On Sunday, the Department of Justice confirmed that they would review the George Zimmerman case, one day after the rogue neighborhood watchman was found not guilty of all charges in the death of Trayvon Martin. Tuesday afternoon, Attorney General Eric Holder spoke at the NAACP at their annual convention in Orlando about the controversial killing of Trayvon Martinn, how the murder affected his own life and upholding the Voting Rights Act.
From the outset, Holder aligned himself with President Barack Obama’s initial statement but assured the audience that the department was looking in to the case diligently:
Today, I’d like to join President Obama in urging all Americans to recognize that – as he said – we are a nation of laws, and the jury has spoken. I know the NAACP and its members are deeply, and rightly, concerned about this case – as passionate civil rights leaders, as engaged citizens, and – most of all – as parents.
This afternoon, I want to assure you of two things: I am concerned about this case and as we confirmed last spring, the Justice Department has an open investigation into it. While that inquiry is ongoing, I can promise that the Department of Justice will consider all available information before determining what action to take.
Breaking with the President in his level of formality, though, Holder got personal, pointing out that his own father had sat him down about being a Black man and dealing with the police:
Years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation – which is no doubt familiar to many of you – about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted. I’m sure my father felt certain – at the time – that my parents’ generation would be the last that had to worry about such things for their children.
Holder then spoke about how Trayvon’s death forced him to sit down with his own son:
The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago. And they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man – when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C. I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor.
Trayvon’s death last spring caused me to sit down to have a conversation with my own 15 year old son, like my dad did with me. This was a father-son tradition I hoped would not need to be handed down. But as a father who loves his son and who is more knowing in the ways of the world, I had to do this to protect my boy. I am his father and it is my responsibility, not to burden him with the baggage of eras long gone, but to make him aware of the world he must still confront. This is a sad reality in a nation that is changing for the better in so many ways.
As important as it was, I am determined to do everything in my power to ensure that the kind of talk I had with my son isn’t the only conversation that we engage in as a result of these tragic events.
He then insisted that we, as a nation, commit ourselves to constructive and meaningful conversations about justice and look to fix laws that abuse concepts of self-defense:
Today – starting here and now – it’s time to commit ourselves to a respectful, responsible dialogue about issues of justice and equality – so we can meet division and confusion with understanding, with compassion, and ultimately with truth.
It’s time to strengthen our collective resolve to combat gun violence but also time to combat violence involving or directed toward our children – so we can prevent future tragedies. And we must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs, and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.
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-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods. These laws try to fix something that was never broken. There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the “if” is important – no safe retreat is available.
But 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 list of resulting tragedies is long and – unfortunately – has victimized too many who are innocent. It is our collective obligation – we must stand our ground – to ensure that our laws reduce violence, and take a hard look at laws that contribute to more violence than they prevent.
Holder then spoke to the setback of part of the Voting Rights Act being struck down in June:
Unfortunately, last month, an important piece of this foundation was chipped away – when the Supreme Court invalidated a key part of the Voting Rights Act.
Over the years – and in the past 18 months – this provision, called pre-clearance, allowed the Department to take swift action against numerous jurisdictions that adopted rules or procedures with either a discriminatory purpose or effect. It served as a potent tool for addressing inequities in our elections systems. And it proved the effectiveness of a legal mechanism that puts on hold any new voting changes until they have been subjected to a fair, and thorough, review.
Let me be clear: this was a deeply disappointing and flawed decision. It dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights. And, like all of you, I strongly disagree with the Court’s action.
He concluded by saying that his department will continue to ensure that voting rights in this country are upheld:
the Justice Department will continue to monitor jurisdictions around the country for any changes that may hamper voting rights. We will not hesitate to take aggressive action – using every tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that attempts to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ free and fair exercise of the franchise.
We also will not wait for Congressional action to refine – and re-focus – our current enforcement efforts. In fact, I am announcing today that I have directed the Department’s Civil Rights Division to shift resources to the enforcement of Voting Rights Act provisions that were not affected by the Supreme Court’s ruling – including Section 2, which prohibits voting discrimination based on race, color, or language – in addition to other federal voting rights laws.