It's been just shy of three years since George Zimmerman fatally shot a 17-year-old black teenager in Sanford, Florida. The killing of Trayvon Martin, who was famously in possession of only Skittles and an Arizona fruit drink, set off a series of protests across the country and a national debate on racial profiling. Tragically, that case of vigilantism-gone-wrong foreshadowed a series of cases in which unarmed black men were killed by the police.
Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder charges in July 2013, but the question of whether or not he racially profiled Martin was left to the feds. Now, two days before the third anniversary of Martin's death, the Department of Justice has finally announced that it won't file charges against Zimmerman.
"Though a comprehensive investigation found that the high standard for a federal hate crime prosecution cannot be met under the circumstances here, this young man's premature death necessitates that we continue the dialogue and be unafraid of confronting the issues and tensions his passing brought to the surface," Attorney General Eric Holder said. "We, as a nation, must take concrete steps to ensure that such incidents do not occur in the future."
Basically, this means the government doesn't consider Martin's death a civil rights issue, even as it continues weighing whether to press charges for more recent killings of unarmed black men, like that of Michael Brown in Ferguson.
Since becoming a household name, Zimmerman has whittled away his time in Lake Mary, Florida, not far from Sanford. Just last month, he was charged for violent outbursts against his girlfriend, and he's been accused of threatening a man's life in a fit of road rage. Despite these incidents, Zimmerman has also become a bit of an icon for those who think he was unfairly vilified by the media for "standing his ground" and defending his neighborhood. Banking on his questionable celebrity, Zimmerman has sold a cheesy patriotic painting for more than $100,000 on Ebay. For the most part, though, his fellow Lake Mary residents seem to consider him something of a liability. The police chief there even agreed with a resident who called him a "ticking time bomb."
Although Zimmerman's newfound "fame" is pretty gut-wrenching to contemplate, at least one good thing has come from his notoriety. Since Martin's death, Eric Garner, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice and Michael Brown have also become household names, and the recent emergence of the #BlackLivesMatter movement has elevated what could have just been a homicide in a town with a history of racism into something worthy of international scrutiny.
However, in the cases of all of those men (with the exception of Gurley), the officer who killed them hasn't been indicted. That's been true even in the face of video to corroborate the claims that their deaths were unjustified. The last chance for enraged activists and grieving family members, then, is for the Department of Justice to put together a civil rights case against those who perpetrated the violence. Apparently, the burden of proving Zimmerman killed Martin because of his race was a bridge too far.
The announcement comes as the public awaits two similar decisions about the death of Brown, who was killed by Officer Darren Wilson in August. In that case, the DOJ will rule on whether or not Wilson racially profiled him, and, separately, whether the police department there regularly discriminated against black people. As ABC news reports, it's expected that Wilson will be off the hook, though the department itself might face some kind of penalty.
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