Policeman sparks fresh Trayvon outrage by branding him a 'thug'

Officer suspended and city on edge as murdered teenager's family meet politicians in Washington

The case of the 17-year-old African American shot on a Florida street one month ago continued to torment the United States yesterday as the victim's parents attended hearings on hate crimes in Washington and outrage erupted in New Orleans over comments on the case made by a police officer.

Civil rights leaders and representatives of the family of the victim, Trayvon Martin, kept up their public campaign demanding that the neighbourhood volunteer who gunned the teen down, George Zimmerman, be arrested and charged with his murder. The case is now being investigated by a special prosecutor in Florida as well as by the Justice Department. No charges have been filed against Mr Zimmerman.

While the killing occurred in Sanford, a suburb of Orlando, the fallout continued to ripple all across the country. In New Orleans a police officer named Jason Giroir was suspended after he wrote "Act like a Thug Die like one" on a forum beneath a story about Mr Martin's death on a CNN-affiliated news site.

"To say that I'm angry is an understatement, I'm furious," police superintendent Ronal Serpas said in a statement, while black leaders in the Crescent City warned of possible unrest because of the officer's words.

Police in Sanford have indicated they were unable to arrest Mr Zimmerman because of a controversial "Stand your Ground" law passed by the Florida legislature that guarantees citizens immunity from prosecution if they the use deadly force when they feel seriously threatened.

It is that law as well as issues of racial profiling that was to be the focus of hearings later yesterday on Capitol Hill organised by Democrat members of the House Judiciary Committee. The mother and father of Mr Martin were invited but were not expected to testify. Their lawyer was set to speak.

The controversy also intruded on a press conference by John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House, though he skirted offering any opinions.

"Our hearts go out to his family over this tragedy," Mr Boehner said. "Clearly what happened is in fact a tragedy. It's being investigated by state and federal officials, which I think is appropriate, and I think I'll leave it at that."

Sanford police confirmed details of Mr Zimmerman's original police statement leaked to the press earlier this week in which he said he was attacked by Mr Trayvon. He said the young man punched him in the face, pushed him to the ground and slammed his head against the pavement. That version was "consistent with the information provided to the State Attorney's office by the police department," they said.

Further muddying the affair were reports that Trayvon was in the Orlando area only after being suspended from his school in Miami for suspected marijuana possession.

A friend of Mr Zimmerman who is an anchor for CNN, Joe Oliver, spoke up for him rejecting claims that he had fired his gun for reasons of race. "The George Zimmerman I know is not here anymore, because he knows that he took someone else's life, and he's extremely remorseful," he said on the news network.

"I understand completely the fear and anger that's out there over this case. If I didn't know George Zimmerman I'd be right out there, too," Mr Oliver, who is black, went on. "But I do know George and I do know... race had nothing to do with it."

Slow fuse: How the story grew

It is the saga that disproves the modern wisdom that if a good story breaks at noon in one part of the planet the rest of us will know of it by six. The shooting of the black teenager Trayvon Martin took a lot longer even to reach the rest of the United States.

First on to it was an affiliate of Fox News in Orlando – but it was another week before other Florida outlets began taking notice and a full 10 days before it began to get national attention on this side of the Atlantic. The flickers became a bonfire only when the police released tapes of the shooter's call to the emergency services on 16 March.

That the process took so long may have been because the news business is populated mostly by whites, who may have been slow to see the significance.

Two black reporters, Charles Blow of The New York Times and Don Lemon of CNN, said they focused on it after being pressed to do so by followers on social-media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

David Usborne

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