By Jordy Yager and Daniel Strauss - 07/17/13 12:38 AM EDT
Attorney General Eric Holder said Tuesday the country must take a critical look at “stand your ground” laws in states like Florida, where George Zimmerman was recently acquitted on charges of murdering teenager Trayvon Martin.
Speaking to the nation’s largest civil rights group in Orlando, several miles from where a jury returned the Zimmerman verdict, Holder said the state laws jeopardize the public’s safety and “sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”
“We must examine laws that take this further by eliminating the common-sense and age-old requirement that people who feel threatened have a duty to retreat, outside their home, if they can do so safely. By allowing and perhaps encouraging violent situations to escalate in public, such laws undermine public safety.”
The “stand your ground” laws allow a person to use deadly force against an attacker even if they are able to retreat safely from a volatile situation.
The law was often discussed in the Zimmerman case, but he did not seek to use it during his trial. The law did, however, prevent police from arresting Zimmerman after the shooting. The 29-year-old Zimmerman was eventually charged with second-degree murder and manslaughter after killing the unarmed 17-year-old Martin.
Civil rights groups throughout the country have been waging, so far unsuccessfully, grassroots campaigns to try and get such “stand your ground” laws repealed.
Holder delivered Tuesday’s remarks as the NAACP stepped up pressure on the Justice Department to pursue federal hate crime charges against Zimmerman under the department’s civil rights division. As of Tuesday, more than 1 million people had signed a petition urging the DOJ to take up the case, according to the NAACP.
“We have a choice,” Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, wrote on Tuesday.
“We can be felled by our sorrows over the jury’s decision. Or we can turn our frustration into action. We will demand the Department of Justice address the travesties of this tragedy. We will advance our movement to end racial profiling in America.”
Since Zimmerman’s acquittal, the DOJ has restarted its own investigation of the case, which was initially launched last year but put on hold as state prosecutors took the lead.
Holder said that the DOJ may move forward on civil rights charges against Zimmerman, but only if the evidence suggests wrongdoing.
“As we move forward together, I want to assure you that the department will continue to act in a manner that is consistent with the facts and the law,” Holder said.
“We are committed to doing everything possible to ensure that — in every case, in every circumstance, and in every community — justice must be done.”
Holder’s speech Tuesday was also a broader attempt to spark a national conversation on race, taking the lead from his decree in 2009 that the nation is made up largely of “cowards” when it comes to addressing the sensitive subject.
As the nation’s top cop called on communities to hold a “respectful, responsible dialogue,” Holder described two instances in which he himself was racially profiled.
Holder also described sitting his 15-year-old son down in the wake of the Martin slaying and talking to him about how he should act if he feels he is ever profiled for being black by a cop.
“I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie at night in Georgetown in Washington, D.C.” Holder recalled. “I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.”
“We must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments,” he said.
Many supporters of Martin, who was African-American, believe Zimmerman racially profiled him.
White House press secretary Jay Carney on Tuesday said President Obama believes that much progress has been made in addressing racism and racial disparities, though there is more work to be done.
“There’s no question that we’ve made enormous progress,” Carney said. “There’s no question that we still have progress to make.”
In the House, Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.) called on the Judiciary Committee to hold a hearing on Martin’s shooting.
He said that the verdict “undermines the rule of law, erodes community trust in law enforcement, and exemplifies just how dangerous the combination of rampant fear and easily available guns can be.”
— Published at 4:57 p.m. and updated at 8:38 p.m.