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NAACP’s Ben Jealous: Justice for Trayvon Martin Begins with Killer’s Arrest, Police Chief’s Ouster

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The parents of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed African-American teenager shot dead a month ago, addressed thousands at a “million hoodie” march in New York City calling for the arrest of his killer. Meanwhile in the Florida town where the murder took place, the Sanford City Commission cast a 3-to-2 no-confidence vote in the police chief. Legislators are talking about changing the state’s gun laws as George Zimmerman, Trayvon Martin’s killer, remains free. We speak with NAACP President Ben Jealous, who is in Florida to help call for justice in Martin’s killing. In addition to calling for Zimmerman’s arrest and prosecution for murder, Jealous says the Sanford police should be investigated and their police chief fired. “[There] appears to be a pattern and practice of discrimination and bad treatment of people of color by this [police] department,” Jealous says. “This case has been so grossly mishandled that this chief has lost the faith of thousands upon thousands of parents and families and people in this town, who simply feel like they or their children are not safe as long as this department is [led] in such a misguided way.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Outrage is growing over the killing of the unarmed African-American teenager Trayvon Martin. Martin was walking in a gated community in the Florida town of Sanford when he was shot dead by George Zimmerman, a self-appointed neighborhood watchman. Zimmerman claims he was acting in self-defense, even though he was the one following Martin. Martin himself was unarmed, he weighed 80 pounds less than Zimmerman, and can apparently be heard on a 911 phone call pleading for help. He was wearing a hooded sweatshirt and holding candy and iced tea when Zimmerman called police to report him as suspicious.

After the incident, Sanford police did not arrest Zimmerman or press charges. Now, almost a million people have signed a petition calling for his prosecution. Last night, Sanford city commissioners voted three-to-two to pass a vote of no confidence in their police chief.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, the case is attracting growing attention around the country nearly one month after Trayvon’s death. His father and mother, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, joined what was described as a “million hoodie” march in New York City last night demanding the shooter’s arrest.

TRACY MARTIN: Our son did not deserve to die. There’s nothing that we can say that will bring him back. But I’m here today to assure that justice is served and that no other parents have to go through this again.

SABRINA FULTON: Our son was not committing any crime. Our son is your son. I want you guys to stand up for justice and stand up for what’s right. This is not about a black-and-white thing. This is about a right-and-wrong thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Florida lawmakers are also demanding answers in Trayvon Martin’s case. Orlando-area prosecutors are convening a grand jury to investigate the killing, after tremendous pressure. On Tuesday, the state attorney’s office for Brevard and Seminole Counties said a grand jury will begin hearing evidence next month, a day after the Justice Department announced a civil rights probe of the case, also responding to growing outcry.

Yesterday, Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida took to the House floor toting a sign that read, quote, “Trayvon Martin’s Murderer Still At Large. Days With No Arrest: 25.” Wilson vowed to keep fighting for Martin until his shooter was arrested.

REP. FREDERICA WILSON: Every day—every day—I will come to this floor and announce to America how long justice for Trayvon Martin has been delayed, by using this chart. Today marks the 25th day. Trayvon Martin was murdered 25 days ago, and still there has been no arrest. The evidence is overwhelming. Every single day, new evidence emerges, and still there is no arrest. Today, the FBI, the DOJ, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, FDLE, and the state attorney’s office are all involved in investigations surrounding his death. And still there has been no arrest. What does it take?

JUAN GONZALEZ: That was Democratic Representative Frederica Wilson of Florida.

On Tuesday, the NAACP hosted a town hall meeting in Sanford, Florida, where community members shared stories about being mistreated by the Sanford Police Department. During the meeting, Mayor Jeff Triplett of Sanford directly addressed protesters for the first time since Martin’s death.

MAYOR JEFF TRIPLETT: It’s just not going to happen that fast. I wish I could tell you it was going to happen today. [inaudible] I know I can’t give you the exact answer you want, but I’m here to tell you we’re working down that process. We’re taking the rights steps. And I truly feel in my heart that we’re going the right—going down the right path.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Mayor Jeff Triplett of Sanford at the town hall meeting with members of Trayvon Martin’s local community, and Ben Jealous was standing next to him, speaking to the crowd. Ben Jealous is the president of the NAACP.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Ben. He’s joining us from Orlando, Florida, not far from Sanford. Talk about what’s happening now. What is the NAACP demanding right now?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: We are demanding three things. One, that Trayvon Martin’s killer be brought to justice. He needs to be locked up, and he needs to be charged with murder. Two, we are demanding that the investigation go—start at the very bottom. What happened at that scene? Go all the way to the very top of this department, that it look both at this case, but also at several cases and, quite frankly, what appears to be a pattern and practice of discrimination and bad treatment of people of color by this department and their cases. And then, too, that this chief be fired, because the reality is, is that it’s been a month, and this case has been so grossly mishandled that this chief has lost the faith of thousands upon thousands of parents and families and people in this town, who simply feel like they or their children are not safe as long as this department is guided in such a misguided way.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Ben, about the issue of the history of the Sanford Police Department, because the current chief has only been in less than a year—he replaced a prior chief who ended up leaving because of another incident with racial overtones. Could you talk about that?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Sure. So, you know—and that’s why this investigation has to go through the entire department. While changing the chief is important, what’s really important, at the end of the day, is to change the culture of the department.

