In speaking to the NAACP last week in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayvon Martin, Attorney General Eric Holder performed a serious disservice to his audience and to his office. By suggesting that the Department of Justice might pursue civil rights charges against Zimmerman for Martin's death, Holder encouraged the belief that racism motivated the shooting.
Calling the shooting "tragic and unnecessary," Holder said, "Independent of the legal determination that will be made, I believe this tragedy provides yet another opportunity for our nation to speak honestly -- and openly -- about the complicated and emotionally charged issues that this case has raised."
But his remarks were anything but honest or open. Instead of focusing on the actual events that led up to the shooting, he chose to talk about his own brushes with prejudice and police bias.
"Years ago," he said, "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."
Though Holder didn't divulge the contents of his talk with his father or his subsequent talk with his own son on the issue, one can assume it didn't include a recommendation to confront the person suspected of being a racist, much less pound his head against the ground. But evidence at the trial suggests that's what happened on the night Zimmerman shot Martin.
Eyewitness testimony coupled with photographs of injuries to Zimmerman's head and face suggests that at the point of the shooting Martin had become the aggressor and Zimmerman the one under attack -- which one can speculate is why the jury voted to acquit Zimmerman.
If Holder had been honest with his audience, he would have admitted that both Zimmerman and Martin made bad decisions that ended in Martin's death. We never will know exactly what happened that night, but we do know some of what occurred and how events spiraled out of control.
In the wake of a flurry of break-ins in the gated community where he acted as a neighborhood watch volunteer, Zimmerman was overzealous in pursuing Martin. He should not have gotten out of his vehicle after he was instructed to remain in it, even to locate the nearest address to properly direct police, as he claimed. Had he stayed in place, Martin would be alive.
But Martin also exercised bad judgment, which culminated in his death. When he realized he was being followed, he could have proceeded home without stopping or, as the defense alleged, circling back. He also could have hung up with the girl he was talking to and called the police to report what was happening. Instead, he chose to confront Zimmerman and, from the cuts and bruises on Zimmerman's face, none too gently.
Once Martin was on top of Zimmerman and punching him in the head, Zimmerman had a right to defend himself. The state's stand-your-ground law wasn't a factor. No one has to take a beating before protecting himself.
"There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if -- and the 'if' is important -- no safe retreat is available," Holder told the NAACP -- but he nonetheless blamed such laws for "senselessly expand(ing) the concept of self-defense and sow(ing) dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods."
The same logic, however, applies to Martin's actions that night. Martin was the one who stood his ground in the face of a perceived racial insult. And Holder's words will make it more likely that other black teenagers may look for reasons to believe they are being singled out because of their skin color and perhaps act as tragically as Martin did.
In the end, Holder is unlikely to bring civil rights charges against Zimmerman. There is simply no evidence to suggest Zimmerman acted as a result of racial animus. Zimmerman's history of good -- exemplary -- racial interactions makes it clear he was no bigot looking to kill an innocent black kid for sport.
Holder should have used his time with the NAACP to talk down racial paranoia, not increase it. Instead, he chose to inflame passions for political advantage.
Linda Chavez is the author of "An Unlikely Conservative: The Transformation of an Ex-Liberal." To find out more about Linda Chavez, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
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