U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the Trayvon Martin shooting on Wednesday during a speech at the National Action Network's national convention in Washington, D.C. Speaking to a packed room at the city's convention center prior to a panel discussion on "The State of Criminal Justice in America Today," Holder first offered general reflections before diving headfirst into the subject undeniably looming over the event.
"I know that many of you are gravely, and rightly, concerned about the recent shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, a young man whose future has been lost to the ages," he said before cautioning against speaking in detail on the incident because of a pending Justice Department investigation. "The department will conduct a thorough and independent review of the evidence. Although I cannot share where current efforts will lead us from here, I can assure you in this investigation, and in all cases, we will examine the facts and the law. If we find evidence of a potential federal criminal civil rights crime, we will take appropriate action. And at every step, the facts and the law will guide us forward."
Holder went on to say that preventing youth violence and victimization are top priorities for his Justice Department. "As our nation's attorney general, but also as the father of three teenagers, I am determined to make the progress that our young people need and deserve," he said, detailing new steps that the agency has taken, such as working with the Department of Education to dismantle the school-to-prison pipeline and filing record numbers of criminal-police-misconduct and hate crime cases.
In the subsequent panel discussion, which featured attorneys and legal advocates, topics ranged from the war on drugs to collateral consequences of incarceration but frequently returned to Trayvon Martin. Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree called the slain teen a symbol of the many problems in the American justice system.
"If we're talking about reforming the criminal-justice system, we have to look at what happens to a kid who's young, who's black, who has no record, who's in a gated community, who dies at the hands of someone else who thought he was a drug dealer, who thought he was high, who thought he was weird," said Ogletree. "He was a 17-year-old black male like so many in our community. So we're going to have to save the Trayvons of the 21st century. He is a symbol of what's wrong."
Laura Murphy, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, searched for concrete solutions in the wake of yet another shooting of an unarmed black man. "I'm not satisfied with the rallies. I'm not satisfied with getting mad," she said, before inviting audience members to an upcoming Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Stop Racial Profiling Act.
The bill, which has languished in Congress since 2004, would ban racial profiling in law enforcement, mandate police training for racial profiling and require the U.S. attorney general to report on ongoing discriminatory practices. "Part of the history of the Trayvon Martin tragedy is that the Sanford Police Department has a history of mistreating African Americans, so there needs to be a study of whether there's a pattern or practice of racial discrimination."
Billy Martin, a partner at D.C.'s Martin & Gitner law firm, also cast doubt on the police handling of the Trayvon Martin case iand expressed incredulity about the lack of an arrest. "It is not the duty of a police officer to solve that crime," Martin said. "When we still have people interpreting those laws, that's where our problem is. Because when that police officer decided that — 'Oh, this kid was beating you up, wasn't he?' — that was his racial views coming out, and that should never happen."
E. Christi Cunningham, a professor of law on leave from Howard University School of Law, said that in advance of a final decision from special prosecutor Angela Corey, supporters of the Martin family must get ready for whatever happens.
"If justice does not come in the Trayvon Martin case, we need to prepare now to engage in nonviolent, constructive movement forward. I don't know what's going to happen, but we've seen what's happened in the past," said Cunningham. "We need to not let that anger become violent because that's a waste. We're moving on and out to a different place."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.