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NAACP Leads Push for Federal Civil Rights Charges Against Zimmerman After Race Kept Out of Trial

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As protests against the acquittal of George Zimmerman continue in Los Angeles, Oakland and other cities, the NAACP is calling on the U.S. Department of Justice to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman for killing 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. On Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder described the killing of Martin as “tragic” and “unnecessary,” but he did not indicate whether he intended to bring a federal case. “The reality is that it’s not clear that Trayvon Martin had any peers on that jury,” says NAACP President Benjamin Jealous. “And it does appear that there may have been a racial dynamic, and that some of the racial dynamics in the community — which is a very racially divided community historically — have come into play.” Jealous also criticized the judge for inhibited discussion about racial profiling. “We went through this kind of surreal trial where the judge blocked all discussion of racism of racial profiling,” Jealous says. Nearly one million people have signed an online NAACP petition asking for the DOJ to pursue a case.

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StoryJul 15, 2013“There is a Trayvon in Every Town”: Rev. Jesse Jackson and Florida Youth Activist Demand Justice
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AARON MATÉ: Protests are continuing across the country over the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year in Florida. In Los Angeles, at least 13 people were arrested overnight after a tense evening in the Crenshaw neighborhood. Police accused protesters of vandalizing cars, breaking windows and setting fires. Meanwhile in Oakland, hundreds of protesters blocked traffic Interstate 880 on Monday. At least six people were arrested.

AMY GOODMAN: Earlier Monday, Attorney General Eric Holder described the killing of Trayvon Martin as tragic and unnecessary, but he did not indicate whether he intended to bring a federal case.

We’re joined now by NAACP President Ben Jealous. He has been leading the push for the Justice Department to file civil rights charges against George Zimmerman. Ben Jealous joins us from Orlando, Florida, where the NAACP is holding its annual convention.

Welcome, Ben, to Democracy Now! What would it mean for the Justice Department to bring civil charges?

BEN JEALOUS: To being criminal charges. We are actually looking for them to being criminal charges under the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd hate crime law. And part of the standard for that, the kind of, if you will, the high bar aspect of it, is that you have to prove that race was a factor and that bodily injury was done. And we believe that both can be proved here.

You know, because we went through this kind of surreal trial where the judge blocked all discussion of racism, of racial profiling, we haven’t focused in a long time, for instance, on witness number nine, who was George Zimmerman’s own cousin, who called the police just a few days later and said that that witness believed that their cousin, George, had done this out of racial motivation, racial hatred, if you will. And we haven’t talked much about those young boys who lived in his neighborhood, who felt like they were targeted by him because of their color. And so, there’s actually a lot here.

And the DOJ has been looking into this. They suspended things. They put things on hold during the trial. They have assured us that they have renewed their look into this case, that it is ongoing. And, frankly, it is likely that it will continue to be ongoing as things continue to move through the courts here in Florida. They don’t always, but they often wait until things are done in the state courts, and there may a civil trial here, as well.

AARON MATÉ: Ben, what about Zimmerman’s phone calls in the years before the Trayvon incident? Do you think he showed a pattern of profiling?

BEN JEALOUS: Oh, yeah. Look, I mean, it’s pretty clear that he primarily called the cops about a young man of color that he was worried about. And when you put that together with the young men of color who lived in his own neighborhood who felt like he was stalking them and harassing them, you know, well, there you go. It seems that every time he was worried, there wasn’t something to be worried about.

And the reality is that if an officer said, “Hey, I followed that young, innocent black kid, and I confronted him, and I taunted him, and then I—and then, you know, I was in plain clothes so he didn’t know I was an officer, and we tussled, and then I shot and killed him,” we would say, you know—and if we said, “Why?” and he said, “Well, you know, because there had been a lot of break-ins in the neighborhood done by young black men, and he was a young black man,” that’s not good enough. We don’t accept racial profiling as grounds for our officers when they do something like this, and we shouldn’t accept it from citizens, either. And that’s why we pushed so hard to pass the Matthew Shepard-James Byrd hate crime law, because the reality is that when citizens target each other because of their race and someone gets killed, that person should be held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, what about Eric Holder, the attorney general of the United States, saying it takes a very high bar to bring these charges?

BEN JEALOUS: Look, it does take a high bar, but the reality is that that high bar can be met. I mean, whenever criminal charges are brought, it should take a high bar. And the reality is, here, again, we have a young man whose parents will never even hear him breathe again. We have a boy, really, who was 17, who did nothing wrong, who was targeted by somebody who, frankly, appeared to be fixated on young men of color, overly fearful of young men of color. And we know that this boy was telling his friend, “This guy is creeping me out, I’m trying to get away from him,” and the guy kept tracking, kept—you know, we know that he got out of the car and confronted him: “What are you doing around here?” And we know that he sought to engage him, even though a cop said, “Stay in your car.” And then he pulled out a gun that he had intentionally selected because it had no safety, and he shot and killed him through the heart.

