MIAMI — Civil rights leaders said Tuesday they are planning vigils and rallies in 100 U.S. cities this weekend to press the federal government to bring charges against a former-neighbourhood watch volunteer acquitted in the killing of black teenager.
George Zimmerman had been charged with second-degree murder in the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin last year, but a jury of six women found him not guilty of that charge as well as the lesser charge of manslaughter.
“People all across the country will gather to show that we are not having a two- or three-day anger fit. This is a social movement for justice,” Rev. Al Sharpton said as he announced the plan outside the Justice Department in Washington, D.C.
The rallies and vigils will occur in front of federal court buildings at noon Saturday in cities including Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia and New York.
Martin was visiting his father and returning to the home of his father’s fiancee after a trip to the store when Zimmerman identified him as a potential criminal. The neighbourhood watchman fatally shot Martin during a physical confrontation in the gated community in February 2012.
Sharpton says vigils will be followed by a conference next week in Miami to develop a plan to address Florida’s “stand-your-ground” law. The law gives people wide latitude to use deadly force if they fear death or bodily harm.
Meanwhile, protests over Zimmerman’s acquittal had broken out as far away as California.
In Los Angeles, people ran through streets Monday night, breaking windows, attacking people on sidewalks and raiding a Wal-Mart store, while others blocked a major freeway in the San Francisco Bay area in the third night of demonstrations.
Fourteen people were arrested after multiple acts of vandalism and several assaults in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw District.
“The trial that we saw in Florida has ignited passions but we have to make sure that it will not ignite the city,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.
In Oakland, California, at least one person was injured and police made nine arrests when a protest turned violent Monday night.
The Justice Department has said it is looking into Martin’s death to determine whether federal prosecutors will file criminal civil rights charges against Zimmerman, who is now a free man. His lawyer has told ABC News that Zimmerman will get his gun back and intends to arm himself again.
The key to charging Zimmerman lies in whether evidence exists that he was motivated by racial animosity to kill Martin. While Martin’s family has said the teen was racially profiled, no evidence surfaced during the state trial that Zimmerman had a racial bias.
Zimmerman’s friends and family have repeatedly denied he harboured racial animosity toward blacks. Florida did not use its own hate crime laws against Zimmerman.
The lone juror in the case who has spoken publicly — known only as Juror B37 because their identities have not been released — said Monday that she did not believe Zimmerman followed Martin because the teen was black.
Still, supporters of the Justice Department filing civil rights charges say additional evidence could exist in the federal investigation that didn’t come up in the state prosecution of Zimmerman.
Beyond the exact language of the law itself, the federal probe must navigate between sensitive racial and political issues that arose when Zimmerman initially wasn’t charged in Martin’s killing.
“Many people simply cannot process how an unarmed teenager is killed, and yet no one is held criminally accountable for his death,” said Marcellus McRae, a former federal prosecutor in Los Angeles.
Resnick said a federal jury would have to find beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman had a racial motive when he began following Martin and that he did not act in self-defence when he fired his gun.
Zimmerman could get life in prison if charged and convicted under federal hate crime laws.
Generally, the Justice Department is reluctant to get involved in cases that have already been tried before a state jury, in part because of concerns about double jeopardy.
Perhaps the best-known example where federal prosecutors did intervene was the case of four police officers acquitted after a California state trial in the beating of black motorist Rodney King, which triggered deadly riots in the Los Angeles area in 1992.
Two of the four officers were convicted in federal court of violating King’s rights, but that case differs from Zimmerman’s because they were acting as sworn law enforcement officials, not as a private citizen claiming self-defence.