(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.
Zimmerman did not request immunity when facing criminal charges. In a civil suit, he could and very likely would do so to protect any assets he may have, including cash donated to him by supporters, Lave said.
"If that happened, and it is extremely likely that it would, given that he has just been acquitted, no one can bring a civil case against him, not even Trayvon Martin's parents," Lave said.
Federal criminal court — hate-crimes charges or allegations that Zimmerman violated Trayvon's civil rights — may be the family's only hope for any kind of redress, she said. But such a case won't be easy. Federal prosecutors will have to rely on some of the same evidence and what Lave called the "shoddy" early investigation conducted by Sanford police that hamstrung the state prosecutors. And unlike civil court, federal criminal prosecutions require the government to prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Zimmerman would also have a right to a federal jury trial and the option not to testify in court. The federal government can't bring charges simply because of public pressure, she said.
"It is going to be a difficult case for the feds," said Lave. "But that being said, prosecutors are supposed to be interested in justice. And even a loss in federal court would send a powerful message that this kind of conduct is not OK."
The automatic, almost reflexive and unexamined links that some Americans make between young black men, crime and danger are fed and reinforced almost every day in most movies, commercials, music and even on some news networks, said Rashad Robinson, executive director of Color of Change, a nonprofit social justice organization. Color of Change plans to mobilize people outraged by the Zimmerman verdict to push for federal charges and a sea change in media depictions of young black men, Robinson said.
"People may be inclined to dismiss this, but we need look no further than young, black men like Trayvon Martin and Oscar Grant and Jordan Davis to understand the power of media to shape these negative perceptions, and that those ideas can have grave consequences."
Since Trayvon's death last year, conditions at the shooting scene have changed, and some witnesses and people with valid information may have become harder to find or moved away. And the town's mostly conservative white residents are said to largely support Zimmerman. But civil rights investigations are frequently challenging.
A special Department of Justice division created to investigate unsolved or unresolved race-related cases involving crimes that occurred decades ago has extra resources for its work. This cold-case unit has identified 112 cases with 125 victims, according to the division's most recent report (pdf) to Congress. It has since closed 89 cases and prosecuted just three.
The numbers are discouraging, and under previous conservative administrations civil rights prosecutions of even current cases became rare, said Christina Swarns, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund's interim litigation director and director of the criminal justice project. But, this is 2013, a time when faith in the criminal justice system and its pursuit of justice should be affirmed, Swarns said. So, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has also joined the call for a federal investigation.
"If the states are unwilling or unable to provide justice, the federal government has to step in," Swarns said. "It just can't be that black children can be killed because of their race, there's no answer and we all go home."
Janell Ross is a reporter in New York working on a book about race, economic inequality and the recession, due out next year.