The nation's oldest and largest civil rights group responded to the acquittal of George Zimmerman with shock, anguish and a call to action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is petitioning the United States Department of Justice to seek justice for slain teenager Trayvon Martin by filing civil rights charges against Zimmerman.
On Sunday afternoon, the Department of Justice announced that the case was under review. "Experienced federal prosecutors will determine whether the evidence reveals a prosecutable violation of any of the limited federal criminal civil rights statutes within our jurisdiction,'' read a department statement, which added that the review would determine ..."whether federal prosecution is appropriate in accordance with the department's policy governing successive federal prosecution following a state trial.''
The formal language describes a first step that, while it is encouraging for civil rights organizations, does not assure that a federal case will be initiated.
But the NAACP and other groups are arguing that there are clear grounds for an intervention by the department.
In a message posted on the groups' website and circulated nationally within hours of the announcement of the verdict, the group's president, Ben Jealous, declared "We are not done demanding justice for Trayvon Martin."
As part of the NAACP campaign to get the Justice Department to open a civil rights case against Zimmerman, Jealous urged Americans to sign a petition to Attorney General Eric Holder that reads:
"The Department of Justice has closely monitored the State of Florida's prosecution of the case against George Zimmerman in the Trayvon Martin murder since it began. Today, with the acquittal of George Zimmerman, it is time for the Department of Justice to act.
"The most fundamental of civil rights -- the right to life -- was violated the night George Zimmerman stalked and then took the life of Trayvon Martin. We ask that the Department of Justice file civil rights charges against Mr. Zimmerman for this egregious violation.
"Please address the travesties of the tragic death of Trayvon Martin by acting today."
Within three hours of the online posting of the petition late Saturday evening, more than 350,000 Americans had signed it. The response was so intense that the group's website crashed Sunday morning. But the #JusticeForTrayvon petition drive continued at the MoveOn.org petition site and a refreshed NAACP site.
Other civil rights groups echoed the demand for Justice Department action, with the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore telling reporters, "We will be calling on the federal government to file criminal charges on the basis of civil rights violations. This was done immediately after the Rodney King verdict, and should be done if justice is not rendered by the Florida courts."
Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law president Barbara Arnwine said that while the verdict "represents a tragic miscarriage of justice," she believes "there is still the potential for justice to be served through a civil suit brought about by Trayvon Martin's surviving family members, and also through civil rights charges being brought against Mr. Zimmerman by the Department of Justice."
In addition to pressing for action at the federal level, the NAACP and other groups were turning attention to state capitols in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal.
Jealous, who said civil rights supporters were "outraged and heartbroken" by the jury verdict, coupled his announcement of the petition with a call for the outlawing of racial profiling and a renewed commitment to "fight for the removal of Stand Your Ground laws in every state."
Florida passed its "stand your ground" law in 2005. Since then, at the behest of the National Rifle Association and the American Legislative Exchange Council, variations on the legislation -- which allows individuals who say they believe themselves to be in imminent danger to use deadly force -- have been enacted by state legislatures across the country. After the killing of Trayvon Martin on February 26, 2012, as media outlets in Florida and nationally have reported: "Police initially did not charge Zimmerman with a crime, citing Florida's 'Stand Your Ground' law."
Zimmerman, who faced charges only after a national outcry forced a review of the case, did not mount a specific "stand your ground" defense. But the issue remained a bone of contention before and during his trial; notably, the jury heard from a witness who recalled teaching about Florida's law in a college course that the defendant completed in 2010.
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