Holder moves past Trayvon, spotlights gun and voting fights

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Attorney General Eric Holder today sought to shift Democrats’ attention from the acquittal of George Zimmerman and toward broader issues of gun-control, child-abuse and voting rights that could spur Democratic voting in the 2014 mid-term election.

“It’s time to strengthen our collective resolve to combat gun violence but also time to combat violence involving or directed toward our children – so we can prevent future tragedies,” he said.

The embattled attorney general began his a speech with a short, low-key statement about the verdict on the February 2012 confrontation that killed 17 year-old Trayvon Martin.

“Today, I’d like to join President Obama in urging all Americans to recognize that – as he said – we are a nation of laws, and the jury has spoken,” he said.

His use of the phrase “the jury” suggests the administration will not file new federal “hate crime” charges against Zimmerman, a Hispanic neighborhood-watch volunteer who shot Martin during a nighttime fight.

In previous statements, he and President Obama have used the phrase “a jury,” implying the evidence would be presented to a second jury, other than the jury of six Florida woman that acquitted Zimmerman.

He reiterated his Monday promise to spur a debate over Americans’ varied attitudes towards race and other racial groups, saying “we must confront the underlying attitudes, mistaken beliefs, and unfortunate stereotypes that serve too often as the basis for police action and private judgments.”

Holder did not use the speech as an opportunity to explain beliefs that he believes are mistaken, nor to offer data that shows “unfortunate stereotypes” are either commonplace or statistically incorrect.

The criticism may be intended to stigmatize as “profiling” the use by Americans and police officers of criminal-record data and trends that shows poor young black men are overrepresented among victims and initiators of crime.

Holder seemed to address this “profiling” issue when he said that “years ago, some of these same issues drove my father to sit down with me to have a conversation – which is no doubt familiar to many of you – about how as a young black man I should interact with the police, what to say, and how to conduct myself if I was ever stopped or confronted in a way I thought was unwarranted.”

Holder also targeted the so-called “Stand Young Ground’ law in Florida and other states. “It is time to question laws that senselessly expand the concept of self-defense and sow dangerous conflict in our neighborhoods… There has always been a legal defense for using deadly force if – and the “if” is important – no safe retreat is available.”

Although those laws were initially blamed for Martin’s death, and have frequently been cited by reporters, they were largely ignored during the Zimmerman trial.

Holder used the second half of his speech to talk about what he says are rollbacks in voting-rights laws.

Holder reserved his strongest language, and his sole policy announcement, to criticize Supreme Court’s June invalidation of the department’s veto over some state’s voting laws.

“Let me be clear:  this was a deeply disappointing and flawed decision.  It dealt a serious setback to the cause of voting rights.  And, like all of you, I strongly disagree with the Court’s action,” he said.

“We will not hesitate to take aggressive action – using every tool that remains available to us – against any jurisdiction that attempts to take advantage of the Supreme Court’s ruling by hindering eligible citizens’ free and fair exercise of the franchise,” he insisted.

“We also will not wait for Congressional action to refine – and re-focus – our current enforcement efforts,” he said.

“In fact, I am announcing today that I have directed the Department’s Civil Rights Division to shift resources to the enforcement of Voting Rights Act provisions,” he declared.

The focus on voting-rights is a long-standing theme among Democrats, who used fears about voting-rights to spur near-record turnout by African-American voters in 2012.

Holder’s speech included some personal anecdotes about lessons from his father, lessons to his son, and several occasions when he was stopped by a police officer.

“The news of Trayvon Martin’s death last year, and the discussions that have taken place since then, reminded me of my father’s words so many years ago… they brought me back to a number of experiences I had as a young man – when I was pulled over twice and my car searched on the New Jersey Turnpike when I’m sure I wasn’t speeding, or when I was stopped by a police officer while simply running to a catch a movie, at night in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C.,” he said.

“I was at the time of that last incident a federal prosecutor,” he added.