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Rep Brown: Teen's Death 'Not The Picture We Want'


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, later in our mom's conversation we will pick up on an important conversation we know many people are having around bullying. Last week, we heard from a 15-year-old who'd been bullied at school for years. Today, we'll hear how his mom felt about hearing about this in a documentary. That's coming up later in the program.

But first we want to pick up on a disturbing story out of Central Florida that has now become a national concern and has come to the attention of the U.S. Justice Department.

It's about the shooting of Trayvon Martin, a 17-year-old African-American who was gunned down in a gated community where he and his dad were visiting a friend late last month. Trayvon was returning from a trip to the nearby store when George Zimmerman, a neighborhood watch volunteer, called police from his car to report somebody he called a suspicious guy.


GEORGE ZIMMERMAN: This guy looks like he's up to no good or he's on drugs or something. It's raining and he's just walking around looking about.

MARTIN: Zimmerman was urged not to follow Martin but he apparently ignored that. Shortly afterwards, neighbor's flooded 911 dispatchers with reports of a loud scuffle and gunfire. Trayvon Martin died from a single gunshot to the chest. George Zimmerman told the police he fired in self-defense, a claim he could make, apparently, based on Florida Stand Your Ground law. The Sanford Police Department said that there was not sufficient evidence to make an arrest. And now, as we said, the U.S. Justice Department has opened an investigation.

We wanted to talk more about this, so we've called upon U.S. Representative Corrine Brown of Florida's 3rd Congressional District. The shooting occurred in her district and she was one of several members of Congress who called for the Justice Department to get involved in this case. Congresswoman, welcome to the program.


MARTIN: Thank you so much for speaking with us. As we said, after your urging the congressional Black and Hispanic Caucuses urged the Justice Department to investigate. They have now agreed to do so. Why did you feel it was critical for the Justice Department to get involved at this point?

BROWN: First of all, let me just say that it's not going to be any positive ending. We have to take this as a teachable moment, a learning moment, and how can we ensure that this never happens again. And one of the things I feel very strongly about is that we must have faith in the system. We got to feel that the system is fair for everyone involved, and there is no one that feels that it's been any kind of fairness in the system.

MARTIN: What...

BROWN: For Mr. Martin.

MARTIN: What is it that most troubles you here? I mean, there were reports that we mentioned that the police told Mr. Zimmerman - you can hear it on the 911 tapes - not to follow the young man, number one.

BROWN: Yeah, it...

MARTIN: And number two, there are witnesses who say that they believe their statements to the police were shaped in order to support this allegation of self-defense and they say that's not what they said. What is it that troubles you the most?

BROWN: How the police handled the entire matter. I met with them for over two hours on Friday and it's very disturbing to me how it's been handled. The question is: how can we rectify? Because there are things that should have taken place when they took the statement. For example, was he drug tested? They drug tested Mr. Martin.

MARTIN: In the autopsy you mean?

BROWN: Yes, that's correct but...

MARTIN: To see if drugs were in his system, but they did not test the shooter, Mr. Zimmerman?

BROWN: ...did you test him for alcohol? Did you give him a lie detector test? I mean, because Mr. Martin, the young man, cannot defend himself. And prior to my meeting with the police department, the 911 tapes wasn't released. I asked that those tapes be released.

MARTIN: Why did you feel that was important?

BROWN: Because we need to get as much of the story out in the public because, you know, we were only hearing one side, and like I said, it was disturbing to me how the police handled the entire affair. Now, keep it in mind, this happened over almost a month ago and I'm just finding out about it.

MARTIN: I was going to ask you that. How did you find out about this?

BROWN: The students started calling me. Law students, community people started calling me and in fact one constituent came to Washington and, you know, I met him at the airport, but he had been to my office to tell me about it - white male. I'm finding parents concerned, brothers, sisters. It's a community that is very upset as to how this matter has been handled.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Congresswoman Corrine Brown about the death of Trayvon Martin, the black high school student who was shot and killed by a neighborhood watch volunteer.

BROWN: And then and let me be clear. You say neighborhood watch self-appointed. Self-appointed. They didn't have no official neighborhood watch program. He appointed himself as neighborhood watch. Obviously, he didn't go through the training because the training indicate you follow the directions of the police department. The police department asked him to stand down.

Why was he pursuing this young man? Was he in the act of doing anything other than walking while black? I mean, what was he doing? Coming from the store, he had candy and a soda, but he was looking suspicious.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about Mr. Zimmerman, who's 28 years old, as you said. His father sent a letter to the Orlando Sentinel saying that, number one, he's Latino. He comes from a multi-racial family. He has a lot of black friends and associates. In essence, he's saying he's not a racist. I just wondered if you had any plans to meet with his family or have they contacted you as well?

