US civil rights leaders plan rallies in 100 cities after Zimmerman verdict
Vigils will be followed by conference on Florida’s ‘stand-your-ground’ law
Civil rights leaders stepped up plans for vigils and rallies in 100 US cities to press the government to bring charges against the former-neighbourhood watch volunteer cleared of killing an unarmed black teenager.
George Zimmerman was charged with second-degree murder over the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year, but a jury of six women found him not guilty of that charge as well as the lesser charge of manslaughter.
“People all across the country will gather to show that we are not having a two or three-day anger fit. This is a social movement for justice,” the Rev Al Sharpton said as he announced the weekend vigils outside the justice department in Washington DC.
They will take place in front of federal court buildings at noon on Saturday in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.
Trayvon was visiting his father in Sanford, Florida, and returning to the home of his father’s fiancee after a trip to the store when Mr Zimmerman identified him as a potential criminal.
The neighbourhood watchman shot him during a physical confrontation in the gated community in February 2012.
Rev Sharpton says vigils will be followed by a conference next week in Miami to develop a plan to address Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law which allows people to use deadly force if they fear death or bodily harm.
US attorney general Eric Holder said such laws, which exist in many states, needed to be reassessed. “Separate and apart from the case that has drawn the nation’s attention, it’s time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defence and sow dangerous conflict in our neighbourhoods,” Mr Holder said during a speech before a convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) civil rights group.
Meanwhile, protests over Mr Zimmerman’s acquittal were held as far away as California. In Los Angeles, people ran through the streets on Monday night, breaking windows, attacking people on pavements and raiding a Wal-Mart store, while others blocked a major freeway in the San Francisco Bay area in the third night of demonstrations. Fourteen people were arrested after acts of vandalism and several assaults.
Los Angeles police vowed yesterday to crack down with quick action and arrests if further disturbances arose. “For those of you who were here last night and came for the wrong reasons, if you come here again tonight, you will go to jail,” police Chief Charlie Beck said at a news conference.
The justice department is looking into Trayvon’s death to determine whether federal prosecutors will file criminal civil rights charges against Mr Zimmerman, who is now a free man.
His lawyer has told ABC News that Mr Zimmerman will get his gun back and intends to arm himself again. The key to charging Mr Zimmerman lies in whether evidence exists that he was motivated by racial animosity to kill Trayvon.
While Trayvon’s family has said the teenager was racially profiled, no evidence surfaced during the state trial that Mr Zimmerman had a racial bias. Mr Zimmerman’s friends and family have repeatedly denied he harboured racial animosity toward blacks.
Florida did not use its own hate crime laws against Mr Zimmerman. The lone juror in the case who has spoken publicly — known only as Juror B37 because their identities have not been released — said she did not believe Mr Zimmerman followed Trayvon because the teen was black.
But supporters of the Justice Department filing civil rights charges say additional evidence could exist in the federal investigation that did not come up in the state prosecution of Mr Zimmerman.
Beyond the exact language of the law itself, the federal investigation must navigate between sensitive racial and political issues that arose when Mr Zimmerman initially was not charged with Trayvon’s killing.
“Many people simply cannot process how an unarmed teenager is killed, and yet no-one is held criminally accountable for his death,” said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
He said a federal jury would have to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Mr Zimmerman had a racial motive when he began following Trayvon and that he did not act in self-defence when he fired his gun. Mr Zimmerman could get life in prison if charged and convicted under federal hate crime laws.