Opponents of racial profiling are capitalizing on national outrage over the murder of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin, using the case to rally support for a bill banning the practice from all U.S. law enforcement agencies.
More than 225 organizations, including the NAACP and the National Council of La Raza, submitted testimony in advance of a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing on the issue Tuesday, said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who called the hearing earlier this month.
A bill introduced in October by Sen. Benjamin Cardin (D-Md.) would ban racial profiling by law enforcement officials, including neighborhood watch groups. George Zimmerman, who shot and killed Martin in February, was a neighborhood watch volunteer.
Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, argue that Martin, an unarmed teenager, was murdered because he was black. Zimmerman, who said he acted in self-defense under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law, was charged last week with second-degree murder.
The shooting has become a powerful rallying cry for liberal interest groups championing a broad spectrum of causes, including stricter gun control laws and voter mobilization.
Color of Change, an African-American advocacy group, successfully pressured at least six major corporations, including Coca-Cola Co. and McDonald’s Corp., to drop their support of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit that has promoted laws modeled on Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. ALEC announced Tuesday that it would disband the task force that pushed the law as well as voter identification measures that have passed in at least half a dozen states.
The National Action Network, the civil rights group led by the Rev. Al Sharpton, has used the case to encourage African-Americans to vote in the 2012 elections, a strategy that is not lost on Congressional Democrats.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, said all of the attention, regardless of motive, is welcome.
“Are there people who will exploit incidents like this? Absolutely,” Cleaver said in an interview with Roll Call. But “the organizations that became involved really helped create the kind of spotlight that was needed … but for that attention, this would be just another killing of a black teenager.”
A spokesman for Durbin, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights, said plans for the hearing had been in the works for a several weeks before Martin’s death.
It is the first Congressional hearing on the issue since 9/11, when homeland security concerns muffled calls for a crackdown on racial profiling.
“The [Trayvon Martin] case raised the profiling issue again but in a new context,” Durbin told Roll Call. The proliferation of laws allowing citizens to carry certain concealed firearms in public adds a new complication, he added.
Cardin and Durbin said the case could help Democrats win support for the bill, which currently has only 13 Democratic co-sponsors.
“Whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican, you know that you have a problem in this country with racial profiling,” Cardin said at a press conference after the hearing. “Quite frankly, the Trayvon Martin case has put a national spotlight on this, and the American public were outraged with what they saw.”
Still, only one Republican from the committee — Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) — appeared at Tuesday’s hearing of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights. The five lawmakers who testified were all Democrats.
Questions from Graham, which focused primarily on how counterterrorism activities would be affected by the bill, drew hisses from some attendees.
The ranking member ended his questioning abruptly, pledging to work with Cardin in search of “something more bipartisan.”