July 21, 2013

ACLU Reverses Stand on Zimmerman Civil Rights Inquiry; Change of Heart or Media Manipulation?

The TalkLeft blog noted last night that the American Civil Liberties Union, after encouraging U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to pursue civil rights charges against George Zimmerman the day after he was acquitted in the death of Trayvon Martin, reversed course just four days later.

Though it’s no longer available at its national web site, the Associated Press ran the organization’s press release. Various searches at the AP’s national web site indicate that there has been no coverage of the organization’s reversal. Several center-right blogs have noted the reversal, but no one in the establishment press besides Josh Gerstein at the Politico, where stories the rest of the establishment press would prefer to ignore tend to go and all too often die, has noted it. So did the organization have a change of heart? Or did it attempt to manipulate its media exposure with a politically correct initial press release followed by a legally and constitutionally correct reversal it hopes few will notice?

Here’s the ACLU’s original statement as relayed by AP (headline is AP’s; ACLU’s web site statement is here; bolds are mine throughout this post):

The American Civil Liberties Union calling for action after the George Zimmerman verdict

American Civil Liberties Union Executive Director Anthony D. Romero released the following statement on the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman:

“Today, our thoughts are with Tracy Martin and Sybrina Fulton, whose young son was taken from them far too soon.

Last night’s verdict casts serious doubt on whether the legal system truly provides equal protection of the laws to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity.

This case reminds us that it is imperative that the Department of Justice thoroughly examine whether the Martin shooting was a federal civil rights violation or hate crime. We call on Attorney General Eric Holder to release strengthened guidance on the use of race in federal law enforcement. We also urge Congress to pass the End Racial Profiling Act. These specific actions would go a long way to ameliorate the widespread problem of racial profiling. We need solutions not only in Trayvon Martin’s case, but also systemic reform.”

Here is the first paragraph of the organization’s reversal, in the form of a direct letter to Holder:

We are writing to clearly state the ACLU’s position on whether or not the Department of Justice (DOJ) should consider bringing federal civil rights or hate crimes charges as a result of the state court acquittal in the George Zimmerman case. Even though the Supreme Court permits a federal prosecution following a state prosecution, the ACLU believes the Double Jeopardy Clause of the Constitution protects someone from being prosecuted in another court for charges arising from the same transaction. A jury found Zimmerman not guilty, and that should be the end of the criminal case.

One clue that the group would rather not talk about its position any more is at its “This Week in Civil Liberties” blog post.

In its segment on Martin-Zimmerman, the post covers how thousands have marched in the wake of the verdict, and wonders how “people of color–particularly Black families–will ever put their trust into the criminal justice system” (the ACLU capitalized the “B” in “Black”). But neither the post itself nor a previous entry the post links to identifies the group’s position.

At the AP’s national web site, searches on “ACLU Martin” and “ACLU Zimmerman” (not in quotes) return nothing. Searches on “ACLU” and “American Civil Liberties Union” (not in quotes) both return nothing relevant, strongly indicating that the wire service has never run a story on the organization’s change of heart.

Gerstein’s Politico story usefully recounted a similar situation two decades ago:

The American Civil Liberties Union is experiencing some uncomfortable déjà vu.

George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin has triggered the specter of an awkward and often raucous debate the group thought it had put behind itself two decades ago.

After the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police officers in the videotaped beating of African-American Rodney King, ACLU leaders split sharply over the possibility of a federal trial for the officers. The group eventually suspended its policy opposing double jeopardy — only to reverse itself the following year.

the ACLU’s first public reaction drew notice in some quarters for leaning heavily toward racial justice — while staying silent on civil liberties and due process in the Florida case.

… it was the specific reference to an “imperative” for DOJ to investigate under criminal statutes — an apparent endorsement of the calls of many civil rights activists and groups for a federal prosecution of Zimmerman — that threatened to reopen old wounds.

That call came even though the ACLU’s long-standing policy, restored in 1993 after the King debate, explicitly rejects such an option. “There should be no exception to double jeopardy principles simply because the same offense may be prosecuted by two different sovereigns,” the policy says.

Romero’s critics see the statement as part of a pattern of incidents in which the ACLU has departed from or muddied its long-standing civil liberties positions, often in an effort to accommodate liberal interest groups like abortion rights and gay rights advocates.

It doesn’t seem unfair at all to allege that what’s really going on here is that the group is cynically trying to have it both ways — one with the low-information and single-issues crowds and another with those who follow their actions closely. Thanks to the vast majority of the establishment press ignoring their reversal, if that’s the cynical strategy, it appears to be working.

Cross-posted at NewsBusters.org.

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