Talk about—you know, go back to 2005. You had two security guards—one of whom was a volunteer weekend reserve officer with this department, the other of whom had family members on the force—kill an unarmed black man. They ultimately went free. 2010, you have a young man, a son of a lieutenant on the force, caught on video jumping a homeless black man and beating him up. He ultimately walks free. Now you have Trayvon Martin, stalked, assaulted, shot dead in cold blood by a neighborhood watch captain—now, self-appointed or not, had called the police 46 times in 56 days. As somebody, you know, a person in town with sort of knowledge of the relationship between him and the department, put it to be bluntly, “Oh, the cops loved him.” And this man, again, with a connection to this department, walking free.

And the pattern here seems to be sort of threefold. One, there’s a—and we heard it in the hearings that we had yesterday following the town hall meeting the night before. One, there’s a real problem with racial profiling in this town. Two, it appears that when young black men are killed by cops, by security guards, by thugs, that the—it is just not treated with the same type of seriousness that we would expect for all people. And then, you know, finally, the people who have a connection to this department—be it formal, be it social—are given wide dispensation, even when they kill people.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, the—what happened after Trayvon was killed, when he’s laying on the ground, and the police come, and George Zimmerman is standing over him, as witnesses describe, the police didn’t drug or alcohol test George Zimmerman. They drug and alcohol tested the corpse of Trayvon. Can you explain actually what happened? Then his body taken to the morgue, where it sat unidentified for—it laid unidentified for two days, when the police had his cell phone, could easily have identified who he was. He was talking to his girlfriend as this was all taking place.

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, and this is what we’re talking about here, right? This is why this chief has to go, because the reality is that if you’re a chief, and your officers come—are called to a scene where a man has killed a boy, and no arrest is made, no evidence is gathered—no attempt to, you know, check the hands of the shooter for powder burns or anything else, powder residue, to gather the clothing of the killer for DNA evidence or anything else, or to otherwise gather evidence from that scene—and then no one attempts to contact this boy’s parents, to track them down, to pick up the cell phone and call the last number and say, “Who does this belong to?” and then no one arrests the shooter and begins an investigation, and weeks go by, and a sense of safety that was already tenuous in this community—you were called here to rebuild—erodes more and more and more, there’s a certain point when there’s nothing that you as that chief can do to fix it, and you’ve just got to go.

And again, just part of what’s needed here, because ultimately why we’re here is to ensure that Trayvon’s killer is brought to justice. They had probable cause. This overinterpretation, this misinterpretation of what is a very simple law, a law that says, in effect, if somebody stalks you, if somebody assaults you, if somebody pulls out a gun and tries to kill you, you have a right to use equal and opposite force—and they somehow interpret that as giving George Zimmerman the right to kill Trayvon, when really what the law says, that somebody in Trayvon’s situation has the right to kill the man who’s hunting them. It just shows the problem of bias here, because no one can even conceptualize a circumstance in which a young white child would have been treated this way, a young white child’s family would have had their trust so thoroughly mistreated by a department like this. You know, the—we aren’t here to say whether Mr. Zimmerman is a racist or not, but the reality is that race matters in how you’re treated by this department. And this chief needs to be held accountable. The department needs to be held accountable. And the killer of Trayvon needs to be held accountable, as Ms. Wilson said yesterday.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Ben, the significance of the vote by the Sanford City Council of no confidence, and the reaction of the mayor at the town hall meeting that you participated in, basically saying that—supporting the actions of the police in their investigation?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: This is a city that’s in crisis. And I commend the mayor for coming to the hearing yesterday, sitting there, taking notes, listening to parent after parent who’s lost children in his city talk about the mistreatment that they’ve experienced at the hands of the department here, whether it’s not taking the killing serious enough and finding the killer or whether it’s the role that the cops may have played. I also commend the mayor for standing up and welcoming DOJ to his town and saying, “We will ensure that this investigation is successful.” And I could be mistaken, but I’m pretty certain that the mayor was one of the three votes last night on that county commission. I was not in the room, but I can’t count to three on that commission without including his vote. So I think, you know, the mayor has shown a lot of courage trying to listen to both sides and get to the bottom here, and it’s pretty clear that he’s frustrated with the law enforcement situation here.