AARON MATÉ: Ben, on Monday—

BEN JEALOUS: And the reality is, is that if that happens to one of our sons of any color in this country, we expect somebody to be held accountable. And it shouldn’t, you know—and that’s why we have federal law. And some people are saying, “Hey, you know, the courts have ruled. Let that be it.” Well, you know what? We encourage people to put their faith in the justice system, but that means that you have to go through the entire sentence. You can’t stop at the comma. And the full sentence includes federal options, and those federal options should be utilized in this case, too.

AARON MATÉ: Well, on Monday, CNN’s Anderson Cooper did the first interview with one of the six women jurors from the trial. She was seated in darkness and identified only as “Juror B37.” Anderson Cooper talked about Trayvon Martin’s friend, Rachel Jeantel, who appeared as a witness during the trial. She was on the phone with Martin just before he was shot dead. Cooper asked the juror specifically what she thought of Jeantel’s testimony.

JUROR B37: I didn’t think it was very credible, but I felt very sorry for her. She didn’t ask to be in this place. She didn’t ask—she wanted to go. She wanted to leave. She didn’t want to be any part of this—this jury. I think she felt inadequate toward everyone because of her education and her communication skill—skills. I just felt sadness for her.

ANDERSON COOPER: You felt like, what? She was in over her head?

JUROR B37: Well, not over her head. She just didn’t want to be there, and she was embarrassed by being there because of her education and her communication skills, that she just wasn’t a good witness.

ANDERSON COOPER: Did you find it hard at times to understand what she was saying?

JUROR B37: A lot of the times, because a lot of the times she was using phrases I had never heard before, and what they meant.

ANDERSON COOPER: So, that term “creepyass cracker” that Rachel Jeantel said Trayvon had used and that—you’re saying that’s simply how Trayvon and Rachel talked to each other.

JUROR B37: Sure. That’s the way they talk.

ANDERSON COOPER: And did you see that as a negative statement or a racial statement, as the defense suggested?

JUROR B37: I don’t think it’s really racial; I just think it’s just everyday life, the type of life that they live and how they’re living in the environment that they’re living in.

ANDERSON COOPER: So you didn’t find her credible as a witness?

JUROR B37: No.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Juror B37 speaking about Rachel Jeantel. Ben Jealous, your response?

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, look, what we’re hearing, what we’re finding out about this jury is cause for concern. It appears that the five white jurors made up their mind, and the one juror of color tried to resist and ultimately went with them. You know, the reality is that we’re all guaranteed a jury of our peers, and all the men were struck, and all the—you know, and certainly all the black men were struck, and perhaps all of the black jurors were struck. We haven’t heard from the one juror of color. Some people say she’s Latino. Some people say that she’s some other race. But the reality is that it’s not clear that Trayvon Martin had any peers on that jury. And it does appear that there may have been a racial dynamic and that some of the racial dynamics in the community, which is a very racially divided community historically, have come into play. So, you know, it’s—when I saw her on the show last night, frankly, it just raised more concern.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, it was quite astounding to see this, the first time a juror spoke, and there were six women, five of them white, one of them Latina. She said when they went into the jury room, they were equally divided—three for acquittal and three to charge, two manslaughter, one second-degree murder. That one second-degree murder had to now go down to acquittal, which ultimately happened, right? That was pretty astounding. Now, this is another clip of this Juror B37. CNN’s Anderson Cooper asks her if she feels sorry for Trayvon Martin.

ANDERSON COOPER: Do you feel sorry for Trayvon Martin?

JUROR B37: I feel sorry for both of them. I feel sorry for Trayvon and the situation he was in, and I feel sorry for George because of the situation he got himself in.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s pretty astounding, that her immediate response to “Did you feel sorry for Trayvon Martin?” Ben Jealous, was, “I felt sorry for both,” and then talking about George Zimmerman.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, look, the reality is, I think that the defense did a very good job of moving the goal post really into the middle of the struggle, not beginning it with, you know, George Zimmerman’s state of mind, why it was that he was doing what he was doing, but actually getting it into the place where he had already tracked and taunted and confronted a young man for no apparent reason other than his race and the fact that George was concerned about young men of color in his community. And they got it past all of that and then into this struggle where this young man was defending himself from this man with a gun. And it was all—seemed to be about that, about, you know, wrestling on the concrete. And the judge, quite frankly, I think, kept at least half of reality out of this trial by not letting folks talk about racial profiling. And the reality is that there’s reason to believe that that was—

AMY GOODMAN: Only allowing them to use the word “profiling.”

BEN JEALOUS: Right. And, quite frankly, those are two very different things. Criminal profiling is based on behavior. Racial profiling is based on color and on race. And the reality is that it appears that George Zimmerman had a pattern of confusing color with grounds for suspicion.

