U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder’s criticism of state self-defense laws is fueling calls for their repeal by NAACP members angered over last week’s acquittal of a Florida man who fatally shot a black teenager.
“Stand Your Ground laws need to be repealed now,” said Curley Clark, an accountant who has led the Pascagoula, Miss., NAACP chapter for 30 years. “I’m confident the NAACP will try to get state legislatures to a fresh look at these laws and overturn them.”
Clark and other attendees at the group’s annual convention in Orlando, Florida, yesterday said they were stunned that George Zimmerman was acquitted in the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Clark recalled the civil-rights battles of the 1960s and said he would like to see a return of the national crusade that reshaped race relations in the U.S.
Holder yesterday spoke to those concerns, drawing cheers and standing ovations when he said that it’s time to “take a hard look” at stand-your-ground laws, which allow individuals who feel threatened to respond with deadly force. He also reiterated his pledge that the Justice Department would continue investigating the circumstances that led to Martin’s death in February 2012.
A six-woman jury in the Orlando suburb of Sanford on July 13 found Zimmerman not guilty of murder or the lesser possible charge of manslaughter for shooting Martin through the heart during a struggle at a townhouse complex.
Prosecutors alleged that Zimmerman, 29, profiled Martin as a criminal suspect, followed and confronted him, leading to a fight in which the youth was killed.
Defense lawyers argued that Zimmerman acted in self-defense, fearing for his life after Martin punched him in the face, knocked him to the ground and then pounded his head against the pavement.
Law enforcement officials in Sanford last year failed to charge Zimmerman in Martin’s death, saying that the state’s stand-your-ground law gave him immunity. The 2005 law says that deadly force can be used in self defense when a person has reason to fear for his life.
Holder challenged the stand-your-ground law, citing what he said was a long-standing legal doctrine that people have a duty to try to retreat from threats of violence in public places.
“By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety,” Holder said. “The list of resulting tragedies is long and -- unfortunately -- has victimized too many who are innocent.”
Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, echoed that sentiment, saying that the measures can encourage violence.
“Stand Your Ground laws license vigilantism,” Jealous said after Holder’s speech. The states, he said, must begin repealing such laws.
Holder and the NAACP are in opposition to laws backed by the National Rifle Association and other gun advocacy organizations. The Fairfax, Virginia-based NRA is the nation’s largest gun-rights lobbying group.
The NAACP has sought to tap national outrage over Zimmerman’s acquittal. In the three days since the verdict was read, the group and the Moveon.org organization said they have collected 1 million signatures on petitions calling on the Justice Department to bring civil-rights charges against Zimmerman.
Rosemary Harris Lytle, president of the NAACP’s state conference in Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, said the federal government needs to play an active role in the Martin case and others.
“If the state courts can’t protect the lives of people in this country, the federal government needs to get involved,” Lytle said. “This is about justice.”
Others at the convention echoed Lytle’s concern.
“We are mourning a dead kid who will never go to college, make his parents proud and have children of his own,” said Kemba Cofield of Atlanta. “What happened in Trayvon’s trial just floored me. I had no idea that anyone thought that man Zimmerman should go free.”
Clark said the Zimmerman verdict could be a catalyst to inspire wider youth involvementy in the civil-rights struggle.
“Everywhere you go, people are talking about this,” he said. “We are hoping the Department of Justice will take up the cause. A lot of the rights the NAACP fought for and won years ago are now being lost.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Christopher Boyd in Orlando at
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Steven Komarow at firstname.lastname@example.org