Members of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) are readying a flurry of bills in response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal on charges in last year’s fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin.
The lawmakers are drafting proposals intended to rein in racial profiling; scrap state stand-your-ground laws; and promote better training for the nation’s neighborhood watch volunteers, among other anti-violence measures.
CBC members had remained largely silent throughout the trial, but following the verdict, argued forcefully that, decades after the civil rights movement, the nation’s criminal justice system still discriminates against blacks and other minorities.
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an icon of the civil rights era, said the decision “seems to justify the stalking and killing of innocent black boys and deny them any avenue of self-defense.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), head of the CBC, decried “the presumption of guilt so often associated with people of color.”
A six-member jury on Saturday found Zimmerman, whose father is white and mother is of Peruvian descent, not guilty of killing the African-American Martin last year in a gated community in Sanford, Fla.
Zimmerman was a neighborhood watch volunteer who began following Martin and ended up in a physical confrontation with the 17-year-old. During a trial that earned blockbuster ratings on cable television, the two sides fought over who was the aggressor. The jury found Zimmerman not guilty of second-degree murder and manslaughter after the defense argued he shot Martin while in fear for his life.
A jury member interviewed by CNN said the panel did not believe Zimmerman was motivated by race when he began following Martin, who was wearing a hoodie and was on his way to his father’s house.
But CBC members said they strongly believed that race was a motivating factor in the incident in arguing for the racial profiling law.
“George Zimmerman targeted Trayvon Martin as a potential criminal because Trayvon Martin is black,” Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told MSNBC Monday.
“Anyone who denies that racism isn’t alive today, particularly in the so-called justice system, is exceedingly delusional,” said Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), who wore a hoodie on the House floor last year in a demonstration.
“This verdict points to the reality that there are far too many walking America’s streets wearing a hoodie, carrying snacks and soft drink, which can result in a ‘death sentence’ particularly if they are young, black and male.”
Leading the legislative charge is Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the senior Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee and a CBC member, who for years has pushed legislation to curtail racial profiling in the nation’s law enforcement agencies.
Conyers’s proposal is still being crafted, but past iterations have barred any law enforcement agent from targeting people based solely on race, gender or religion. It would also mandate race-sensitive training as a condition of receiving federal funding and require the Justice Department to provide Congress with periodic reports detailing discriminatory profiling practices.
Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.), a CBC member who represents the district where Martin lived, said problems would persist until Congress acts.
“Until we pass meaningful laws against profiling, Americans will continue to be singled out and arrested for driving while black, shopping while black, walking while black and just plain being black,” said Wilson, who’s also working on the racial profiling bill. “My own children, and nearly all of the young men I know, have been stopped by the police at least once, for no apparent reason.”
While Zimmerman did not use Florida’s stand your ground law in his defense, it has received an enormous amount of attention — in part because it was a reason why police initially did not arrest Zimmerman in Martin’s death.
Stevie Wonder has said he will boycott the state of Florida because of its stand your ground law, which allows people to use violent force to avoid retreating from an unlawful threat.
Wilson said she’s also working on legislation offering financial incentives to states that repeal stand your ground laws; creating training programs for neighborhood watch volunteers; and establishing a “Federal Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys” designed to “increase graduation rates, improve student performance, and ultimately break the school-to-prison pipeline” that’s plagued that population.
In the face of the entrenched partisanship of today’s Congress, however, such proposals face a high bar, leading some CBC members to seek other solutions.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), for instance, had responded to Martin’s shooting last year with legislation requiring all neighborhood watch volunteers to register before taking to the streets. But this year, she’s withholding that proposal because, a spokesman said, “We just don’t see it being politically viable at this moment.”
Instead, Jackson Lee is calling on the DOJ to launch a unilateral investigation into racial profiling across the country.
An earlier version indicated that Rep. Frederica Wilson represents Sanford, Fla., where Martin was killed. Rep. Corrine Brown (D) represents Sanford.