George Zimmerman is facing charges of second-degree murder. A jury will decide his guilt or innocence. Here’s hoping the criminal-justice system cools rather than exacerbates the passions the killing of Trayvon Martin has raised.
But Attorney General Eric Holder isn’t helping. Wednesday, he appeared before the Reverend Al Sharpton’s National Action Network to praise Sharpton “for your partnership, your friendship, and your tireless efforts to speak out for the voiceless, to stand up for the powerless, and to shine a light on the problems we must solve, and the promises we must fulfill.”
This is the same Al Sharpton who has never apologized to Steven Pagones, the assistant district attorney he falsely accused of raping Tawana Brawley, a black teenager. The “dastardly deed” Sharpton accused Pagones of was found to be a complete fabrication. In 1998, Sharpton was found liable for seven defamatory statements he’d made against Pagones and ordered to pay $65,000.
Earlier in the 1990s, Sharpton had become famous exacerbating racial tensions in New York’s Crown Heights neighborhood, tensions that led to the killing of Anthony Graziosi. In 1995, Sharpton denounced the owners of Freddy’s Fashion Mart in Harlem as “bloodsuckers” and “white interlopers” over a rent dispute the business had with tenants. A short time later, a man entered Freddy’s and told all the black people present, patrons and employees alike, to leave. Once they did, the man firebombed the building, killing seven people — including a black security guard. Sharpton insisted he bore no responsibility for the incident, saying it was only a tenant/landlord dispute that had escalated out of control.
It’s been three weeks since Mikhail Muhammad, leader of the New Black Panther Party, offered a $10,000 bounty for the “capture” of Zimmerman and warned that Zimmerman “should be fearful for his life.” The Panthers have distributed wanted posters of Zimmerman and offered the bounty “dead or alive.” Just this week, Michelle Williams, the chief of staff for the Panthers, told WTSP-TV in Tampa, “Let me tell you, the things that’s about to happen, to these honkies, these crackers, these pigs, these pink people, these [inaudible] people. It has been long overdue. My prize right now this evening . . . is gonna be the bounty, the arrest, dead or alive, for George Zimmerman. You feel me?”
Ms. Williams later apologized for her remarks, but her statements and those of other Panthers amount to criminal threats, and could break federal hate-crime laws.
Indeed, a relative of George Zimmerman wrote to Attorney General Holder this week noting the threats. “The Zimmerman family is in hiding because of the threats that have been made against us, yet the DOJ has maintained an eerie silence in this matter,” read the letter, which was obtained by the Daily Caller. “Why, when the law of the land is crystal clear, is your office not arresting the New Black Panthers for hate crimes? . . . Since when can a group of people in the United States put a bounty on someone’s head, circulate Wanted posters publicly, and still be walking the streets?” The DOJ’s public-affairs office has not responded to inquiries by reporters asking if Holder’s statement on federal civil-rights crimes also applies to the New Black Panther Party.
Holder’s Justice Department has taken a pass on the New Black Panther Party in the past. In 2009, it inherited from the outgoing Bush administration a civil-rights lawsuit against the Party and three of its members for showing up armed outside a Philadelphia polling place in 2008 and shouting racial threats at voters. Bartle Bull, a former civil-rights lawyer who had been arrested in the South in the 1960s and later went on to become publisher of the liberal Village Voice, actually witnessed the intimidation and reported the Panthers’ actions to Justice.
When the defendants failed to answer Justice’s lawsuit, a federal court in Philadelphia entered a default judgment against them. The Holder Justice Department responded by snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, suddenly dropping the charges against the Panthers and two defendants. The third defendant was merely barred from displaying a weapon near a Philadelphia polling place for the next three years. The bizarre decision prompted congressional outcries and a formal investigation by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, which sent a letter to Justice in August 2009 saying, “We believe the Department’s defense of its actions thus far undermines respect for rule of law.” The Commission later issued a harshly condemnatory report of Justice’s behavior in the case. Could Justice’s leniency encourage the Panthers to think they can act with impunity in the future?
Bartle Bull says he is very concerned that Justice is practicing a double standard when it comes to enforcing civil-rights laws. “When he took office, Attorney General Holder stated that America was a ‘nation of cowards’ when it comes to race,” he told me in 2010. “But who are today’s ‘cowards’ on race? This kind of double standard is not what Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy stood for.”
— John Fund, a writer based in New York, is the author of Stealing Elections: How Voter Fraud Threatens Our Democracy.