Trayvon Martin slaying sparks racial profiling discussions on Capitol Hill

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 27, 2012 

WASHINGTON — As Trayvon Martin's parents, Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, entered a crowded congressional hearing room Tuesday, time stood nearly still.

A Justice Department witness speaking to a panel went silent, yielding to the clicks of dozens of photographers focused on the parents of the 17-year-old whose Feb. 26 death has sparked a national conversation about injustice and how people see young black men in America.

Trayvon Martin's parents spoke only briefly at the event, sponsored by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and billed as a briefing on racial profiling and hate crimes. But they thanked the panel for a forum, so that as Trayvon's father said, his son "did not die in vain."

"I'd like to say thank you," said his mother. "Thank you for the support. As I've said before and I'll say again, Trayvon is our son, but Trayvon is your son. A lot of people can relate to your situation, and it breaks their heart like it does ours. Thank you for everything."

"He's sadly missed, and we'll continue to fight for justice for him," his father said.

The forum was led by the House Judiciary Committee's top Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan. No Republicans participated. The forum didn't examine any particular legislation, but it did give nearly 20 members of Congress an opportunity to focus on the role of the federal government in addressing racial profiling and prosecuting hate crimes.

"Today is not to examine the specific facts of the case," Conyers said. "That will be left to the Department of Justice and the state investigation that is underway. Our job is to understand the legislative and legal concepts that exist to consider what can be done to prevent similar tragedies from happening again."

Trayvon Martin was shot to death while serving out a school suspension in the central Florida city of Sanford, where his father's girlfriend lives. A neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman, called police to say he saw someone in a hooded sweatshirt who looked high on drugs and was suspicious because he walked too slowly in the rain.

The unarmed teenager carried Skittles and iced tea and was talking to his girlfriend on the phone, records show.

Zimmerman's lawyer, Craig Sonner, told ABC News on Monday that Martin initiated the confrontation and broke Zimmerman's nose and injured the back of his head. Such injuries are consistent with those noted in the report from the police officer who handcuffed Zimmerman at the crime scene, according to The Washington Post.

Such news reports and a Miami Herald account of Trayvon's spotty school record — including a suspension in February for getting caught with an empty bag with traces of marijuana — prompted outrage from some who spoke at Tuesday's event. They criticized what they deemed an attempt to demonize a victim of a crime.

The focus should be on how Sanford police handled the investigation into the shooting, and on the man who shot Trayvon, said the family's lawyer, Ben Crump.

"Simply arrest George Zimmerman," Crump said. "He'll have his day in court. It's now more than 30 days and still no arrest."

In Tallahassee, two House Democrats, Minority Leader Perry Thurston and Rep. Geraldine Thompson, asked Speaker Dean Cannon to call a special session for review of "stand your ground" self-defense laws. Cannon's office said that "legislative action is premature" since there are so many unanswered questions about the 17-year-old's death.

Cannon will be "closely monitoring the situation and any new developments that may arise in the case," spokeswoman Katie Betta said. That includes making recommendations regarding appointments to Florida Gov. Rick Scott's Task Force on Citizen Safety and Protection, which will review the law after a special prosecutor's investigation.

The teen's death has inspired rallies and marches from coast to coast. Students, some dressed in all black, have walked out of classes throughout Miami-Dade County. Celebrities and NBA athletes have adopted the cause. And rallies have been held in major cities across the country to demand that Zimmerman be arrested and charged.

In Sanford, as many as 30,000 people showed up at a rally last week. More than 2 million people have signed an online petition, and more than 400 people have donated money to help the family pay expenses.

(Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times Tallahassee Bureau reporters Tia Mitchell, Mary Ellen Klas and Katie Sanders contributed.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2012

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