Trayvon Martin’s parents came to Washington Monday is search of justice for their slain son and found themselves immersed in Capitol Hill political theater that offered more consolation than hope that the U.S. Congress could do anything to help.
Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton appeared at an emotional standing-room-only briefing on racial profiling and hate crimes organized by Democrats on the House Judiciary Committee and listened as a panel of witnesses offered legislative remedies for a criminal justice system that has so far failed to find anyone responsible for the murder of their 17-year-old son last month.
Martin, 17, was shot the night of Feb. 26 by George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer who has told police in Sanford, Fla., that he acted in self-defense after being assaulted by the boy who was unarmed.
“Trayvon was our son,” said Sybrina Fulton in brief remarks as the meeting got underway, “but Trayvon is your son.” Tracy Martin thanked “everyone who has helped us stand tall in this matter,” and he called for the 150-plus people in the room to make sure that his son “did not die in vain. We will continue to fight for justice for him.”
While 21 Congress members, all Democrats, expressed their condolences to the family and denounced Martin’s death as a hate crime, Rep. John Conyers, the ranking minority member of the Judiciary Committee, said, “We’re not here as fact-finders. We’re here to determine what we can do.”
Dennis Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union called for passage of legislation banning racial profiling and called for enhancing the 2003 Justice Department guidance banning racial profiling by federal law enforcement officers. “The guidance does not create a private right of action in the event of profiling,” he said. “It should.”
Federal hate crime legislation should be strengthened, said David Stacey of the Human Rights Campaign. The 2009 Shepard-Byrd Act, named after Matthew Shepard, a gay teenager in Wyoming, and James Byrd Jr, an African-American man in Texas, has only resulted in eight prosecutions, involving 27 defendants. Stacey said nearly 6,000 hate crimes incidents were reported nationwide last year, half of them racially motivated.
Deborah Ramirez, a law professor, called for a study of so-called stand your ground laws on the books in Florida and 20 other states, which protect the use of deadly force in situations perceived as threatening. Sandford police have cited the law in defense of their decision not to charge Zimmerman. “We need to determine whether these laws deter aggressors from initiating acts of violence or more often encourage acts of violence by persons who would have walked away,” Ramirez said.
If the policy recommendations felt modest, the representatives compensated with pledges of love and support for the parents that drew murmurs of appreciation from the crowd, which included scores of high school students from Florida.
“I know your pain,” said Rep. Bobby Rush of Chicago. “My own son was gunned down at age 21 in 2000.” Rep. Andre Carson told of being arrested at age 17 in a case he regarded as racial profiling. “You have friends in the Congressional Black Caucus,” he said. “We have your back.”
Rep. Gregory Meeks of New York denounced the Sanford police department for leaking information that Trayvon had been suspended from school for possessing a plastic bag with traces of marijuana.
“They are trying to make the victim the cause of the crime,” he said. “First, Travvon was profiled and now you have been victimized again. It is a black eye on America.”
Tracy Martin nodded occasionally in agreement while his ex-wife, dressed in black, remained impassive throughout. When they spoke to reporters afterward, Sybrina Fulton paused before the bank of microphones and clicking cameras, unable to speak.
“I would just like to say that of course my heart is broken,” she finally said, blinking back tears, “but it breaks even more to know that this man has not been arrested for shooting and killing my son.”
And there’s nothing Congress can do about that. Capitol police escorted her and her ex-husband away from the reporters shouting questions.