AMY GOODMAN: But would you say this was just a failure of the prosecution? I mean, you could say that there was a racist response of the jury, or you could say failure of prosecution. One of the things this juror said was she was most impressed by seeing the video of George Zimmerman, you know, replaying what happened as he walked through the scene. That wasn’t introduced by the defense; that was introduced by the prosecution.

BEN JEALOUS: You know, look, I think we can Monday morning quarterback this all day long. What’s most important is that George Zimmerman needs to be brought to justice, and the justice system needs to move forward. There are other options here on the table, and we have to continue to move forward as a movement and make this country safer for our children. We’ve already succeeded. I mean, whether it’s in Sanford, where they have a new chief, who was actually working to hold his department accountable to every community in that deeply divided city and pulling folks together in that process, or whether it’s New York City, where we’ve passed powerful anti-racial profiling legislation and we have an IG for the first time for the NYPD, you know, none of that would have happened without Trayvon Martin’s family standing up and millions of people standing up with them.

And in the last—you know, since this verdict came down, even though our servers were shut down for 12 hours, apparently because of the volume coming in, we have signed up almost one million people across this country calling on DOJ to finish their job, to look seriously into this case and to bring charges. And that’s where we’ve got to stay focused. We’ve got to stay focused on getting justice for Trayvon and making sure, most importantly, at this point, there are no more Trayvon Martins.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, CNN’s Anderson Cooper also asked the unidentified juror if she would want George Zimmerman as a neighborhood watch.

ANDERSON COOPER: Is George Zimmerman somebody you would like to have on a neighborhood watch in your community?

JUROR B37: If he didn’t go too far. I mean, you can always go too far. He just didn’t stop at the limitations that he should have stopped at. I would feel comfortable having George, but I think he’s learned a good lesson.

ANDERSON COOPER: So you would feel comfortable having him now, because you think he’s learned a lesson from all of this?

JUROR B37: Mm-hmm, exactly. I think he just didn’t know when to stop. He was frustrated, and things just got out of hand.

ANDERSON COOPER: People have now remarked subsequently that he gets his gun back, and there are some people who said the idea that he gets his—can have a gun worries them. Does that worry you?

JUROR B37: That doesn’t worry me. I think he’d be more responsible than anybody else on this planet right now.

AMY GOODMAN: That is Juror B37. And, Ben, I know you have to go in just a minute, but this key point, George Zimmerman gets his gun back—his brother, Robert Zimmerman, his lawyer, O’Mara, have both said, “And he needs it more than ever.”

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, look, we can’t afford to give George Zimmerman the right to go patrol any community. Our young people aren’t safe. And that’s just been proven, because a young person is dead. And, you know, I think our young people who were at the NAACP convention this week are, frankly, entitled to ask questions, like “How is it that Michael Vick got two-and-a-half years for killing a dog, and George Zimmerman walks free? How is it that a black woman up in Jacksonville shot warning shots over the head of her—of the man who had beaten her several times at home and she feared was about to kill her, and she got 20 years, and George Zimmerman walked free?” And that’s why it’s so important that the justice system continue to look into this case and, hopefully, finally, file charges that will stick, because, no, we do not need George Zimmerman in any community where anybody’s child of any color lives, when he’s already killed one.

AMY GOODMAN: And that was a case, that you’re describing, the woman who got 20 years in prison, that was prosecuted—


AMY GOODMAN: —by Angela Corey herself, the special prosecutor in this case—

BEN JEALOUS: That’s correct.

AMY GOODMAN: —where she shot into a wall. She didn’t kill anyone.


AMY GOODMAN: She got 20 years, African-American woman.

BEN JEALOUS: Yeah, it was—yeah, it was the ceiling, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Marissa Alexander.

BEN JEALOUS: That’s exactly right. That’s exactly right. And the reality is, is that Angela Corey can be a very effective prosecutor, and it is—and it is disappointing that in this instance—and, look, this is the way that the justice system works: You have a chance at justice; you don’t have a guarantee.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you say—

BEN JEALOUS: But it is—it is disappointing [inaudible].

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, what do you say to the protesters around the country? Tens of thousands have marched around the country. There have been a number of arrests, a handful of arrests, and the protests keep on happening. What is your message to—

BEN JEALOUS: And we say, look, please, keep on doing the right thing. Keep on getting out there, lifting up your voice, peacefully, you know, gathering, mourning, expressing outrage, but, most importantly, commitment with your friends, commitment to make this world safer for our kids. And even if you don’t have kids yet, or you don’t have kids in your house, safer for all kids, because the reality is that it is we, it is the people, we, the people, who make this country better. And our country has a long way to go. But by coming together, by signing petitions, by going to press—by going to protests and lifting our voices peacefully, in the tradition of Dr. King and so many others, we can make this country better yet for our kids.

AMY GOODMAN: Ben Jealous, we want to thank you very much for being with us, president of the NAACP at the annual meeting of the NAACP in Orlando, Florida, not that far from Sanford. Thanks so much, Ben Jealous. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Back in a minute.

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