ORLANDO, Florida (Reuters) - The not guilty verdict in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin has reshaped a meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People where delegates are calling for federal charges after a trial they say failed to serve justice.
NAACP members were gathering for the annual convention in Orlando, Florida of the African-American organization dedicated to civil rights when the jury issued its decision on Saturday night in the nearby town of Sanford.
The verdict by a jury of six women in the trial of former neighborhood watch volunteer George Zimmerman reverberated around the country and rocked the convention of 3,000 national, state and local officers and members.
Speeches were hastily re-written, agendas altered and conversation in the halls re-focused.
“It was like an atomic bomb dropped,” said Michael Edwards, 55, a union official and NAACP member from St. Louis.
More than 800,000 people have signed an online petition of the NAACP asking U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to file civil rights charges against Zimmerman, the association says.
Holder told the convention on Tuesday that ‘Stand Your Ground’ self-defense laws now employed in 30 states should be reconsidered because they “senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods.”
Zimmerman’s lawyers used the Stand Your Ground law to argue that he acted in self-defense. Under the “Stand Your Ground” law people fearing for their lives can use deadly force without having to retreat from a confrontation, even when it is possible.
It was the first time Holder has addressed the Stand Your Ground issue. Then again, the Department of Justice has strictly limited authority to change such state laws.
In the wake of the verdict the Justice Department said it would reopen its investigation into the case to determine whether any civil rights laws had been violated by the state court handling it.
“TIMES OF GREAT PERIL,” WARNS NAACP CHIEF
The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 would require the government to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that Zimmerman, who is white and Hispanic, shot Martin because of race.
The Sanford jury rejected the second degree murder charge that was based on the allegation that Zimmerman acted with ill will, spite or hatred.
Ben Jealous, the NAACP’s president, said he cried when he heard of the Zimmerman verdict in the Orlando hotel suite where he was meeting with his board and staff.
At a nearby hotel, the high school and college delegates, the future of the 104-year-old civil rights organization, reacted viscerally. Jealous found some in tears, some angry.
Jealous had intended for his keynote speech to address the body blow delivered on June 25 by the U.S. Supreme Court in repealing provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1965 which required federal preclearance of changes of voting practices in jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination.
Instead, the speech he delivered reflected the second blow delivered by the jury.
“These are not only times of great possibility, they are also times of great peril. We hear it in the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby County v. Holder. We see it in the verdict handed down in Sanford two nights ago. And we feel it every time we watch one of our young sons - or nephews - walk out the front door and pull up his hoodie over his head,” Jealous said.
VERDICT SHOWS THINGS LIKE THEY “USED TO BE”
Lenwood Graham, 18, a high school senior from Laurinberg, North Carolina, said youth leaders at the convention talked to them about “how we should not let our anger or emotions cloud our judgment and make wrong decisions.”
“I just want to change laws,” he said.
Christian Minter, 15, a high school sophomore from Chatham, Pennsylvania, said she now understands her mother’s unyielding belief that the world would always be divided along racial lines.
“I thought it wouldn‘t. It (the verdict) told me it would always be like that,” Minter said.
Tony Henderson, 52, an engineer from Seattle worked with youth participating in the convention’s annual arts and science competition which in years past has drawn the likes of successful rappers and music producers such as Kanye West and Lauryn Hill.
“The kids thought it isn’t like it used to be. This told them it is what it used to be,” Henderson said.
Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta. Editing by David Adams and Andrew Hay