“This is unbelievable for 2012. It is so tragic. I listened to that tape and just became so angry that I could hardly move and I was moving between anger and tears,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chair Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO). The CBC’s top agenda item at their Wednesday weekly meeting will be the killing of 17 year old Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.
Martin was killed on February 26 after an encounter with a self appointed “neighborhood watchman” named George Zimmerman who contacted police 46 times in 13 months. On February 26 saying that Martin looked “suspicious.”
In a statement Monday, the Congressional Black Caucus urged the Department of Justice to pursue the matter as a hate crime. On Monday night the Justice Department issued a statement saying they would investigate Martin’s killing. On Tuesday, a grand jury was called in Florida to investigate the case.
Tapes of 911 calls related to Martin’s murder as well as calls from neighbors who heard yelling at the scene were released last Friday after Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee met with Rep. Corrine Brown (D-FL). A renewed firestorm of attention followed.
“I have never in my life seen such a failure with a system,” Rep. Brown said Monday. “There was no drug testing. There was no lie detector test. They didn’t even secure the crime scene,” she added. Brown met with Sanford Police Chief Bill Lee last Friday.
“I spent two hours with him [Chief Lee] Friday and we got the family in there. I got them to release the tapes. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t sliced and make sure the tape was authentic and hadn’t been messed with. Chief Lee tried to imply to me that this man [Zimmerman] was innocent. I said he couldn’t be innocent because he was following the boy. How could he be innocent?” Congresswoman Brown said emphatically.
Rep. Brown was particularly focused on making sure the tapes being provided by Sanford Police were authentic. There have been media reports that Zimmerman used a racial epithet during his call to police. If true, the CBC urging the Justice Department to review Martin’s killing as a hate crime would have particular relevance.
“Everyone needs to feel that the system is fair. Nowhere in this country could a Black man shoot a White boy and not be arrested,” Brown said. That sentiment was echoed by several of Brown’s colleagues.
When asked if he’d be requesting that the Justice Department investigate the Sanford Police Department, Cleaver responded, “absolutely” adding, “the police department is almost an accessory to the crime. They did nothing,” Cleaver said.
Florida Reps. Brown, Frederica Wilson (D-FL) and Alcee Hastings (D-FL) met in Brown’s office Tuesday with the head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, Tony Perez and Deputy Assistant Attorney General Roy Austin, Jr. Sanford Mayor Jeff Triplett and Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte flew to Washington and attended the meeting, as well.
Rep. Hastings said Mayor Triplett handed the 911 tapes related to the Zimmerman shooting to Perez at the meeting.
At a press conference following the meeting, Brown said it was her understanding that officers at the scene of Martin’s death made the decision not to arrest Zimmerman. Sanford City Manager Norton Bonaparte indicated that the decision not to arrest Zimmerman never went higher than the officers on the scene. Sanford Mayor Triplett did not dispute that statement.
All the members who met with the Department of Justice officials were pleased to have met with them – but, they were also very cautious.
“Here is the thing to watch for: The bar for the Justice Department is way up here,” said Rep. Hastings, an attorney and former Federal Judge, as he held his hand high in the air.
“What I said to Tony [Perez] is to look for several things. First off: Was there a possibility of a cover up. Second, who are the people that constitute the grand jury — all of us know that the grand jury is the prosecutors playhouse,” Hastings added.
The Florida members also remarked that the section of Florida where Martin’s shooting happened has a reputation for being “racist.” Rep. Wilson said that Sanford has had a particularly racist past. Rep. Hastings supported that view. Wilson represents Miami where Trayvon Martin went to school. Wilson also stated that Martin has an uncle who is in the law enforcement community.
Hastings added that Trayvon Martin’s body was tested for drugs and alcohol. “Why wasn’t Mr. Shooter tested?” Hastings wondered. “So there are serious questions — it points out the silliness and craziness of gun laws and allowing all sorts of people to have concealed weapons,” argued Hastings. “This is not the wild wild west — we are supposed to be civil society.”
Why hasn’t Zimmerman been arrested. Chief Lee cited a law called “stand your ground” which allows a would-be crime victim who feels they are “in fear of great bodily injury” to use deadly force. However, in the case of Trayvon Martin, tapes of Zimmerman’s conversation with a 911 dispatcher indicate the shooter pursed a confrontation with Martin.
Zimmerman has admitted shooting Martin with a 9mm handgun. Martin was found to have a pack of Skittles candy, $22 dollars and a bottle of iced tea on his person as he walked back to his father’s home from a local 7-Eleven. News reports mention that Martin’s cell phone is missing.
According to the Sanford police, Zimmerman claimed he was the one yelling for help. Martin’s parents say it was their son’s voice calling for help on the tape. On the audio tapes released Friday the cries for help stop when a gunshot is heard.
“They hadn’t even analyzed whose voice was on the tape. Police Chief [Lee] was telling me it was his voice — the man,” Rep. Brown said referring to George Zimmerman. “The police told him to stand down. Why didn’t he? There was nothing going on,” she added.
Florida Congressman Allen West also commented on the situation on Monday. “It is a horrific thing that a 17-year old man to have been shot,” Rep. West, a 22 year Army veteran said.
“I’m not in the investigation but there’s no probable cause for that young man to have been shot. That’s why we have to be careful about these community watch volunteer groups. You have to make sure you have the right type of rules of engagement criteria …” West added.
“To me it’s murder. It’s racial profiling followed by murder. I can’t understand why Zimmerman has not been arrested,” Rep. Wilson said to Rev. Al Sharpton on his MSNBC show Politics Nation. Sharpton and radio host Michael Baisden are leading a rally on the Trayvon Martin incident on Thurday. Reps. Brown and Wilson will attend.
Rep. Cleaver, who is a United Methodist Minister and has three sons, was asked about the impact the Trayvon Martin case has had on him personally.
“My wife and I talked about this last night on the phone and I said — we need to tell our kids to avoid going to Florida. Because with this ‘stand your ground’ law — it’s almost an invitation to kill somebody… this is scary,” Cleaver said.
LAUREN VICTORIA BURKE, Politic365 Chief Congressional Correspondent, publishes the blog Crewof42 on the Congressional Black Caucus. She is heard every Tuesday on WMCS 1290 in Milwaukee on Earl Ingram’s show The Evening Rush as well as on WHUR and WPFW in Washington DC. You can follow her on twitter at @crewof42