice Department officials released a statement Sunday afternoon confirming that federal staff will continue a probe into Zimmerman’s actions and the ideas that may have motivated him the night he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. And Jealous, a lawyer and longtime Washington operative, said Sunday he spoke directly with a senior official inside the Justice Department just after the verdict.
“The short of it?” Jealous said about the conversation with an official he would not identify. “They said they are looking into it, seriously, and that it may take a long time.” Jealous described any effort to guess at the likelihood of federal charges as inappropriate and premature.
Early criticism — coming primarily from the right — of the call for federal intervention amounts to nothing more than “cynical” attempts to discount the magnitude of the injustice doled out in a Florida state courtroom this weekend, Jealous said.
“I think most people of good sense, people of all races, know that in this country a hoody and dark skin are not reasonable grounds for suspicion,” he said.
Zimmerman — a one-time mortgage-industry worker and neighborhood-watch volunteer who first described Trayvon as a black guy “up to no good” when he spotted the 17-year-old strolling through the gated community where Zimmerman lived — walked out of Florida state court a free man Saturday. Florida tried and failed to convict him on second-degree-murder or manslaughter charges and cannot attempt to do so again, said Tamara Lave, a professor at the University of Miami’s law school and a former public defender.
And even as calls for Trayvon’s family to file a civil wrongful death suit against Zimmerman mount, that, too, seems like an unlikely option for any sort of redress, Lave said. The state’s now notorious “Stand your ground” law allows individuals to request a hearing in state court, and if they can prove that their actions were lawful and covered by the “no duty to retreat from danger” clause in “Stand your ground,” then a court can grant the individual blanket immunity from civil and criminal charges.