BROWN: No, and I have no plans to meet with him. We want him to have a fair trial, but we want him to be arrested as we speak now. He still have that gun permit. The point of the matter is that it needs to be investigated by someone independent of the Sanford Police Department or the state, and for me my confidence level is definitely with the Justice Department.

MARTIN: I wanted to ask you about that because the matter has already been sent to the state's attorney of Florida, given that this police department, as we've said, have declined to press charges, and there are concerns about their conduct in this case, as has been expressed by a number of witnesses and has been reported by a number of news organizations. Do you not have confidence in Florida's law enforcement authorities to handle this within the state?

BROWN: My confidence lie with the U.S. Justice Department.

MARTIN: Because you feel - why?

BROWN: Oh, because I am an African-American living in the United States of America and as my mother said when I mention it to her, she says, she thought all of this was behind us. It is not all behind us. This to me was really a hate crime.

MARTIN: Why do you say that?

BROWN: Because if you listen to the tape, I mean, clearly because he was black and he had called several times. He had this preconceived picture of black in this particular neighborhood that he had a legitimate reason to be there.

MARTIN: You know, the irony though is that people we've talked to said this isn't a - I don't know how familiar you are with this particular neighborhood, but we interviewed a Miami Herald reporter on Friday who was there. She said it's one of the most diverse neighborhoods she's ever been to. She said it's an extremely diverse neighborhood. People of all ethnic backgrounds live there.

BROWN: That's correct. But keep in mind, if you look at the number of times you have called the police department, it seems a pattern and it's always - it's a black male. So, it's kind of profiling. But the key is that you get an independent person that you feel confident that can shed some independent light on the situation.

MARTIN: As I understand it, the department's Civil Rights division must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that a person acted intentionally and with a specific intent to do something which the law forbids around a civil rights violation. For example, within - that he acted with bias. But can they prosecute a murder as a murder?

BROWN: At this point, I'm looking for an arrest and a charge and a court date.

MARTIN: So that these facts can then be investigated more fully?

BROWN: That's correct.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I wanted to ask you about the Stand Your Ground Law, the Florida law that allows people to use...

BROWN: Oh, that's horrible, horrible...

MARTIN: ...force. I wanted to ask you...

BROWN: ...horrible.

MARTIN: ...if they reasonably believe it's necessary to defend themselves - it was enacted in 2005. Have you always opposed it and did you...

BROWN: Absolutely.

MARTIN: ...foresee a situation like this? Tell us why.

BROWN: And I understand it's been over 10 shootings and death under this statute, and they've found out maybe six of them - the person didn't have a gun. It's just the Wild, Wild West and that's what I felt when it was passed. Remember, I was a state legislator in Florida for 10 years and, to me, it was definitely - someone looting during the hurricane and this was the response of the state legislature to this particular law, and Florida is a tourist state.

And I want to say one of the tourists that was visiting was, you know, shot and killed based on this law. I mean, clearly, to me, it needs to be revisited.

MARTIN: I wanted to end where we began. You said that you hope this will be a teachable moment. Could you talk a little bit more about what you mean?

BROWN: You know, here is a black youth and the person had all kinds of preconceived notions about this youth. The key is, if you are going to be a Neighborhood Watch, then let's be trained properly on how to handle situations. To me, when the police said, stand down, maybe he should have been more forceful in standing down. We're on the way. What was this youth doing in the five minutes between the time the police got there that you felt that you had to get out of your car and stop him, confront him, kill him?

I mean, it's just ludicrous. I'm a parent. This is the worst nightmare and it's no good ending to this. The ending is - how can we make sure this never happens again? What can we do, as far as the Florida law, to make it - OK - when something happens, how do you still have a gun permit as we work through the system?

I mean, there's something wrong with this picture. It's not the kind of picture we want for our state, for our community, for our country. This is an international incident. How do we deal with this? How do we work together as a community so that we can move forward? And we're not there yet.

MARTIN: Representative Corrine Brown represents Florida's 3rd Congressional District. She is a Democrat. That is the district in which this shooting involving Trayvon Martin took place and she was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Congresswoman, thank you so much for taking time out of your busy day to join us and we hope we'll speak again about this important issue. Thank you so much for coming.

BROWN: Thank you.


MARTIN: Coming up, we will continue our coverage of this story with writer Michael Skolnik, the editor of the popular news site, GlobalGrind.com. He'll talk about why he, as a white man, is moved by the Trayvon Martin story and what he wants others to draw from it. That is next on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.