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Delivering Justice for Trayvon Martin and Fighting Vigilantism

Delivering Justice for Trayvon Martin and Fighting Vigilantism

Sam Fulwood III says African Americans believe it will be the federal government to the rescue if history is any guide.

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People attend a rally demanding justice for Trayvon Martin in Freedom Plaza, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)
People attend a rally demanding justice for Trayvon Martin in Freedom Plaza, Saturday, March 24, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (AP/Haraz N. Ghanbari)

Who will deliver justice for Trayvon Martin?

It’s been a month now and yet the curious circumstances surrounding the 17-year-old black boy’s death in a central Florida suburb continues to raise the ire of Americans of all races and ethnicities who believe a form of racial injustice is at play. But it’s unlikely that local or state officials, who haven’t done much in the month since Trayvon was killed, will arrest George Zimmerman or press charges against him despite his admission that he shot Trayvon.

How could it be possible that a young black boy is shot dead and the Hispanic man who admits to killing him is walking free? Worse, what kind of justice exists when the local police department declines to investigate the disobedient, 9mm pistol-packing, self-appointed vigilante, but performs drug and background checks on the victim, who died holding only a bottle of Arizona iced tea and a bag of Skittles?

Where is the justice when state officials drag their collective feet to press for a full and timely investigation? The state attorney in Seminole County, Florida, announced last week that a grand jury plans to review the evidence in the case next month, on April 10, which is nearly a month and a half after the shooting. Meanwhile, leaks that could only come from the local police force are setting up Zimmerman’s allegation that he acted in self-defense—in effect justifying their inaction under the state’s noxious “Stand Your Ground” law.

No wonder protesters in the Trayvon Martin case are calling for the repeal of Stand Your Ground, which is shielding Zimmerman from local prosecution. The Sunshine State was the nation’s first to pass the law, which allows an armed citizen to shoot first if he or she believes someone poses a mortal threat. But Florida is now one of 23 states with this National Rifle Association-inspired vigilante law on the books.

In Sanford thousands of protesters waited for hours Monday for one of 500 seats at a city commission meeting, which was moved from its regular quarters to the Sanford Civic Center to accommodate the massing crowd. Rev. Al Sharpton presented the city leaders with a petition signed by 2 million people, whom he said were demanding that justice be served. “Do the right thing,” Sharpton demanded. “Arrest Zimmerman now.”

There should be no surprise that justice-loving Americans of all hues and beliefs are rallying in support of Trayvon and his family. Similarly, most of them are scratching their heads in amazement at the intransience of Sanford and Florida officials. Some are protesting in the streets of New York, Washington, Atlanta, Iowa City, Houston, Detroit, Philadelphia, and many other places.

Sharpton, the NAACP, and legions of ordinary Americans have embraced the "I am Trayvon" mantra. They’re posting Facebook photos of themselves in hoodies, like the one Trayvon wore at the time of his death. Some call him the Emmett Till of his generation, a reference to the 1955 Mississippi murder of a black 14-year-old boy, which brought the brutality of Jim Crow to the nation and helped spark the civil rights movement.

There’s a reason—and logic—for supporting the contemporary mass actions. With ample justification, the protesters doubt local and state officials would ever seek justice if left to their own instincts. The reactions of many black Americans in particular reveals the distrust they have for local and state officials to deliver justice for all in their communities.

Dorian T. Warren, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute and an assistant professor of political science and public affairs at Columbia University, offers a sharp-eyed analysis supporting this approach in a recent issue of The Nation. He argues that black Americans are more likely than white and Latino Americans to trust the federal government to protect their interests. By contrast, whites and Latinos put more faith in state and local governments to defend their interests.

Why do black Americans trust Washington more than those officials who live closer to home? “The answer lies partly in the fact that despite a long history of exclusion and neglect, the federal government has provided the most mechanisms for protecting blacks from hostile state and local governments during the high moments of progressive reform—from Reconstruction to the New Deal and Civil Rights movement, to the Great Society,” Warren writes.

To be clear, Warren in his essay doesn’t mention Trayvon, Zimmerman, or the recent news from Florida. But his argument applies just the same. “The level of trust in the federal government is in sharp contrast to trust in state and local governments,” he writes. “This might be explained partly by aggressive police surveillance of black communities—a local government function with direct consequences like the controversial NYPD ‘stop and frisk’ policy—or by the history of local and state governments’ denial of and resistance to blacks’ civil and human rights.”

So by protesting, African Americans perhaps more than most Americans hope to keep the issue alive and in front of a media-watching nation. But their ultimate goal is to persuade federal officials to act where state and local leaders haven’t. Perhaps the marching and public protesting will pay off. Responding to public outrage and a request from lawyers representing Trayvon’s family, the U.S. Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has opened an investigation into the shooting.

As my Center for American Progress colleague Julie Ajinkya points out, those civil rights lawyers from Washington have the opportunity and a duty to push not just for justice for Trayvon Martin but also for recalcitrant Florida lawmakers to reconsider their shoot-first law that allows trigger-happy gunmen to make deadly decisions based on the color of a passerby’s skin.

If federal attorneys challenge the Stand Your Ground law upon which Zimmerman is expected to plead his case, then they will protect all Americans from future wannabe vigilantes. And in the process, they will deliver justice for Trayvon.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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Sam Fulwood III

Senior Fellow

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President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, January 12, 2016. (AP/Evan Vucci)