House Judiciary Committee Democrats held a special briefing Tuesday afternoon on the Trayvon Martin case, acknowledging that a thorough investigation still needs to be conducted but focusing on concerns stemming from the controversy ranging from racial profiling to whether neighborhood watchmen should register and train with police.
Camera crews were staked out in the hallway of the Rayburn House Office Building at the door of the hearing room, and a buzz of camera clicks arose when Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, parents of the slain 17-year-old, were escorted into the hearing and sat in the witness row.
Judiciary Ranking Member John Conyers (D-Mich.) said that the parents “honored” the committee Democrats by joining the hearing, and asked for attendees to bow their heads in a moment of silence for Trayvon. The parents were to remain in Washington to meet personally with various lawmakers on Wednesday.
“I, on behalf of every member of this congressional forum here and many others in Congress want to give you our heartfelt condolences,” Conyers said, telling the room that the purpose of the briefing was to “prevent similar killings from happening again.”
“I’d like to say thank you for the support,” Fulton said in her short remarks. “Trayvon was our son, but Trayvon is your son. A lot of people can relate to our situation.”
Trayvon’s father thanked Congress members for ensuring that his son “did not indeed die in vain.”
“He is sadly missed and we will continue to fight for justice,” Tracy Martin said.
The family’s counsel, Benjamin Crump, also gave brief remarks that echoed the concerns of many of the lawmakers. “We honestly believe Trayvon Martin is dead today because he was racially profiled,” he said.
The hearing room was packed to standing-room-only capacity, with many squeezing into any spot they could find. Students from Florida and from Howard University mixed in with reporters, supporters, and the Capitol Hill crowd.
Also in attendance was 70-year-old Ernest Green, one of the Little Rock Nine.
Two Democratic lawmakers not on the Judiciary panel joined the briefing: Florida Reps. Corrine Brown, whose district includes the city of Sanford, and Frederica Wilson, in whose district Trayvon’s mother lives.
“He was a sweet young man who loved to baby-sit,” Wilson said. “I know his family and I’m standing with them.”
The congresswoman vowed to make speeches on the House floor every day “until the perpetrator is arrested.”
Wilson said Trayvon is a victim of a “botched police investigation” laced with “lies and murder.”
“Mr. Zimmerman should be arrested immediately for his own safety,” she said, referring to the 28-year-old neighborhood watchman who claims he shot Martin in self-defense.
Brown hailed the Department of Justice involvement in the case, saying she had just attended a community forum and met with the Sanford mayor.
“It is very important that we have independent eyes on the situation,” Brown said. “When you review the case, every aspect of it has been handled very poorly. And we need to make sure we have standards as we move forward.”
Members and witnesses throughout the briefing decried elements of the police department’s actions from not summoning a homicide investigator to the scene to not testing Zimmerman for drugs or alcohol.
Witnesses included the acting director of the Justice Department’s Community Relations Service, representatives from the ACLU and the Human Rights Campaign, Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence president Daniel Gross, the retired director of the Miami-Dade Police Department, and the chairman of 100 Black Men of America, Inc.
Brown said she hoped the tragedy would be a “teaching moment” for the local police and community, and would highlight those who “crown themselves as community watch representative and you don’t have an official community watch program.”
Rep. Hank Johnson (D-Ga.) said that he has a son not much older than Trayvon was, and “every time he leaves the house I get concerned.”
Martin, he said, “was executed for WWB in a GC — walking while black in a gated community.”
Other members offered their opinions on the case as well.
“I am convinced that there should have been an arrest,” said Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas), an attorney by trade. “I am convinced that probable cause exists.”
“A hoodie does not make you a criminal,” he added. “You’re getting dangerously close to saying females can become victims by virtue of what they wear.”
Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.) said that if Zimmerman had listened to the police dispatcher when he was advised to not follow Martin, “none of this would have happened.”
The Judiciary Committee member called Zimmerman’s story of how the events transpired that evening, as released by police and through his attorney, “not plausible.”
“Y’all have shown a tremendous amount of grace and I extend my sympathies to you,” he stressed to Martin’s parents.
Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas), however, stressed that she was not going to try Zimmerman at that briefing.
In noting that Martin “had a right to access that street,” she joined her colleagues in calling for Zimmerman’s arrest. “I did not say convicted… but arrested,” she said.
Jackson Lee called for registration of those who undertake neighborhood watch and also praised the federal government’s involvement in the investigation.
“We have a legislative responsibility to end the killing of boys of all backgrounds in America,” she said.
Others delved further into what the case might say about race relations given that an unarmed young black man in a hoodie was deemed suspicious by the neighborhood watchman.
Conyers said that the case highlighted the need to pass his End Racial Profiling Act of 2011, which is stuck in a House subcommittee. Many of the bill’s co-sponsors joined him at the briefing.
“There are still great problems in this country with race,” said Cohen, one of those backers.
Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) said the case mixed racial profiling with vigilantism.
“This says a lot about who we are not as a country,” he said. “This is not the wild wild West; this is not Tombstone. …We’ve come a long way in this country but this just illustrates how far we have to go.”
“If Trayvon Martin was standing and George Zimmerman were on the ground dead, would Trayvon be arrested?” Richmond asked.
An audience member called out, “He’d be on death row.”
While carefully adding her two cents about the anger, call to action, and racial aspect raised by the case, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) made the panel chuckle with an admonition.
“I am restraining myself and trying to act in a way that I and others won’t become the focus; keep it on Trayvon,” Waters said. “I am on my best behavior today.”