Democratic lawmakers paid respects to a slain black Florida teenager as a senior member of the Congressional Black Caucus offered his “heartfelt condolences” to his parents for “the shock, the tragedy” of their loss.
In a packed Capitol Hill hearing room yesterday, Representative John Conyers acknowledged Trayvon Martin’s parents in the front row of a session called to bring attention to a U.S. Justice Department probe of the 17-year-old’s Feb. 26 shooting death in Sanford, Florida. Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, asked Martin’s parents to stand while attendees bowed their heads in a moment of silence to honor their son.
“He’s sadly missed, and we’ll continue to fight for justice for him,” Trayvon’s father, Tracy Martin, told the group of Judiciary Committee and Congressional Black Caucus Democrats who organized the informal hearing.
George Zimmerman, a Neighborhood Watch volunteer in Sanford, a city of about 54,000 about 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of Orlando, told police he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense after being punched in the nose and having his head slammed into the sidewalk, said City Manager Norton Bonaparte Jr.
Still, lawmakers yesterday called for Zimmerman’s arrest and for legislation to combat racial profiling.
Florida Democrat Frederica Wilson said her home state’s investigation into Martin’s death “is laced with racial profiling, lies and murder,” and that she was drafting legislation to establish a commission on the social status of black men and boys so that other black youths would not be “hunted down like a rabid dog” and “shot in the street.”
“Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son,” Martin’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, clad in a black dress, told the lawmakers. “A lot of people can relate to our situation and it breaks their heart, just like it breaks mine.”
“Of course my heart is broken, but it breaks even more to know that we do not have justice yet,” Fulton told reporters, tears in her eyes, after the hearing.
The unofficial hearing included calls to repeal Florida’s “stand your ground” law, which local officials said prevented them from arresting Zimmerman because it is designed to protect those who “reasonably” believe they are in danger. Zimmerman, 28, hasn’t spoken publicly and is in hiding because of death threats.
“We really need to have some kind of feeling that we are moving in the right direction,” said Representative Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat whose district includes Sanford. “It is very important that we have independent eyes on the situation.”
Testifying at Hearing
Rebecca Monroe, acting director of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service; NAACP President and Chief Executive Officer Ben Jealous; Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s racial justice project; and Daniel Gross, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, were among the witnesses.
“We all know this was a botched investigation,” Wilson told reporters following the hearing, adding, “I refuse to allow the press and the police in Sanford to castigate” Martin. The teenager was walking to the house of his father’s fiancee house after buying Skittles and an Arizona iced tea at a convenience store on the night of the shooting.
Zimmerman was driving to a grocery store when he saw Martin walking through the gated community, according to an account corroborated by Bonaparte. He started following the teenager on foot and called police to report a suspicious person, according to a recording authorities released. Zimmerman described Martin as black, acting strangely and perhaps on drugs.
Zimmerman told police he fell and that Martin got on top of him and began slamming his head into the sidewalk. A police report notes that Zimmerman was bleeding from the nose and back of the head. Zimmerman said he began yelling for help, “but no one would help me,” according to the incident report.
Martin’s family has said it was in fact the teenager shouting, his voice captured on a 911 recording. Their attorneys have an affidavit from his girlfriend saying that the time of the shooting, she was on the phone with Martin, who was worried that he was being followed. She said a man asked Martin what he was doing in the neighborhood before she heard a tussle and lost the connection.
The case has prompted rallies across the nation, including outside the Justice Department’s headquarters in Washington yesterday. About 150 people there held signs that read “Justice for Trayvon” and chanted “Justice Now” during a demonstration organized by the Mt. Ennon Baptist Church in Clinton, Maryland.
“We would like to see Attorney General Eric Holder move expeditiously towards trying George Zimmerman under federal hate-crimes legislation,” said Delman Coates, the church’s pastor.
In the Senate, Ben Cardin is intensifying his push for legislation to curb racial profiling.
The Maryland Democrat came to the Senate floor yesterday to press for legislation he introduced in October to bar state and local law enforcement officials from receiving federal grants unless they maintain policies to ensure race isn’t a factor in criminal investigations.
“Racial profiling is bad policy, but, given the state of our budgets, it also diverts scarce resources from law enforcement,” Cardin said.
Cardin said he will escalate his push for the bill, S. 1670, before April 18, when civil rights groups plan to come to Washington to lobby for legislation ending racial profiling.
While Cardin said it was unclear whether race was a factor in Martin’s death or the local police’s response to it, he said the fatal encounter “leads to a discussion of the broader issue of racial profiling.” A spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid didn’t respond to a request for comment about whether the Senate might consider Cardin’s legislation.
‘Hearts Go Out’
House Speaker John Boehner, an Ohio Republican, said it is “appropriate” that state and federal officials investigate the shooting. “Our hearts go out to his family over this tragedy,” Boehner told reporters yesterday.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer of Maryland told reporters it is “absolutely essential that we get to the bottom of this so that we can see that justice is done.”