Black leaders in the US expressed “outrage” Sunday over the acquittal ofGeorge Zimmerman on charges of murdering Trayvon Martin, demanding that authorities pursue a federal civil rights case against the teenager’s killer.
Benjamin Jealous, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) – the US’s largest black advocacy group – said the case in which Zimmerman, who is of mixed white-Hispanic parentage, followed then shot Martin dead met the benchmark for an inquiry by the Department of Justice.
Although the jury in Sanford, Florida, accepted Zimmerman’s argument that he acted in self-defence when he killed Martin on 26 February last year, he was caught on a recording of a call to police using the words “fucking punks” and “these assholes, they always get away.”
“When you look at his comments and when you look at comments made by young black men who lived in that neighbourhood about how they felt especially targeted by him, there is reason to be concerned that race was a factor in why he targeted young Trayvon,” Jealous said.
Jealous released a statement immediately after Saturday night’s decision, which followed more than 16 hours of deliberations by the six-strong jury.
“We are outraged and heartbroken over today’s verdict. We will pursue civil rights charges with the Department of Justice, we will continue to fight for the removal of stand-your-ground laws in every state, and we will not rest until racial profiling in all its forms is outlawed,” it said.
Jealous said Sunday that he had spoken to “senior members” of attorney general Eric Holder’s team and expressed hope they would continue the work of FBI investigators last summer who reviewed elements of the case.
“They will review all that comes out in that, and then they will make a choice about whether or not they will pursue criminal civil rights charges,” Jealous said in a CNN interview.
“The reality is in these types of cases where there are very serious questions, we know there will be a state phase, there will be a civil phase almost assuredly and then there will be a federal civil rights phase.”
Explaining his outrage, Jealous said: “We’re upset with a situation in this country where as black people, as black parents, it feels so off that our young people have to fear the bad guys and the good guys, the robbers and the cops and the self-appointed community watch volunteers who think they’re keeping folks safer,” he said.
The Department of Justice has not commented on demands to launch a civil rights inquiry, but the advocacy group Judicial Watch released documents and an audio recording of an agency staff member from last year that it says shows the department actively supported the Justice for Trayvon campaign.
President Barack Obama said Sunday that the death of Martin was a “tragedy” but added that the jury had now spoken and its decision should be met with calm reflection.
In a statement, the president said: “I know this case has elicited strong passions. And in the wake of the verdict, I know those passions may be running even higher.
“But we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken. I now ask every American to respect the call for calm reflection from two parents who lost their young son.”
As of Sunday afternoon, Zimmerman’s acquittal has not led to violent unrest, as some had initially feared.
Apart from a few incidents of window smashing and small street fires in Oakland, California, protests against the verdict were largely muted.
A number of peaceful rallies and church gatherings were held in Miami, Martin’s home town, and in Sanford, one of them attended by Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton. Martin’s parents were not in court on Saturday night to hear the jury’s verdict.
“Obviously they were devastated by the verdict itself but they are preparing to move forward,” said Daryl Parks, the family’s attorney.
“You can’t allow this jury’s decision to decide their move tomorrow. They’ll move forward to defend the legacy of their son; they won’t allow George Zimmerman’s bullet to silence Trayvon.
“There was always a possibility that this jury could do the unthinkable. Although we accept the verdict, we find it to be socially illogical and that’s why so many people have outrage. No decent thinking person would ever believe that an armed person should ever be allowed to shoot an unarmed child.”
Court officials said the six women members of the jury – five of them white and one Hispanic – wanted to protect their right of anonymity and had no immediate plans for media interviews.
The controversial case, which tapped into national debates about race, civil rights and the proliferation of guns, was decided on several key issues, not least whether Zimmerman acted in self-defence.
Zimmerman did not testify during the three-week trial but his lawyers said Martin was the aggressor during the fatal confrontation, breaking his nose with “a sucker punch” and smashing his head on a concrete pavement.
Prosecutors sought to portray Zimmerman as an angry vigilante who was “fed up” after a series of burglaries at the Retreat at Twin Lakes gated community and who wrongly assumed that Martin, who was wearing a hooded top, was a criminal who was “up to no good”.
Despite the not guilty verdict, Zimmerman will continue to be hounded by the case, members of his family have said.
“He’s going to be looking around his shoulder for the rest of his life,” the acquitted man’s brother Robert Zimmerman Jr told CNN.