That vote, however, puts a lot of pressure on the city manager here. They have a city manager form of government. City manager is ultimately accountable to that county commission, which voted three-to-two last night, no confidence in the chief. The mayor sits as part of that commission. And now the city manager is going to have to make a decision. And the reality is that this chief has lost the faith of the city. This chief has lost the faith of the county commission. The city manager has been here six months. And I think he’d be wise to listen to the residents who are calling for justice, listen to the city commission that has hired him, listen to people like our branch president here, Mr. Turner Clayton, who has served on law enforcement here for 26 years, served as president of the NAACP for 24 years, about 12 years of overlap in those two roles, who says this guy has got to go. He just simply has got to go. I had an older white man walk up to me yesterday and just say to me flat out, you know, “This redneck justice has to stop.” And that was from a local resident speaking candidly. It was nice to hear that there’s consensus here that’s building across racial lines. It was also chilling to hear somebody who’s spent so much time in this town sort of sum it up so frankly.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben, you talked about the police chief having to go, but he hasn’t gone. Who has gone is George Zimmerman. Neighbors report seeing him loading his things up into a U-Haul truck and leaving the area. Not only is George Zimmerman gone at this point, but he continues to have his gun. They didn’t take that away from him, which goes to the “Stand Your Ground” law, what others call the “shoot first” law. Now, yesterday, Jeb Bush endorsed Mitt Romney, and it was Jeb Bush, when he was governor of Florida, who ultimately signed the bill into law, Stand Your Ground. There is discussion, though, in the Florida legislature, even among the Republicans who supported the legislation, Stand Your Ground law, to change it. Can you talk about how this law has been used, the 250 percent increase in gun killings since it went into effect years ago?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: It’s not clear that this law really has a role in this place—I mean, you know, in this case. I mean, again, when you read the law, the law suggests that Trayvon Martin had a right to defend himself. There’s nothing about this law that any reasonable mind could possibly construe as empowering George Zimmerman to hunt and kill a boy as he did.

With that said, this law seems to have had disturbing effects throughout the state. It has opened the door for sort of creatively rogue departments like the one in Sanford to grossly misinterpret it. It has also, according to folks involved in the law enforcement system here, lawyers on both sides of the law, if you will—defense attorneys, prosecutors—created a situation where you can have two drug dealers involved in a shootout, and neither one of them convicted, even though, you know, somebody, some bystander, may get shot in the process, because both of them can claim that they feared for their life, they feared that a felony was about to be committed against them, and so therefore they each stood their ground, and that’s how the shootout started. So it really seems to create an opening for sort of a Wild Wild West approach. And our country is beyond that. And we learned a long time ago, when this country was a lot more sparsely populated, that it led to recklessness and senseless deaths. And that seems to be the growing impression here.

But I also want to be very clear that that law is not the problem in this case. It is the gross misinterpretation of that law by the Sanford department, including its chief, that is the real problem in this case.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds. There’s going to be a national rally in Sanford tonight. Ben Jealous, are you going to be there? Is the NAACP calling it? And you’ve just returned from Geneva—that’s where we talked to you last—where you were talking about racism and voting rights in the United States. Do you see a connection here, as you fly home?

BENJAMIN JEALOUS: Yeah, I will fly home tomorrow. I’ll probably be back next week. Yes, I will be there tonight at 7:00. I believe it’s called Shiloh Baptist Church. Reverend Sharpton will be there, as well. There was some talk of even moving it to the civic center, because it looks like it’s going to be such a large rally.

You know, one thing, last time I was on the show, we were talking about Derrick Bell, and I was talking about Sean Hannity. Sean Hannity, this week, has actually joined our call for this chief to step down. So I would just like to point out that sometimes the NAACP and Sean Hannity are actually on the same side of a very controversial issue.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, we want to thank you for being with us, president and CEO of the NAACP. He’s speaking to us from Orlando, Florida, something like a half an hour from Sanford, where Trayvon Martin was gunned down a month ago. His killer, George Zimmerman, remains free with his gun. This is Democracy Now! We’ll be back in 30 seconds to talk about Obama’s trip today to Oklahoma. Stay with us.

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